This summer, the Raptors didn’t make two moves, and they showed a tremendous amount of resolve in their actions (inactions?). They didn’t trade for Serge Ibaka and they didn’t mortgage the farm to re-sign Bismack Biyombo.
Ibaka was an obvious target for the Raptors, a defensive-minded power forward that could slide in perfectly alongside Jonas Valanciunas. However, the Oklahoma City Thunder wanted Cory Joseph, Norman Powell, Patrick Patterson and the 9th pick in the draft. That’s nearly the entire bench rotation plus a top-ten pick for a guy slated to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. There was a time when the Raptors would have jumped at the chance to make that deal, but they are in a place right now where they simply don’t feel that they need to take these wild swings in order to be successful.
Biyombo was a different case. He was a massive fan favourite coming off of the bench last year. However, the Raptors did not possess his Bird Rights, which would have meant that they’d need to shed a ton of salary in order to retain him (at least Patterson and Ross). Now, had the Raptors done so, it would have raised some eyebrows, but given what some big men signed for this summer, and given Biyombo’s impact last season, one can envision a scenario where Toronto makes the choice to keep him no matter what. They didn’t do that, though. They felt that a backup centre was simply not worth given up two assets for, especially not when his new salary would have killed their flexibility going forward. It was painful to see him go, but the Raptors believed they could afford to, both on the court and in the hearts and minds of their fans.
That’s simply something the team couldn’t afford to do in 2001. Even if it would have been better for the roster, it would not have been better for the organization, which was still searching for respectability amongst their own fans, as well as the league at large. Fifteen years later, though, as the team team enters training camp in the unfamiliar position of having very little to prove, they can relish in their ability to make roster-first choices without having to worry about fallout from fans.
After a quiet offseason that saw Masai Ujiri bring most of his core back, Raptors fans are wondering how this can be a better team in 2016-17. A healthy Carroll would help a great deal. One of the league’s most sought-after free agents in the summer of 2015, Ujiri signed Carroll to a four-year, $58 million deal, but after getting hurt five games in, he never looked like the player Toronto paid for, the one coming off a career year with the Hawks.
In Carroll, the Raptors hope to add an elite perimeter defender and proficient outside shooter to a club that won 56 games without him at full strength.
“(He makes) a big difference,” DeMar DeRozan said. “It was tough for us last year to figure out ways to play without him. Even when he was playing early on, he was hurt and when he came back, he wasn’t his full self and we still managed to make history. To have him back at the start of camp and be able to implement him fully is going to give us everything that we’ve been searching for.”
“The most important thing with DeMarre is just his spacing the floor,” Casey added. “He’s a great three-point shooter and really gives us the spacing we need with Kyle (Lowry) and DeMar handling the ball, attacking off the dribble. So that’s what we need from him, his defensive presence and his spacing. He did a great job of accepting that role last season, it’s the role he had in Atlanta and that’s what we need from him. He takes us from a pretty good team to a (very) good team when he does that.”
Given his skill set and Toronto’s lack of depth at the small forward position, Carroll just might be the Raptors’ most important player outside of Lowry and DeRozan. For now, his value is mostly speculative as the team brings him along slowly and hopes for the best. He’s their wild card.
Sullinger — who would have finished second on the Raptors in rebounds per game with those numbers — said signing with Toronto after the club made it all the way to last season’s Eastern Conference final just felt right.
“It’s a winning culture,” said the 24-year-old, adding that he turned down more money and longer term elsewhere. “Look at the guys that are here. You want to be a part of that.”
The 21st pick at the 2012 NBA draft, Sullinger said he picked the brain of Celtics teammate Amir Johnson, a former Raptor, before making the switch.
“Amir’s one of my favourite teammates of all time,” said Sullinger, a native of Columbus, Ohio. “He really doesn’t care about stats. He just cares about winning. With that type of attitude, and everything he said about Toronto and the love he has for the city, organization and the people in general, it was really just a no-brainer.”
Sullinger said he expects his role will be slightly different than it was during his four years with the Celtics as he looks to form chemistry with guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, as well as centre Jonas Valanciunas early on. He will also be expected to pick up some of the rebounding load after Bismack Biyombo, who finished second on the team behind Valanciunas last season, signed with Orlando as a free agent.
“You got to distribute the ball, but at the same time there’s going to be times where I have open shots just because DeMar, Kyle and JV command so much attention,” Sullinger said. “There’s going to be times where I need to take my shots and other times where I need to make plays.”
Sullinger came to the Raptors in the off-season, signing a reported one-year, $6-million contract after having his qualifying offer renounced by the Boston Celtics. He’s a solid offensive contributor (both in the post and out on the perimeter) and a gifted rebounder (he led the Celtics last season in hauling down 8.3 boards per game). But there are concerns on the defensive end, particularly should he be paired with Raptors starting centre Jonas Valanciunas in the team’s frontcourt.
