Determining which also-ran will have the most constructive year probably starts with an analysis of who has the most work to do (and the desire to do that work). In a number of rebuilding situations (Orlando, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Utah), this year’s heavy lifting was done during the offseason. In each of those situations, long-terms salaries have been moved out, prospects and picks have been acquired and the decks have been cleared for young players. Any constructive progress for those teams will be taking place on the court. A few other weaker sisters (Charlotte and Sacramento) tried to improve this summer without making much headway; they’re more or less stuck with the results of those decisions until the draft.
Eliminating those six teams from the conversation leaves a whole bunch of teams that should be in contention for the postseason unless something goes badly wrong (Minnesota, Dallas, Portland, Detroit, Washington and Cleveland) and two others that are tougher to peg, New Orleans and Toronto. A lot would have to go right for the Pelicans to emerge as a true playoff contender after finishing 18 games behind the No. 8 seed in the West last season, but they made so many major additions this summer that it would be sensible to let the new group marinate together before pivoting again. By process of elimination, that leaves the Raptors, my choice here.
New Raptors GM Masai Ujiri should be able to see opportunities for potential progress at virtually every turn. On the court, Valanciunas will have the chance to emerge as a threat capable of scoring reliably and dictating an offense from the post, while DeMar DeRozan — last year’s big investment — has improved during his four seasons and is still just 24. At the very least, this should be a year of progress from those two, and perhaps 2012 lottery pick Terrence Ross and intriguing summer pickup Dwight Buycks, too. It’s also more than reasonable to expect bounce-back years from guards Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields.
The real construction work, though, should result from Ujiri’s own hand. The 2013 Executive of the Year began that process immediately after arriving from Denver, dealing Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks in a trade that was both necessary and tone-setting. Even after the move, though, the Raptors’ payroll isn’t that far removed from the luxury-tax line. Given that the vast majority of a 34-win team is back, Toronto’s talent-to-cost ratio stands as among the league’s worst. The personnel cycling we saw from Ujiri in Denver feels inevitable in Toronto, too, and it will take some time. Ujiri just isn’t one to waste any opportunity.