Basketball, Sports

Your 2014-15 Toronto Raptors

Last year, as the Raptors neared setting a record for regular season wins in a season, I wondered which was the best Raptors team ever. A weeks later I concluded last year’s edition ranked among the best. But at the beginning of this calendar year, I was optimistic that we were seeing the best team in the history of the franchise. And now that team has been swept in the most embarrassing way imaginable, with the final game looking like a no-contest.

This team still set the record for most wins in a regular season (49), highest winning percentage in the regular season (.598) and won the team’s third division title (an utterly meaningless thing, especially in the Atlantic).

However, this is a team that was winning nearly 80% of its games in the fall and was on pace for 60 wins at one point. Yeah, we should have expected a regression, but this bad a regression? The Raptors were 15-5 in their first 20 games. As of Christmas day they were 22-7. 22-7!!! They finished the regular season 49-33 and the finished with a 49-47 overall record thanks to The Sweep. That’s a massive, massive swing in the wrong direction. (Last year’s team managed 51-38 if you include the playoffs.)

Now I know there was no plan for a Lowry-DeRozan playoff team post Rudy Gay. I understand that this was a ll a lucky fluke, that the Raps were back to making the playoffs when they were supposed to be tearing it down. But that doesn’t make this sting less. So, for a record setting year, this will be a rather sad summary, I guess.

(As usual, players are ranked by minutes played. Ages are as of February 1, 2015.)

Kyle Lowry, 28, PG:

  • 34.5 MPG; Per 36: 18.6P, 7.1A, 1.6S, 4.9R, .2B; 19.3 PER; .527 TS% in 70 games
  • Career Per 36: 15.2P, 6.8A, 1.6S, 4.8R, .3B; 17.3 Career PER; .546 Career TS%
  • $12 mil per season until 2017 with a player option for 2018
  • Acquired by Bryan Colangelo for Gary Forbes and a 2013 first round pick (Steven Adams)

Lowry got off to a hot start and got his all-star game appearance that many people though he deserved the season prior, and he carried the team when DeRozan went down. Unfortunately Lowry was clearly worn out by the end of the season and possibly injured. Also, lacking his co-star, he started playing a lot more selfishly. Those two things resulted in this ugly performance during The Sweep:

  • 32.8 MPG;
  • Per 36: 13.5, 5.2A, 1.4S, 5.5R, 0B with 4.5 fouls and 3 Turnovers
  • 7.9 PER; .396 TS%; -.3 WS

Lowry will be “basketball old” by the end of his current contract and it’s worth thinking about a post-Lowry Raptors team for that very reason and also because it seems pretty obvious that the Raptors cannot even be an okay playoff team with Lowry as their best or 2nd best player.

I love Lowry, but it’s probably for the best that this team got killed. Had they killed the Wizards and given a second round opponent some grief, we might have all been thinking we had something.

(Please note, however, that if this becomes a Casey vs. Lowry decision – based on some rumours I am hearing this week – I am firmly on Lowry’s side at the moment. I was not impressed by Casey during The Sweep. Not at all.)

Patrick Patterson, 25, PF:

  • 26.6 MPG; Per 36: 10.8P, 7.2R, .7B, 2.6A, 1S; 14.6 PER; .568 TS% in 81 games
  • Career Per 36: 12.7P, 7.4R, .9B, 1.9A, .9S; 14.4 Career PER; .538 Career TS%
  • About $6 per season until 2017
  • Acquired by Masai Ujiri with Chuck Hayes, John Salmons, and Greivis Vasquez for Rudy Gay, Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray on December 9, 2013

It’s a miracle that a team with Patterson as it’s second most important player won 49 games. That’s not meant to be a slight on 2Pat. It’s more meant to raise awareness about how this team was hampered by injuries and, perhaps, by bizarre lineups. 2Pat is the Raps’ stretch 4 and that’s a common thing these days, but there’s no way he’s the team’s second best player, as was reflected in the playoffs, when the team was healthier and Patterson tied for 6th in total minutes.

Patterson scored as much as could be expected during The Sweep, but got beaten up on the boards by the Wiz.

2Pat is a fine complimentary player but that’s all. Likely a 7th man or perhaps even farther down the depth chart on a good team.

