The Toronto Raptors caught the league by surprise last season. They actually made the playoffs! And not by barely squeezing in at 8th place, but by clinching a 3rd place finish with a franchise best 48 wins. Although they showed a lot of inexperience once in the playoffs and were eliminated in the first round, they still put up a great fight; stretching the series out to a very close game 7 against a Nets squad with a $35 Million higher roster payroll. All in all, It was a beautiful sight to see for long-time Raptor fans out there who’ve grown accustomed to the 9th or 10th place finishes. We witnessed a group of players – most very young and many tragically underrated – actually come together as a team and display some of the best chemistry the organization has seen since the golden days of Vince Carter. They passed, they played great offense, the bench was productive, Lowry and DeRozan played as all-star players, and most importantly, they actually played some solid defense. Everything seemed to come together harmoniously last season, and with the right moves and acquisitions from GM Masai Uijiri and the Raptors organization during this upcoming off-season, this success can be a sign of greater things to come for the Toronto Raptors.
As of right now the Toronto Raptors are good, not great, but definitely good. Put the Raptors against The Nets, Rockets, or Wizards, and they can hold their own, but put them in a playoff series against the Spurs or Heat (that has LeBron, Wade, and Bosh), and I would be surprised to see them win more than 1 or 2 games. The main reason for this is due to the fact that over half of the Raptors roster, whether it be Valanciunas, Ross, Patterson, Vasquez, or even DeRozan, have yet to meet their full level of potential. They are all currently in a phase of growth, and for some, it may still take a few more years to fully develop. So, instead of searching to get better as a team through aggressive roster changes and transactions, it would be much more efficient to search for a means to speed up time; find ways that will allow for their younger players to develop quicker into more so consistent and well-rounded players. There are two ways to do this: first, round-off the roster with knowledgeable, veteran team players, and second, look at the San Antonio Spurs play-style for inspiration.
Lowry, You’re Comin’ Home
Before we go any further, there needs to first be one thing acknowledged: The Raptors must hold on to Kyle Lowry. Besides DeRozan, he is unquestionably the best player on the Raptors roster. He has been an anchor for the team, putting up consistent numbers and successfully running the court as a high caliber point-guard. Locking down Lowry with a multi-year contract would allow for the Raptors to have a backcourt that they could continue to build a team around, potentially moving other players around, yet having the comfort in having one of the best one-two guards in the league. Letting go of Lowry would be a gigantic step in the wrong direction. Not only would it leave empty a role that current back-up point-guard Vasquez would not be able to fit, it would completely put their team off-balance, and force a tremendous amount of additional pressure on DeRozan to perform at a high level every single game.
The Need For Veteran Players
Now, assuming that The Raptors do hold on to Lowry, the next thing they need to do is to create a veteran presence on their roster. For me, current veteran free agents that I believe would fit into The Raptors mold would be: Pau Gasol, Boris Diaw, and potentially, Danny Granger. The reasons I picked these particular players are due to multiple reasons. First, all possess an extensive knowledge towards the game, and would function as great role models for the rest of the team. Gasol, in particular, would be extremely beneficial in this aspect, especially for a player like Valanciunas. Currently, there is no real presence on the Raptors roster for someone like JV (Jonas Valanciunas) to look up to or learn from, and as we learned from his inconsistent play on the court and his immature antics off the court, he is a player that could really use some guidance. Learning from Gasol, a player who has consistently put up points and rebounds for many years, could do wonders to JV’s game development.
A second reason would be for their ability to lead and create order on the basketball court. Watching many Raptors games last season, I seemed to frequently watch the team spiral out of control down the stretch, not really being able to re-gather themselves, and sometimes, completely throwing games away. However, having the presence of a player like Danny Granger on the court, a person who with the Indiana Pacers has shown time and time again his ability to lead and perform under-pressure, could potentially cool the heads of those young-gunners who seem to always dig themselves deeper into a hole. Although Granger has not been playing as well as he has in the past, it is difficult to ignore his knowledge and experience with the game. Coming at a much cheaper price tag than he’s worth, it could be a very smart pickup for the Raptors to consider.
Some Help at SF and PF
One thing that The Raptors desperately need as of right now, is some help at both the small forward and power forward position. No offense to T.Ross or Amir Johnson, both are great players, but they currently are not at the level of skill needed to be on a starting lineup on a championship caliber team. This is a large part in why I believe Gasol, Diaw, and Granger would fit in great with the Raptors lineup, as the team has no consistent force in their respected positions. Ideally, The Raptors would aim to acquire either: Gasol and Diaw, Gasol and Granger, or just Gasol. Gasol, although coming with the larger salary out of the three, would undoubtedly create the largest impact. Averaging 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.4 assists last season, Gasol would play as a consistent threat in the key, forcing opponents to play on their heels, and giving a bit more space for DeRozan and Lowry to work with on the outside. While Diaw and Granger may not the best players at the Small Forward position, they would be the most affordable and ideal veteran role players available at the position.
Learn From The San Antonio Spurs
Now, whatever The Raptors do this off-season, whether they stick with their current roster or they don’t, they must do one thing: Try and develop a play-style that resembles that of the San Antonio Spurs. I’m not saying replicate it, but instead, learn as much as they can from the pass-first and “every player is a threat” game style. The Spurs have shown for over a decade that they know how to win games and play all their players effectively, and the Raptors, more than any other team in the league, has the highest chance of following in the same path. With DeRozan, Lowry, and Valanciunas in the starting line up, and T.Ross, Vasquez, and Patterson coming off the bench, the amount of scoring threats that the Raptors could potentially have is deadly. They are not a team focused around one or two star players, like The Rockets or Thunder, but instead, they are a team that depend on one another, and when running like a well-oiled machine, can be nearly unstoppable. The Spurs exemplify the perfect playbook for an all-around team such as the Raptors; they play an un-defendable, a timeless, and a tremendously consistent style of basketball, that when every player on the team follows, it becomes a very difficult task for the opponent to overcome. .
In Masai Uijiri We Trust
I believe in The Raptors. I trust Masai Uijiri as a General Manager, as he has made some exceptional decisions thus far. Yet, the team is currently in a very sensitive stage; they are at a time that with a few bad moves, they could easily slip back into yet another mediocre NBA team. While at the same time, if they don’t do anything at all, they will most likely remain at a level that will not be able to contend with the best teams in the league. I’ve been a devoted Raptors fan for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been waiting quite a while to see The Raptors finally be considered as a championship contender. Now is a time, better than ever, to make the needed roster and play-style changes, and to make a push towards finally bringing some NBA titles back home to Canada.