Dwane Casey’s coaching staff is all but set, free agency and a trade have addressed the team’s needs of three-point shooting, a third big man, a backup point guard and the longstanding need to rid themselves of Andrea Bargnani, Summer League is already behind us and the Raptors have even bought a couple of players out.
Assuming that Quentin Richardson is dealt with as Marcus Camby was and if no major trades are in the cards for the remainder of the off-season, we seem to have a pretty good idea of what this team will look like when they take the floor in October.
On that note, here’s how I see things shaping up right now in terms of Toronto’s depth chart…
I’d usually break the players down into three categories (point guards, wings and bigs), but since Steve Novak and Quincy Acy will probably play both forward positions and not much else, I listed them separately as forwards.
|Kyle Lowry||Rudy Gay||Steve Novak||Jonas Valanciunas|
|D.J. Augustin||DeMar DeRozan||Quincy Acy||Amir Johnson|
|Dwight Buycks||Terrence Ross||Tyler Hansbrough|
|Landry Fields||Aaron Gray|
As of right now, I think we’ll see an eight-to-10 man rotation that involves a starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas with D.J. Augustin, Steve Novak and Tyler Hansbrough joined in the usual second unit by Terrence Ross and Landry Fields.
Ross and Fields will likely battle for minutes as the team’s third wing since there will usually be one or two starters on the floor with a combination of the second stringers, while Hansbrough should join one of Johnson or Valanciunas on the floor.
I’d imagine that if the season started today, Buycks, Acy and Gray would make up the third string portion of the roster, but each will also have plenty of opportunity to earn more time.
Buycks has the advantage of being able to play off the ball as well as running the point, so he can step into primary backup duties if one of Lowry or Augustin gets hurt (or if he simply outperforms Augustin, which may not be that far-fetched) and he can play the two with one of Lowry or Augustin working as the lead guard in a small-ball lineup. Acy and Gray will fight with Hansbrough for the majority of their minutes, but Acy can eat up some time at the three as well if the Raptors need him to, while Gray should see his share of time on the floor when the Raps match up with a bigger, bruising centre.
Toronto’s starters should be solid, as the combination of Lowry, DeRozan, Gay, Johnson and Valanciunas ranked as the fifth-best five-man unit in the NBA last season with a net rating of 12.9 and a fourth-ranked defensive rating of 92.5. When you consider that neither Lowry nor Gay were at their best in 2012-13 and that Valanciunas appears poised for a breakout season, there’s reason to believe that the Raptors’ starting unit can be as good, if not better in 2013-14.
The real questions surround the bench. Augustin was awful last season, Buycks is unproven in the NBA, Ross has just one season under his belt, Landry Fields’ first season in Toronto was a disaster, Hansbrough, while effective, has his limitations, Acy can’t be relied upon for heavy minutes yet and Aaron Gray is Aaron Gray, with all due respect to The White Panther.
The only sure thing in the second unit seems to be Novak’s three-point shooting, as 633 of his 767 field goal attempts over the last two seasons have come from behind the arc, where he’s converted at a 44.5 per cent clip during that time and 43.3 per cent over his seven-year career.
Having raised those questions however, the bench appears to be balanced if nothing else. Augustin can distribute (and shoot threes), Ross and Fields can run and defend at the wings, Novak can spread the floor and Hansbrough can provide excellent interior defence while keeping possessions alive for the shooters on the team with his offensive rebounding, while Buycks, Acy and Gray can each fill a role towards the end of the bench.
So what does that mix of talent get you in the changing Eastern Conference?
The East seems to have three five-team tiers right now. The Heat, Bulls, Pacers, Nets and Knicks should be safe bets for the playoffs. The 76ers, Celtics, Bucks, Bobcats and Magic should be pretty safe bets for the lottery, and the Raptors, Cavs, Wizards, Pistons and Hawks should slide somewhere in the middle, filling the holes from 6th place to 10th place.
In recent years, the Raptors have gone into the season needing a lot to break right for them just to even get in the post-season hunt. This season, if things stay relatively quiet in the East over the next couple of months, they can be a playoff team by just having their starters play up to their potential and having the second unit players each fill their modest roles. It’s really not asking that much, and if the Knicks succumb to their vulnerabilities, (because trust me, they’re vulnerable), then one of those middle-tier teams in the East can suddenly find themselves in a race for fifth.
Whether entering the season as a 6-to-10 team is good for the long-term outlook of the franchise is a debate we can save for another day (though finishing 6th to 8th is a lot easier to stomach for a young team trending upwards than it is for an older team reaching the end of its rope). For now all we can do is analyze the team in front of us, and 6-to-10 seems to be the most realistic landing spot for that team.
(Editor’s note: I’ll be away for a week so I doubt there will be any content here for the next seven days or so. In the event something does happen worth writing about while I’m away however, Oliver or Devang Desai will cover the news angle and I’ll chime in with my thoughts when I’m back next weekend.)