DeMar DeRozan, 25, SG:

  • 35 MPG; Per 36: 20.6P, 3.6A, 1.3S, 4.7R, .2B; 17.4 PER; .510 TS% in 60 games
  • Career Per 36: 18.4P, 2.6A, 1S, 4.1R, .3B; 15.3 Career PER; .524 Career TS%
  • $9.5 mil per season until 2016 with a player option for 2017
  • Drafted by Bryan Colangelo 9th overall in 2009

DeRozan’s year was obviously deeply affected by his injury and he saw a bit of dip in his scoring as well as a significant dip in his efficiency. And like Lowry, he didn’t have a good playoff – though it was hardly as bad as Lowry’s. Given his age, his salary and his skill level, DeRozan is a much better bet to stick around past any rejigging of the team than Lowry, but I personally don’t ever see DeRozan being more than the 2nd or 3rd option on a great team. And I have no idea how that would ever happen. But I guess he remains the future until we can find something better.

Just as an aside: DeRozan has turned out rather well compared to the rest of his draft class. He is

  • 2nd in games played
  • 1st in minutes played
  • 4th in points
  • 9th in boards
  • 11th in assists
  • 9th in FG% (minimum 400 games)
  • 6th in FT% (minimum 400 games)
  • 4th in MPG
  • 4th in PPG
  • 14th in RPG
  • 15th in APG
  • 9th in WS

And remember, he was drafted 9th. So we did well.

Jonas Valanciunas, 22, C:

  • 26.2 MPG; Per 36: 16.5P, 11.9R, 1.6B, .7A, .6S; 20.6 PER; .623 TS% in 80 games
  • Career Per 36: 14.9P, 10.9R, 1.5B, .9A, .5S, 17.6 Career PER;  .605 Career TS%
  • Rookie deal until 2016
  • Drafted by Bryan Colangelo 5th overall in 2011

Despite getting played a lot less, JV had a career year offensively, in terms of both overall and efficiency. And certainly Casey’s handling of him has to be one of the main reasons – in addition to The Sweep – that Ujiri has to think seriously about either getting rid of Casey or trying to move JV for something else. Casey seems terrified to use him late in the game and that’s frustrating because JV is still only 22 and big man defense takes a long time to learn in the NBA. Offensively, he’s getting close to where I think a lot of people were hoping he’d be, when Casey lets him play. I know this team was trying to win games, but it would be nice if they could also try to develop their supposed centre of the future.

So there’s a big choice coming up. Are they patient and hope that eventually learns NBA defense or do they try to move him for someone more polished?

Terrence Ross, 23, SF/SG:

  • 25.5 MPG; Per 36: 13.9P, 3.9R, 1.5A, .9S, .4B; 11.2 PER; .519 TS% in 82 games
  • Career Per 36: 14.1P, 4.1R, 1.4A, 1S, .4B; 11.3 Career PER; .526 Career TS%
  • Rookie Deal ending in 2016
  • Drafted by Bryan Colangelo 8th overall in 2012

Ross had his sophomore slump in his third season, seeing a regression both in his scoring and his efficiency. He also appeared (to me) to be more inconsistent on defense.

3 years in, Ross isn’t a bust but a lot of us wondered why he started 61 games when there was a better bigger player capable of playing his position. And his inability to excel consistently at the either end suggests the idea that if there is another team out there who looks at him and sees potential maybe he should be moved. It’s hard to see him as a major piece going forward anyway.

Lou Williams, 28, SG/PG:

  • 25.2 MPG; Per 36: 22.2P, 2.9A, 1.6S, 2.7R, .2B; 19.9 PER; .564 TS% in 80 games
  • Career Per 36: 18.8P, 4.6A, 1.4S, 3.1R, .3B; 17.5 Career PER; .540 Career TS%
  • UFA
  • Acquired by Masai Ujiri with Lucas Nogueira for the corpse of John Salmons

Williams won the 6th Man of the Year award for his career (by PP36) or near-career (by PER) year this season. However the “Give Lou the ball to bail us out” strategy failed utterly in the playoffs when his True Shooting %age dropped 130 points.

Williams is one of those players who is great when he’s hitting and not of much use when he’s not – though he was better defensively than I was expecting. Williams is probably getting paid because of his award and I for one don’t think the Raptors should be the team to pay him, if only because we know what he is and 6th Man of the Year will probably be his career peak.

Can Ujiri sign him for the hometown discount and trade him to someone who needs bench offense?

Greivis Vasquez, 29, PG:

  • 24.3 MPG; Per 36: 14P, 5.5A, .8S, 3.9R, .2B; 12.6 PER; .514 TS% in 82 games
  • Career Per 36: 13.8P, 7.3A, .9S, 3.9R, .1B; 14 Career PER; .513 Career TS%
  • $6.6 mil until 2016
  • Acquired by Masai Ujiri with Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons for Quincy Acy, Rudy Gay and Aaron Gray

Last year the Lowry-Vasquez double point guard lineup killed the Eastern Conference. For some reason it didn’t work as well this year. For one thing Vasquez saw his shooting percentages drop back down towards his career numbers. Also, Vasquez is too slow to guard his position a lot of the time, but we knew that already. Otherwise, I don’t really know what happened –  maybe it was the arrival of Lou Williams.

