For Toronto, the season began with low expectations.
Everyone was still scratching their heads at the DeMar DeRozan-Rudy Gay wing combination, and with perceived malcontent Kyle Lowry entering a contract year, how would promising center Jonas Valanciunas ever see the ball? The ESPN Summer Forecast pegged the Raptors for 33 wins and a 10th place finish in the East. New general manager Masai Ujiri was taking stock of all of this, and it figured he'd eventually reset the roster around Valanciunas. Ujiri had already begun that process when he sent former No. 1 overall pick to Andrea Bargnani to New York in July for a first-round pick and a bundle of trade filler. Predictably, Toronto floundered to a 6-12 start.
A funny thing happened on the way to the lottery, however. Three days after the Raptors' season reached its nadir, Gay was shipped to Sacramento for what seemed to be more stopgap trade filler. Instead, Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez stepped into meaningful roles in Dwane Casey's rotation, Terrence Ross moved into the starting lineup and Toronto went 42-22 to finish the season. What seemed like a transitional season saw Casey establish a core of Valanciunas, Lowry and DeRozan, and finish in the top 10 in efficiency on both ends of the floor. The grueling, seven-game loss to the Nets in the first round was a disappointment, but all in all, it was perhaps the best season in Raptors history. Now, with Lowry and other key parts hitting free agency, what does Ujiri do for an encore?
2014-15 Status quote baseline: 39.6 wins
(from Bradford Doolittle's ATH system)
I. Main assets (personnel)
The Raptors' exceeding of expectations began when they jettisoned Gay, freeing up possessions for the more efficient Lowry and DeRozan. By allowing Lowry to dominate the ball, the Raptors' offense was more balanced, as he was able to create for himself and others. Meanwhile, DeRozan's strongest suit (drawing fouls) helped generate easy points from the stripe for himself and for his teammates (by virtue of getting into the bonus quicker). It's hard to justify the $9.5 million per year contract extension he received in 2012, but he's much closer to earning that salary than he was with Gay on the team. Valanciunas similarly benefited from Gay's departure, becoming a more engaged roll man in pick and rolls, while Amir Johnson continues to be one of the best values in basketball and the new age "No Stats All-Star." Rounding out the core, Ross showed signs of life as an athletic wing defender who can space the floor.
Toronto had the ninth-best scoring margin in the league, and was one of just four teams in the East to have a winning record against the West. There was little in their record that screamed "fluke," other than perhaps the track record of some of the players. Lowry had his best season statistically, with a 14.3 WARP -- 6.1 more than he's posted in any of his first seven seasons. Just as important, Lowry displayed a new-found affability and maturity that shed a new light on his on-court toughness. Now, he's a leader, not a guy with a chip on his shoulder. Was it real growth, or the expiring contract? That's up to Ujiri to decide, but players as productive as Lowry are hard to come by. For the first time, DeRozan finished above replacement level, jumping all the way to 5.4 WARP, and his .532 true shooting percentage suggests there is plenty of room for further enhancements. The track records of their stars is what keeps Toronto's baseline in middling territory, but there are lots of reasons to be optimistic..
II. Shake it up
John Salmons and Tyler Hansbrough both have partial guarantees that pay them $1 million apiece, so it would be prudent to release both players to free up some flexibility, unless they can find a draft day trade for someone trying to dump salary (like a trade for Ersan Ilyasova). Patterson and Vasquez are restricted free agents, and both were valuable bench contributors; depending on what happens with Lowry's free agency, there might be opportunities to sign and trade away either of those players. Toronto also has their own first-round pick, as well as two second rounders (from Sacramento and Oklahoma City). Nik Stauskus from Michigan is a nice combo guard who might be able to handle backup point guard duties in addition to being a terrific shooter, while the second-rounders might be good draft-and-stash candidates.
Since Toronto was so well balanced on both ends of the floor, it's not easy to pinpoint specific areas for improvement. They could stand to improve a 47.5 percentage on 2-pointers, which ranked 23rd. Further improvement by Valanciunas will help that, as could better shot selection by DeRozan. The contract status of Lowry is the major concern, because there is no way the Raptors could attract a comparable player to replace his value. It's hard to know how the market views Lowry, but consider this: He just posted the highest WARP of any player that we know is headed for unrestricted free agency, pending some high-profile stars who can opt out.
III. Obstacles to success
The most pressing concern for Toronto is Lowry's free agent status. While Vasquez played well as a backup and has started in this league, he's not capable of replacing Lowry full time. Furthermore, the point guard crop is extremely thin (both in free agency and in the draft), so almost any viable option would constitute a step back. At the same time, the Raptors are at risk of falling into the same pitfall they did the previous time they experienced a taste of playoff success: Doling out big money deals to good, but not exceptional talents, locking themselves into a team with a low ceiling.
In 2001, they spent $140 million in contracts on Antonio Davis, Jerome Williams and Alvin Williams, but the team never improved, and now 13 years later, big money deals to Lowry, Patterson and Vasquez (coupled with DeRozan's above-market value deal) might do the same. If they don't pay them, however, they might end up starting over from scratch again, halting the momentum they built this season.
If Toronto retains Lowry and builds upon a foundation of him, Valanciunas and DeRozan, do they run the risk of getting stuck on the second tier? Considering where the Raptors were this time last year, that conundrum strikes me as a first-world issue. The best approach for Ujiri right now is status quo. This roster had exceptional chemistry after the Gay trade, and there is plenty of room for growth from a number of the younger Raptors. The summer market is the real concern here: Lowry could get an unexpectedly large offer, while Vasquez and Patterson are sure to draw interest as well. The bulk of Ujiri's roster hasn't even spent a full season together, but keeping it intact for 2014-15 won't be easy.
IV. The "Ideal" Roster:
I'm banking here that Lowry doesn't get blown away by an offer on the market. Amin had Lowry at an AAV of $8.5 million in February, and here I'm giving him a hometown bonus and bringing him in line with what DeRozan earns. I estimated the dollars for Vasquez and Patterson based on what similar restricted free agents signed for last summer.
There were two shake-ups of the status quo. I'm paying Tyler Hansbrough and John Salmons the $1 million each they have guaranteed, and bidding them adieu. Toronto has too many options up front to keep Hansbrough, while Salmons' fully guaranteed salary would come to $7 million. Too rich for my blood. I'm using my room exception to land Shaun Livingston, who gives me size on the perimeter, the ability to get points in the post and a stylistic complement to Ross. With the 20th pick in June, which I haven't listed here, I'm going for the player with the highest ceiling. The Raptors are in position to swing for the fences.