Are The Raptors A Playoff Team Next Year?
After four consecutive trips to the draft lottery and two 20-win campaigns in a row, Raptors fans could be forgiven if they are having trouble finding reason to hope for future post season action in Toronto. A mediocre team featuring All-Star Chris Bosh quickly became a bad team after he left town two seasons ago, but things can and something do change quickly in the NBA and every person associated with the Raptors franchise has playoffs in mind for next season.
“We haven’t been to the playoffs for four years, so I am the first person who is very thirsty about making the playoffs,” said Andrea Bargnani. “It has to be next year. Everybody is very committed to do it next year. At this point, we have to do it next year.”
Raptors President and General Manager Bryan Colangelo was selling his plan for next season since before the current season had even started, but it has been new head coach Dwane Casey who pulled off the miracle that provides some glimmer of hope in Toronto. The Raptors had become easy pickings in the NBA and floundered at the bottom of every defensive category, but in one lockout-shortened season, Casey changed everything.
“We can’t be (happy) about not making the playoffs, but on the other side I think we started really well with Coach Casey who changed the culture and we are building something really good,” said Bargnani. “That’s the right path to take to be a winning team. I am very convinced about his principles and his work so everybody is very excited about next year.
“We started to work on defense since day one. I respect him a lot. He is a very good coach. He tells you straight up what he has to say. The effort we put on the floor was definitely different from last year.”
The Raptors cut their points against by 11.4 from last season to 94.0 per game, ninth best in the NBA and they did it by slashing last year’s pathetic 48.2 percent opponents’ field goal percentage down to a very respectable 43.5 percent. Toronto’s usually porous three-point defense was a fifth best 32.8 percent.
These raw measures of defensive proficiency do not account for pace or free throw differential, but in the space of just one season, Coach Casey elevated the Raptors defense from the bottom to an NBA average of 104.5 points surrendered per 100 possessions. Notably, these improvements came with most of the same players as last season including the players previously maligned as defensive sieves, namely Jose Calderon, DeMar DeRozan, and Bargnani.
Defensive improvement alone is not enough to justify hope for a playoff appearance next season. The Raptors have to find a way to score more points and merely counting on a healthy Bargnani for a full season isn’t going to be enough.
“Statistically, defensively, we were off the charts as far as what we accomplished,” said Casey. “Offensively, we didn’t get where we wanted to go, but as our players improve, our skill level improves, and the talent level of our base improves, we will get there offensively.
“This is my seventeenth year in the NBA. I know what we are teaching wins. I do know also that we have to score and next year we will have to change our emphasis a little bit going into training camp.”
Improving the team’s talent level falls to Colangelo and the general manager has put his team in a position to be very active heading into the draft and free agency.
“It felt like that if there was going to be a year to make a bigger splash, whether in free agency or utilizing the space to acquire players by trade, I felt that would be better served in a subsequent season and that’s probably this summer,” said Colangelo.
“Adding talent is the third pillar in this plan and add talent comes in the form of the pick from last year, Jonas Valanciunas, the pick coming in the June draft, and then also by adding players either by trade or free agency.
“We will be in a unique position with $12 million in cap space before the draft and before July 1 to entertain deals where significant contracts could come into play. You could move a player out with some value and take back a player with significant value even higher than that $12 million. If you package the pick along with a young player, what does that net you? All of those questions will be answered over the course of the next several weeks and months as Ed Stefanski and I entertain those phone calls from the various GMs and us placing phone calls to various GMs. We will have a lot of lines in the water.”
Casey has noted on many occasions that his roster is too young and he would like to see more young veterans in the 25 to 28-year-old range and maybe there could be one player in their late thirties he would be interested in. Packaging the Raptors draft pick along with a young player could possibly net Toronto that young veteran who could have an immediate impact on this roster and the hints of Toronto’s obvious interest in the former two-time MVP Steve Nash represents another route to upgrade the talent. Plus, there are numerous young restricted and unrestricted free agents available in what should be a very competitive free agent period this summer, but Casey has set his sights on a very specific skill set.
“I have told Bryan and Ed the skill level and type of players we need,” said Casey.
“Shooters, that is the one skill. I know you can work with players when you get to this level, but you can’t teach the type of shooting that you like to have with three point shooters, those guys are born. You can work on it to get it a little bit better, but to get where we want to go, you have to have shooters. We need to add shooters to our roster.”
There are some great three-point shooters available in free agency this season. Three of the top four three-point shooters of the past season are unrestricted free agents, Steve Novak, Ersan Ilyasova, and Ray Allen. Restricted free agents Nicolas Batum and Courtney Lee are also three-point threats and the Raptors own restricted free agent Jerryd Bayless can shoot. It has been suggested Leandro Barbosa might like to return to Toronto. Shooters will be available this off season.
Casey has created the confidence and the culture necessary for the Toronto Raptors to make a return to the playoffs next season, but the talent level of the team as it is currently constructed may not be enough to get the job done. It is now up to Colangelo to complete his own plan by adding the talent necessary and he is heading towards the draft and free agency in a position to do so.
“Bryan Colangelo is on the cutting edge,” said Casey. “I have the utmost trust in him as far as getting the personnel and putting this team together next year.”
If Colangelo can accomplish his own goals, the Raptors will be a playoff team next season.