Casey addressed this issue.
“We’ll score offensively but our transition defence is gonna have to be on-point, and that’s gonna be the measuring stick of how well they [Sullinger and Valanciunas] play, not the offensive part,” Casey said. “We’ll figure out the offence but the defence in transition—[along with] pick-and-roll defence—is gonna be the measuring stick for those two playing together.”
Sullinger says he’s spent the summer working on his foot speed, but hedging out on the pick-and-roll and recovering back to the paint isn’t an instinctual skill of his. Which is unlike Patrick Patterson, the other man in the running for the starting power forward job.
Sullinger’s family was concerned enough about his weight gain that they held an intervention bringing former No. 1 pick John Lucas to Sullinger’s Columbus, Ohio, apartment to talk about work ethic and getting him back on the right path.
That intervention took place in the summer of 2015. Sullinger , with Lucas’ help, got down to his desired playing weight but when his minutes started to dry up as the Celtics went with smaller linups and much more Jae Crowder than Jared Sullinger, the weight stated to creep up again.
Sullinger feels like he has it under control again.
Only this time he knows just getting it under control is part of the battle. The rest is keeping it under control.
“You get there (down to 260) and you stop,” he said. “For me, I can’t have an off day. DeMarre Carroll can have an off day. DeMar DeRozan can have an off day. Jared Sullinger can’t. It’s going to be a battle. I have learned how to manage it and I’m getting better at it every day.”
Health problems within his own family which has plenty of experience with weight control issues have brought out the fighter in him.
“My biggest thing was watching my grandmother pass away from diabetes,” he said. “I had another family member in the hospital with fluid in his lungs. He had a damaged heart. I had an uncle who passed away after a heart attack.
“Even though I am active, even though I am healthy, certain things go a long way if you just cut them out. I look at their lives as examples of somewhere I don’t want to go down.”
With Delon Wright out until at least December, who is going to provide that third ball handler behind Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph. Initially it appears to be a battle between Fred Van Vleet and Brady Heslip.
Van Vleet and Heslip have both caught the attention of head coach Dwane Casey, Heslip for his shooting and Van Vleet for his steady veteran-like ability to run an offence. Neither likely will be seeing a ton of playing time, but it could be the difference between staying in Toronto or moving down the road to Mississauga to join the 905s.
Filling the size 18s of Bismack Biyombo, who is now being paid handsomely in Orlando, is another issue.
The answer to this one is likely to be a few bodies rather than just one filling Biyombo’s old role.
“It’s going to be by committee,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “Jakob (Poeltl), Lucas (Nogueira), it’s there for the taking. All those guys, we are going to see who emerges from that group. We need rim protection and paint protection from those big guys. Last year Bismack was there, especially towards the end of the season to erase a lot of mistakes. We have to do that by committee. It could be Pascal Siakam can play the five some. That is one of our things to look at as training camp goes on.”
There is a level of parity that could tighten the standings as the season unfolds and the Raptors, one of four teams left standing at the end of last season, are going to be targets more than they ever have been. Boston would love to unseat them as division champions, the Knicks have to be tired of being patsies, and the Magic, Hawks, Pacers and Detroit Pistons want what Toronto has.
“We recognize that it’s going to be harder,” team president Masai Ujiri said. “When you win a little bit, you become more of a target.”
And the numbers, the desires of the fans, the thoughts of the so-called experts don’t really matter.
“I know where we got to last year, I know there are expectations but what are expectations in sports?” Ujiri said. “To me expectations in sports is winning, that’s the mandate in sports . . . It’s all about winning.
“I don’t know where to put it . . . I really don’t like to do that before the beginning of the season. We’re going to go out there and compete and be the best we can be.”
With the Toronto Raptors back at training camp after their best season ever, here’s 10 storylines to keep an eye on as opening night approaches.
The newest full-time Raptor, Jared Sullinger, is the likely starter at power forward for the Raptors on day one. As expected, he’ll take on the role Luis Scola held last year — complete with a questionable defensive pairing with Jonas Valanciunas, and dodgy three-point shooting numbers.
Sullinger projects as a better offensive player now than Scola was last season (I mean, he’s ten years younger which counts for something), and checks out as a legit monster rebounder. So, there are definitely positives to having Sully on the team in the starter’s spot. That he’s in a contract year and clearly looking to establish his credentials for a big pay day next season is also true. Coach Dwane Casey did say he reserves the right to change his mind about all of this — but it sounded like Casey’s typically resistance to being pinned down early to a specific decision.
(Still: Look for Patrick Patterson to continue on as a valuable crunch time piece for the Raptors, given his proven three point shooting ability and ace defensive skills all over the court.)