With training camp underway, an intrasquad game coming up this weekend and the pre-season now just days away, it’s time to take a look at the questions I’ll be hoping the next four weeks answer with regards to specifics about the Raptors’ roster.
To me, the pre-season is about staying healthy first and foremost, getting a good read on lineups and rotations and carving out indivual players’ roles. I couldn’t care less about what the Raptors record is when the exhibition season comes to an end on October 25, but I am hoping these five questions will be answered:
Will the starters remain intact?
Based on the performance of the starting five post-Gay-trade last season, there’s really no reason to consider making a change here.
In case you needed a reminder, of the 58 units that played at least 200 minutes together in the NBA last season, the Raptors’ five-man unit of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson and Valanciunas ranked fifth with a net rating of +12.9 and fifth with a defensive rating of just 92.5 (points allowed per 100 possessions).
Heck, even the stagnant offence produced by having Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan taking on primary roles finished tied for 24th with an offensive rating of 105.4. Again, that’s not 24th out of 30 teams, but rather 24th out of 58 qualified five-man units. And if you lift the cutoff to a minimum of 300 minutes played together, then the same five-man unit had the 14th-best offensive rating out of 32 qualified teams.
All of which to say, there’s recent evidence to suggest that a starting lineup consisting of Lowry, DeRozan, Gay, Johnson and Valanciunas can produce elite defensive results to go with at least middle-of-the-pack offensive results. That’s a fine recipe for success in the NBA, so unless one of those five players is injured or completely shits the bed in the pre-season, I don’t see a reason for any other potential starting five on opening night.
Which three-to-five players will earn primary bench roles?
If the Raptors are in a playoff hunt this season, as they should be, and survive with relative health, then I can see Dwane Casey sticking to a tighter 8-to-10 man rotation. And if that’s the case, the next four weeks are going to help make or break the roles of certain players.
At first glance, I’d assume that Terrence Ross, Steve Novak, D.J. Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough and Landry Fields will be the most used reserves, so the question is, can one of Quincy Acy, Aaron Gray, Austin Daye or Dwight Buycks push those guys for a spot in Casey’s regular rotation?
With all due respect to Acy, Gray and Daye (and admittedly I hope to see Acy the most), I actually think Buycks might have the best chance, particularly if Augustin plays as poorly as he did last season. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a long shot given that it sounds like the team actually values D.J., but Buycks has the potential to be sneaky good in a reserve role – a tough point guard who can score in bunches without compromising his abilities as a distributor.
Which primary reserve can carve out a role as a Sixth Man?
I’m trying to remember the last time the Raptors had a legitimate, consistent sixth man. Can you?
If Ross can avoid the rookie lapses that plagued him last season and can consistently knock down his silky smooth jumper, then he’s got an inside track at becoming the team’s dependable go-to scorer off of the bench. But that might still be asking too much of the 22-year-old, and that opens up an opportunity for veterans Augustin and Novak.
Augustin’s porous defence should hurt his chances under Casey, but he’s an experienced NBA point guard who can also play off the ball in lineups with Lowry still on the floor when the team goes small. Novak, on the other hand, is as automatic as it gets from behind the arc, knocking down better than 44 per cent of his 633 three-point attempts over the last two seasons. Not to mention, Novak’s floor spacing ability can do wonders for whichever of Gay/DeRozan/both is still on the floor.
Of course, the more realistic scenario is that the Raptors fail to find a dependable scorer off of the bench and end up going with the hot hand and 6th man by committee more often than not. In addition, there will surely be nights when Hansbrough is first off the bench in the event Johnson or Valanciunas gets into early foul trouble.
Can one of Julyan Stone, Carlos Morais or Chris Wright crack the roster?
The Raptors don’t have to sign a 15th man to fill the roster, and if one of these three guys doesn’t earn a spot, the team will have no qualms about heading into the season with 14 players.
Stone was supposed to be a part of Ujiri’s plans this season, but a physical issue put up a major road block and now he finds himself trying to make a team that already features three point guards on guaranteed deals. Stone is a big guard with major defensive upside sure to intrigue Casey, but carrying four point guard seems unlikely and unnecessary.
Wright is an above the rim forward who went undrafted in 2011 after playing at Dayton. After failing to crack the Raptors roster last pre-season, he enjoyed a successful D-League season with the Maine Red Claws where he averaged 18.3 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks in 39 games to go along with a solid true shooting percentage of .556.
The oldest of this bunch is Morais, who will turn 28 in a couple of weeks. The 6-4 Angolan guard most recently played in the Angolan league with Atlético Petróleos de Luanda, but it was at this year’s African Championships where Morais really stood out, taking home tournament MVP honours while helping Angola win the continental title.
How much more involved will Valanciunas be, and whose offence will be affected?
Dwane Casey has said that Valanciunas will take on a larger offensive responsibility this season, but just how much more involved will Jonas be?
Ideally, I’d like to see Valanciunas’ usage rate upped to at least 20.0 (he posted a usage rate of 16.9 as a rookie) and would like to see the offence flowing through the big Lithuanian in the post more often, but with added touches for Valanciunas comes less usage for another player or two.
My worry is that Valanciunas’ extra opportunities will come out of Johnson’s and Lowry’s shares instead of where they should be coming from – DeRozan’s and Gay’s shares. Lowry and Johnson combined for a 36.4% usage rate last season, but they’re both efficient offensive options who, like Valanciunas, deserve more offensive opportunities, not less. The less efficient Gay and DeRozan, on the other hand, posted a combined usage rate of 53.3% in Toronto last season, and Gay especially doesn’t sound too concerned about efficiency.
We know Valanciunas will get a bigger piece of the offensive pie in 2013-14, but whose usage he cuts into is almost as important as his own usage uptick, and we should have some sort of indication one way or the other by the end of eight pre-season games.