Usually by this point in the preseason, the Toronto Raptors have cut-loose their camp invites, are finalizing their rotations and look more-than-ready to kick-off the regular season. This year, the team hasn’t cut loose a single player, they haven’t settled on their starting five, let alone their entire rotation, and for the first time in a long time, the Raptors look like they could use a few extra tune-up games before the games start to count for real.
Most of this comes down to expectations. These Raptors are expected to not only make the Playoffs but they are also under pressure to improve upon last year’s output, which would imply a 50-win season and/or a trip to the second round. That means that they are graded on a different scale than a team just looking to develop its youth or hope to crack into the postseason. They are also graded differently than veteran teams with years of experience together (like Golden State) or newish teams that are overloaded with top-shelf talent (Cleveland, San Antonio) – those squads/players have years of precedent to fall back on, so preseason uncertainty is waived off, whereas the Raptors are still very new at this whole ‘consistently good’ game. When they are this deep into the preseason and they still have so much refining to do, it begins to fly in the face of those optimistic expectations.
So far, we’ve seen a lot of what could be, but little of what certainly will be. There have been moments of effective team-oriented offensive execution, but there have also been moments of ineffective iso-ball starring DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas. There have been moments of stellar, smothering defensive action, but there have also been moments of ‘wait, I forget what my next rotation is’ blunder-ball. Sometimes the team boxes-out and secures defensive rebounds, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the players have a prescient ability to find each other with passes, other times those passes end up in the third row. Overall they’re an impressive ninth in defensive rating (95.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) and a less-impressive 18th in offensive rating (98.5 points per 100 possessions). That is about where one would expect them to be after a camp designed around beefing up the defence, but the team is also trying to integrate offensive players more used to playing in a pass-first, motion-based offence, and that remains a work-in-progress.
So yes, right now the Raptors look like they could use a few more practice swings before they open the season against Indiana, but instead they get one game against Washington this week and then they have to start playing for keeps. That means that the club could come out of the gates looking a little flummoxed before settling into all this newness, and it says here that this could be exactly what propels them to their best season in recent memory.
Last year, the Raptors burst onto the scene, racking up wins and leading the East, only to fall precipitously back to earth and limp out of the first round in a sweep against the Washington Wizards. That early surge was a boon for the team’s win-loss record, as it buoyed them for the rest of the season, but it also created a sense of overconfidence at all levels of the organization. This was a team that got too much too soon and didn’t know how to stop the bleeding once other teams learned how to inflict damage later in the season. This is partly on the players, for not committing to defence or ball movement when things got rough, and it’s partly on Dwane Casey for not making adjustments to his schemes once he saw his early-season game plan torn to shreds as the season rolled on. It’s also partly on Masai Ujiri, who was slow to react to the crumbling execution of the team he’d assembled, leaving them in tact at the trade deadline despite numerous warning signs that things were not right on court or in the locker room.
A slower start this season could avoid some of those pitfalls, while also instilling some benefits of its own. Firstly, it creates a culture of ‘work for your wins’ that wasn’t present during last season’s early push. The team was riding high on a crazily efficient offence that was standing on a very precarious base of uptempo isolation attacks by DeRozan, Lowry and Lou Williams, an unsustainable shooting percentage from the midrange, as well as a very favourable whistle, especially on jump shots. When teams learned to smother the isolation play and the refs stopped bailing them out, things got more difficult, but the team just kept driving into traffic and begging for calls rather than adjusting. If the Raps need to work harder for wins to start this season, it should create a culture that prioritizes the replicable things that win games (like committed defence, rebounding and ball movement) over the things that are harder to reproduce night after night, all season long. If the early games require more of a fight, being able to say ‘okay, our defence will keep us in it no matter what’ is a much easier sell than if you cakewalking through games or are protected by a cushy record achieved months prior.
A slower start to this season would also put pressure on Casey to not settle on a playing style in the first weeks of the season and then spend the rest of year talking about how ‘those were the same shots that went in at the start of the season’. If the team doesn’t catch fire in the first weeks of the season, Casey is going to have to be on his toes with regards to his playing style. He might have to be flexible when things aren’t working, because he won’t be protected by early season successes (nor by a summertime contract renewal). He has theories right now about how things should work on both sides of the ball to maximize his new players as well as to avoid the pitfalls of a year ago, but if his theories prove false (or, at least, not as right as he would have hoped) he will be compelled to tweak, lest his team start losing or his job suddenly becomes less secure.
One has to remember; this is a huge year for Casey. He is on the hot-seat in a big way, after being called out last spring by Lowry and suffering through being outcoached by Randy Whittman in the Playoffs. The team holds an option on his contract for next summer so cutting him loose at the end of the season (or sooner) would not be a big financial hit for the Raptors should they not be playing up to internal projections. It’s easy to point to the historical precedents when it comes to his in-game or in-season adjustments (in that, there rarely are any), but this year is a different situation for him. A slow start to the season will have him fighting for his job, which means he’ll have to be showing a willingness and an ability to innovate on the fly because the alternative means being sent home with a very mixed track record as a head coach in today’s NBA.
However, there is no more important figure in a slow-start scenario than Ujiri, the man at the top of the pyramid. This roster, as constructed, has holes and should not finish the season in the shape that it starts the season. It is overloaded on power forwards, and yet not one of them has proven to be an obvious candidate to start for the club. The bench is in desperate need of scoring, with Terrence Ross struggling as the team’s offensive linchpin on the second unit (he’s shooting just 26.7% from the floor right now, and has never performed at a high level off of the bench ). There is still no practical backup at small forward, as Casey insists James Johnson is now strictly a four and Ross is primarily a two. Bruno Caboclo has been getting nearly all of the backup minutes this preseason despite no one in the organization feeling that he’s ready for regular NBA court time. While Lowry, DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Luis Scola, Bismack Biyombo and Corey Joseph all look fine, and Valanciunas looks to have solidified his place in the team’s future, the pieces that surround them aren’t a perfect fit. A slower start to the season will allow Ujiri to stay active on the trade market, without settling in with the roster that he has for too long. Last year they seemed too good to break up at the deadline (was it a slump or was it a real nosedive?) and it was a move they lived to regret once the Playoffs arrived. Ujiri needs to be motivated to stay active and a slower start will keep him in an active mode, looking for the right pieces to augment the players that already fit into what the team is trying to do.
Now, a slow start does not need to mean losing lots of games. The Raptors only play three elite-level squads (Oklahoma City, Golden State and Cleveland) in the first month of games but have several games against teams that are at or just below their level (Boston, Milwaukee, Miami, New Orleans, Utah), teams that they could conceivably struggle to put away while they are simultaneously trying to perfect their new defence and refine their tweaked offence with a roster that is not perfectly assembled to maximize everyone’s abilities.
A good season for these Raps might look like a just-above .500 record through mid-January, a not-insignificant trade between mid-December and mid-January to balance-out the roster, a surge heading into the All-Star Weekend in Toronto and a steady, solidifying run into the Playoffs. That last point might be the most important. The Raptors need to have some forward momentum pushing them into the first round, something they can use to try and, finally, win their first-ever seven-game series. You never really want a slower start to a season, but sometimes it’s what a team needs to get them to a) acknowledge their own strengths and weaknesses and b) spend the regular season working to promote the strengths while mitigating the weaknesses. The Raptors don’t quite look ready for the regular season to begin, but having to accept it’s nearness might be exactly what they need to avoid last season’s collapse.