Needless to say (but let’s bask in the moment’s glory anyway), it’s a hell of a time to be a Toronto sports fan. With business booming on the Baseball field for the second consecutive year, the continuation of an encouraging rebuilding process just hours away from hitting the ice, and of course, the Raptors’ mission to unseat Cleveland for Eastern Conference supremacy only two weeks away from officially getting underway, it’s only a matter of time before our tax dollars are going towards building a new NFL stadium. Hey, I wouldn’t rule out the year 2066.
If you’re like me, you were once salivating over the possibility of a Jays-Red Sox postseason showdown, but when one reminds themselves that the start of a Cleveland-Toronto rivalry was already brewing on the hardwood in May, we really couldn’t have asked for a better situation to set the tone for the aforementioned mission the Raps are about to embark on.
However, it wouldn’t be the Toronto sports scene without a bit of drama attached:
How many “experts” have predicted the Raptors to fall back to the pack this season? Well, judging by what you come across on various media outlets, and taking into account what social media has to offer, I can safely say that the amount of people who are dismissing the Raps’ chances at replicating their level of success from last season sits at a relatively high percentage.
That’s enough to make any fan angry. And it’s funny how certain teams can continue to be held to a higher standard when they didn’t exactly earn their keep the previous year. But, that also doesn’t mean there can’t be any validity to the naysaying when it’s all said and done.
So, to keep everything on the up and up, and to not let our hometown bias get in the way, the objective here is to take the outside noise into consideration, while attempting to figure out what direction(s) this season could be headed.
The main argument for the Raps losing a step is that while the majority of teams chasing them in the standings last year were busy improving their arsenal in the offseason, Toronto’s decision to essentially play the background is enough to question whether they’re worthy of being the Cavs’ ultimate opponent. And when you combine the loss of Bismack Biyombo, there’s been no shortage of hot takes supporting that notion.
When it comes to Bismack, there really isn’t an opportunity to play devil’s advocate when trying to downplay just how significant of a loss he could wind up being, at least in the short term. The Raps’ roster (on paper) doesn’t exactly suggest they can replace his relentless pursuit on the boards, his shot-blocking/altering presence, or his ability to wear multiple hats on defense, whether it be straight up, on a switch, or as a safety-net option when someone gets beat on the perimeter.
The hope is that a tweak in identity can weather the storm. Meaning an added emphasis on the contributions of this club’s supporting cast. Meaning the need for Cory Joseph and Norman Powell to continue trending upward, the need for Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross to once and for all put there inconsistencies behind them, the need for Jared Sullinger to show why the Raptors never should have been excluded from the “notable offseason additions” discussion, and the need for Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam to reinforce the idea that they could become a formidable duo in the not-so-distant future.
But most of all, for the Raps to truly dismiss the growing pessimism around them, two members of the supporting cast (even with one at the veteran age of 30 years old) need to officially graduate to “core status”.
It’s wishful thinking that the Raps can make a serious dent in their 28th ranked Assist Ratio (the percentage of a team’s possessions that end in assists), which by the way, their 15.0 clip marked a 4th straight decline in that department. That also means we likely won’t get to see the consistent scoring threat Carroll became in Atlanta anytime soon. Especially not when Toronto’s Pace number came in at 29th (95.3 estimated possessions per game).
Carroll’s versatility usually finds a way to shine, though. And if his preseason is any indication, one that we probably should have more faith in carrying over to the regular season than that of T-Ross’s, a full season of transition threes, elite court awareness, and the ability on any given night to shutdown the opponent’s best player not named LeBron, has a chance to soften the Biyombo blow.
26 regular season games, along with a limited postseason, didn’t provide a proper scope of what his acquisition meant in the first place.
As for JV, simply put: The time is now. To get more in depth: Even though a rotation of Sullinger, Patterson, and at times Carroll, can help ease the offensive burden when on the court at the same time, make no mistake, Valanciunas’ footwork, touch, rebound positioning, and even his mid-range jumper have to come as close to full circle as possible. JV also doesn’t have the built-in advantage of Bismack picking up the defensive slack. There will be no more in-and-out switches in crunchtime depending on whether the team needs a bucket or a stop.
He’s already displayed concrete evidence that all of this is possible as soon as opening night (specifically referring to his coming out party during last season’s playoffs), so faith in his graduation should run deep. Even if his preseason has been uninspiring.
The last thing this team needs is to place even more of the load on the shoulders of Lowry and DeRozan. If anything, Lowry’s at the point where the team really should be shrinking his minutes, even if it’s just by sitting out unnecessary 4th quarters or even when simply going up against inferior opponents.
There might not be another duo in the league that sacrifices their bodies more than the Raps’ backcourt, so the fact that DeMar is four years younger than K-Low, doesn’t exactly exclude him from that same scenario.
That’s not to say that there won’t be times throughout the year that this entire situation gets flipped on its head. There will be a time where the supporting cast is carrying this squad and the call for Lowry and DeRozan to step up their game will be shouted from the rooftops. But in the grand scheme of things, even though Lowry and DeMar have to lead the charge, there’s more pressure on the supporting cast to hold up their end of the bargain.
Besides, with DeRozan making his living attacking the rim, last time I checked a $140 million investment is worth preserving. And with K-Low embarking on the wrong side of 30, and potentially his last big contract lurking in the background, do you really see him giving a hometown discount?
But of course, it’s not realistic for all of these scenarios to come true. The most realistic thing I can say is that even though the Raps lost an integral part of their gameplan, the pieces to remain in the driver’s seat to capture the 2-seed are still in place. That and the fact that the chances of T-Ross getting dealt at the deadline should increase as the season rolls along.
In more ways than one, bring on Cleveland.Follow @raptorsrepublic