ESPN Raptors Projection: 37-45, 2nd in Atlantic, 7th in East

An excerpt from quite a detailed article:

Novak fills an enormous hole, joining a Raptors team that ranked 26th last season in 3-point percentage. With Calderon gone and DeMar DeRozan still lacking a reliable 3-point shot, the Raptors desperately needed a sharpshooter to stretch the floor this season and they got one in Novak. He likely won’t play more than 20 minutes per game but it’s worth pointing out that the Knicks were better on both ends of the floor last season with Novakaine on the court. Valanciunas and Johnson will surely have their hands full trying to hide Novak on defense, but they had plenty of experience doing the same with Bargnani.

The Raptors’ offseason continued with the motto of addition by subtraction. They cut Linas Kleiza using the amnesty provision after he exercised a $4.6 million player option for 2013-14. Kleiza never fully recovered after 2011 microfracture surgery and was a long shot to make the rotation anyway. Seeing that the Raptors were on the tax bubble and Johnson was Toronto’s only other amnesty-eligible player, it made sense to let Kleiza find work elsewhere. Overall, it was a relatively quiet offseason for the Raptors. To round out the roster, they signed D.J. Augustin and summer league stud Dwight Buycks to battle it out for backup point guard duties behind Lowry.

Meanwhile, Tyler Hansbrough and his polar opposite Austin Daye were also brought in to bolster a foul-happy frontcourt. The end result is that the Raptors saved money while adding long-term assets and flexibility in the Bargnani deal. From a big-picture standpoint, the Raptors have moved on from the Colangelo-Bargnani era and hope to say hello to a far brighter Ujiri-Valanciunas partnership.

This is a team that could resemble the Indiana Pacers of the last couple years who have relied on their young starters to carry them throughout the season. The question is how long they can keep those five players on the floor together. It’s concerning that Lowry poses the biggest injury risk of the bunch next season (he’s missed an average of 13.5 games in each of his last four seasons) and the Raptors don’t have any reliable options behind him. If Lowry goes down, the season can spiral out of control quickly.

With that said, SCHOENE sees the Raptors just squeezing their way into the playoffs with a 37-45 record, which signifies a slight improvement from last season. But that projection is contingent on Gay staying with the Raptors for the entirety of next season, which is far from guaranteed with Ujiri at the steering wheel. If the Raptors can find a taker in win-now mode (Milwaukee or Detroit?), Gay’s stay in Toronto could be short-lived.

The biggest obstacle to the Raptors’ .500 quest is their underwhelming defense, which SCHOENE believes will rank 25th next season thanks in part to the exceedingly-high foul rates of Lowry, Johnson and Valanciunas. If Casey can somehow keep that trio out of foul trouble, the Raptors could put together an athletic defensive force that produces a DeRozan-and-Gay dunk factory. That’s the best-case scenario, and it might be the most unlikely as well.

The Raptors should keep a close eye on Valanciunas, who has been played nonstop in 5-on-5 hoops this summer. After crushing the competition at the Las Vegas Summer League in July, the 21-year-old big man then starred for the Lithuanian national team at the EuroBasket in September. All the while, Valanciunas looked like he beefed up considerably since last season, which should help him bang against NBA frontlines, but the added weight could make him more susceptible to injury. Valanciunas might be a leading candidate for most improved player next season, but there’s a chance he burns out on the way there and the Raptors will have to shut him down.

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