Anyway his regular season was only marginally worse than last year; it was the playoffs where he really struggled (with the exception of a few huge shots early in the series).

Vasquez is one of the oldest players on the team. It’s unlikely he’s part of the long-term.

Amir Johnson, 27, PF/C:

  • 26.4 MPG; Per 36: 12.6P, 8.3R, 1.1B, 2.1A, .8S; 15.4 PER; .603 TS% in 75 games
  • Career Per 36: 12.2P, 9.1R, 1.7B, 1.7A, 1S; 16.1 Career PER; .603 Career TS%
  • UFA
  • Acquired by Bryan Colangelo with Sonny Weems for Carlos Delfino and Roko Ukic

Amir remains the Raptors’ best interior defender but he’s struggling with injuries and though he’s fouling less, he still fouls an awful lot. Unlike the rest of the team he actually did alright in the playoffs.

I have no idea what to do here. I figured Amir is going to have more and more ankle issues as he ages. On the other hand, without him, the Raps are really, really weak when it comes to defensive bigs.

James Johnson, 27, SF/PF:

  • Per 36: 14.6P, 6.8R, 2.5A, 1.4S, 1.8B; 17.9 PER; .617 TS% in 70 minutes
  • Career Per 36: 13.1P, 6.4R, 3A, 1.5S, 1.9B; 14.5 Career PER; .528 Career TS%
  • $2.5 mil until 2016
  • Signed by Masai Ujiri on July 15, 2014

Despite having one of the best years of his career, Johnson inexplicably started 17 games to Ross’ 61. Now, it’s not the starts that matter, it’s the finishes. Casey played Ross for over 700 minutes more. Was this some attempt to see what they had in Ross? To let him grow up? I don’t know. Johnson is a much more mature player than he was the first time around in Toronto. Yes, he still makes boneheaded decisions on offense, but he is the team’s best wing defender. And he doesn’t make as many boneheaded decisions as he used to.

He played a total of 12 minutes during The Sweep and I have no idea why. No idea.(I know he missed four consecutive free throws, but the Raptors basically didn’t play defense and he would have helped that.)

Tyler Hansbrough, 29, PF:

  • Per 36: 9.2P, 9R, .5B, .7A, 1.S; 13.3 PER; .597 TS% in 74 games
  • Career Per 36: 14.5P, 9R, .4B, .9A, 1S; 14.9 Career PER; .525 Career TS%
  • UFA
  • Signed by Masai Ujiri on July 15, 2013

I would be surprised if Hansbrough is retained this summer. He’s done a decent job of fulfilling his role on the Raps but players of his skill set are slowly becoming less and less useful in the modern NBA, I think. (Though there are always reasons to buck a trend.) If he does come back, he’d likely be cheap.

That’s everyone who played 1000 minutes in the regular season this year. Hell, that’s everyone who played 500 minutes. 300 minutes. The Raps had a deep bench up to a point. Of the remaining players:

  • Chuck Hayes is an UFA and the oldest player on the team – he will not be back;
  • The organization is finally out from under the terrible Landry Fields contract this summer – I will be amazed if he isn’t playing in Europe or China next season;
  • Gret Stiemsa was a warm body on the veteran’s minimum – another may take his place;
  • I have no idea what to think about Lucas Nogueira but at least we got him for free practically;
  • I remain very skeptical about Bruno Caboclo but I also know zero about basketball player development – if this was hockey I would be demanding he start every game in the D League.

The Raptors are at a crossroads: is losing in a game 7 in the first round the peak potential of a Lowry-DeRozan core? I didn’t feel that way three weeks ago. I sure do now. (Let me be clear: I didn’t think the Raps would make it past the second round, but I at least hoped they would win some games and maybe make it to the second round.)

I for one support a change of direction at this point. I am okay with moving on from this group. Unless, with the new cap situation in a year or so, the Raps can attract or acquire a player or two clearly better than DeRozan – and who plays a complimentary position, as opposed to who plays essentially the same game as him cough Rudy Gay cough – then I think it’s okay to stick with these guys for a few more years.

But if Lowry and DeRozan remain the best players on this team, I think first round exits are our future until 2018, and I don’t look forward to that. So I am perfectly comfortable with the idea that no one on this roster is untouchable.

So hopefully things improve. I still have some faith in Ujiri at this point, especially given that he didn’t make a move at the trade deadilne. So I am optimistic.

And now I will go back to crying myself to sleep. Sob.

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