After the unceremonious end to the Raptors season, it’s understandable that many are looking for change in the organization. After all this was the fifth playoff run of building a team around Dwane Casey’s systems, and the offensive talents of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and in those five years the Raptors have been eliminated at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers three times, eliminated in a sweep three times, and lost their last ten playoff games to LeBron. These simple facts can be painful, but have to be faced head on in order for progress to be made this offseason.
Due to them being at the head of the ship, the lion’s share of the calls for change will target those three, and each of them has their own case for being the change that helps the team adjust course.
Casey clearly looks like he’s on the hot seat, with rumors swirling that he’s on his way out, even as the NBA coaches association announced him as the recipient of their coach of the year award. He’s the best coach the Raptors have ever had, simply said, and has been a large part of building the expectations that fans now have, through the performance of his teams. He’s also done a fantastic job building a great locker room that, at least on the surface, seems to have a good atmosphere, and the young talent on the Raptors roster has developed well under him. At the same time, Casey’s rotations can leave much to be desired, opting to go to combinations during critical playoff moments that hadn’t shown any success during the year, and during the series against the Cavaliers it felt, at times, like he was searching for answers instead of having a prepared plan.
Despite that, moving on from Casey would be difficult. Finding a coach who is as good as he has been isn’t easy, and it’s no guarantee that his replacement would find as much success with this roster as he has, despite the concerns that exist.
Have noted how Raptors have been best at taking care of business, but after Ls to 2 top-10 offenses (CLE & LAC) last week, here's something…
Only the Cavs have been worse defensively vs. league's top-10 offenses. pic.twitter.com/JmoAq3qRZY
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) March 26, 2018
As far as other problems the Raptors had this past season, it starts with the gap between their defense against teams at the top of the league and teams at the bottom. During the season, the Raptors ranked as the 5th best defense in the league, often looking elite on that end of the floor, but there were concerns against the best teams in the league, where they ranked 29th when they faced top 10 offenses. This statistic wasn’t without qualifying factors, with a large number of those games coming either early in the season, prior to OG Anunoby’s insertion in the starting lineup, or during a long, tough stretch of schedule in March during which they played a very compressed schedule that had the team looking exhausted. However, against Cleveland in the playoffs, these problems reared their head again, as the team couldn’t seem to find answers to the versatile attack of the Cavaliers.
The Raptors were frequently caught being late on rotations over to open shooters or being back-cut for good looks at the rim, and with their centers pulled out of the paint by Kevin Love, they opted for smaller lineups with Serge Ibaka at center, hoping that he would be able to cover Love, and recover quicker to defend the rim. Unfortunately Ibaka simply hasn’t lived up to his reputation this season, aside from small stretches of games where he looked great. He’s not as quick as he once was, and can be attacked by opposing defenses now, despite still having solid shotblocking instincts. Jonas Valanciunas, despite being slow-footed, showed better instincts and was more able to slow down Love during the minutes that they were matched up.
On the perimeter, the Raptors wing defense struggled. OG Anunoby, their best wing defender, was glued to LeBron James, as the Raptors didn’t have many options for that assignment, leaving him unable to chase JR Smith and Kyle Korver and try to deny their attempts. That left the lion’s share of those minutes to DeMar DeRozan, CJ Miles, and the team’s trio of point guards. Neither Miles or DeRozan is a defensive stalwart, and each struggled in turn with those assignments, with Korver finding plenty of space against DeRozan in game one before he was switched off the assignment. They eventually ended up with Kyle Lowry attempting that matchup later in the series, but with Lowry giving up a lot of height to Korver, it was never truly due for success.
If there’s an area to be addressed this summer defensively, it should be their perimeter defense. Although Anunoby is a stud in this area, better offensive teams have more weapons on the perimeter, and the Raptors largely found their success against teams where they could hide a less capable defender, and struggled when that was a less palatable option. Simply put, they need more capable options there, and also need DeRozan and Miles, if they remain with the team, to bring up their intensity on that end. DeMar, in particular, has shown the ability to be a capable defender, but often looks inattentive on that end, simply losing his assignment, and starting a defensive breakdown for the team. While Lowry definitely isn’t the defender he once was, and with his smaller size can find himself in mismatches, he showed leadership and intensity on that end of the floor during the Washington series that is simply not normally seen from his backcourt mate.
At the offensive end of the floor, the Raptors also struggled at times against Cleveland, despite having the second ranked offense in the second round. The team’s offensive in particular struggled with DeRozan on the floor, where they slipped from a 133.6 offensive rating without him to a 100.3 ORtg. DeMar showed great offensive growth during the season in reading defenses and being decisive, putting his teammates in easy positions to succeed and helping keep the defenses on their backfoot with his quick attack, which also helped to open space for his own scoring. However, in the playoffs, he often was again slowing down the offense, dribbling at the top of the key while he surveyed his options, which let the defense set up, and also limited the Raptors shot clock time once they did set into their attack.
This isn’t to say all of the Raptors problems start and end with DeMar, because that would be scapegoating as it definitely is not true. His leadership was vital early in the season, when he looked the part of a MVP candidate, and sometimes you simply need a player willing to take on a larger offensive role to jumpstart things when the team is struggling, but if the Raptors are going to make changes this offseason, it has to start with acknowledging where the problems lied this season, and where the team’s strengths were. Kyle Lowry had one of the best playoff runs of his career, despite the team’s struggles, and the emergence of Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright allowed him more rest during the regular season which kept him healthier during the campaign than years past, which also could pay dividends in future years. At the same time, Jonas Valanciunas emerged in the new Raptors offense as a larger weapon, both showing increased range with his shooting, knocking down occasional three-point shots, and demonstrating more confidence in the post, taking it to even the best interior defenders in the league with success, while Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira each showed flashes of talent during the season and growth to come.
While VanVleet and Nogueira are both free agents this summer, each could likely be brought back if the team so desires, making the point guard and center positions ones of strength for the Raptors, and likely the positions least needing to be addressed during the offseason. On the other hand, the forward and wing rotations could use some help. Whether that’s finding Norman Powell’s confidence and effectiveness again, which would be huge for the team going forward, or making a change to shore things up, it’s the easiest answers to propel the team forward. DeRozan and Ibaka remain talented players who can help the team win games, but their flaws are also relevant. Miles is a great shooter who fits well in the locker room and works hard, but he also doesn’t solve those defensive issues.
Toronto doesn’t need wholesale change, and even if they were looking to tank, it’s not that simple with as much young talent as they have on the roster. The team would likely remain too good to get a pick at the top of the lottery even if they looked in that direction. They could use some tweaks to the roster though, as long as those changes target the areas where they need improvement. As far as specific solutions, that might be best left for later in the offseason with more perspective, as Masai Ujiri suggested on Tuesday, but that perspective has to be focused in the right places.