Though Raptors fans, in traditional fashion, found plenty to complain about during the team’s wildly up-and-down playoff run, even the most delusional, partisan supporter would never have predicted mainstream sports media would spend two days in late May seriously discussing the possibility of the Raps advancing to the biggest stage in professional basketball. Seriously, it almost broke Stephen A. Smith.
Regardless of what else happened in the conference finals, or the emotionally-draining previous two rounds of playoff basketball, it was unquestionably the most successful season in the team’s 20-year history. If nothing else, this gif of the Raptors’ beloved brand ambassador relentlessly owning Rodney Stuckey after he committed a key turnover in the late stages of Game 5 of the Pacers series really made the whole ordeal worth it:
In any case, the success of their 2015-2016 campaign means a whole new slew of expectations surrounding the team coming into the 2016/2017 season.
Will the Raptors take the next step and build on their new reputation as one of the Eastern Conference’s top clubs? Will they regress to the middle of the pack after they’ve mostly stood pat while teams like the Bulls and Knicks have rebooted? Is contract-year Kyle Lowry going to be a thing?
We’re going to break it all down for you, using our patented and extremely analytical Drakeface Rating System™. Is this thing on?
Okay, let’s get to work.
If there’s one thing we all learned during the Raps’ 2016 playoff run, it’s that as much as the team has shed its perpetually-middling reputation, they’re still a few significant steps away from being able to challenge King James and the Cavaliers for Eastern Conference dominance. The desperate fever-dream offseason move of using Drake’s influence to sign megastar Kevin Durant failed to materialize (he instead went to the Warriors who, if you’ll remember, lost to the Cavs in the Finals after blowing a 3-1 lead). Moreover, surrogate Toronto patriarch Bismack Biyombo was signed away by the Orlando Magic after Raptors management balked at giving out a massive, franchise Center salary to their backup Center. We’ll miss you, Dad.
Oddly enough, the moment Drake found out about Biyombo’s departure was captured by a photographer, and it’s heartbreaking.
While Toronto may not have made any paradigm-shifting deals, they still got a few things done this offseason, signing underrated and reinvigorated forward Jared Sullinger away from the Celtics, and selecting big man Jakob Poeltl and high-energy defensive stopper Pascal Siakam in the NBA Draft. Yet their biggest offseason move was somehow simultaneously unsurprising and still kind of unbelievable, re-signing DeMar DeRozan to one of the largest contracts in NBA history.
It’s a move that, again, brought the naysayers out in force: he’s too one-dimensional and inefficient, he doesn’t shoot the three ball, he doesn’t defend, his name has too many capital letters, etc. Here are the facts: DeRozan is one of the NBA’s most prolific scorers, works incredibly hard, has improved every year he’s been in the league, is not yet in his prime, takes a huge amount of pride in representing Toronto and, even if his playoff performance wasn’t quite as consistent as some may have liked, he averaged 23ppg on 50% shooting against the eventual champs on the biggest stage he had ever played on. There’s also the question that detractors never seem to have a satisfying answer to: if the Raptors had opted to let DeRozan walk, who would they have replaced him with? As much of an awesome surprise as Norman Powell has been, the idea that he and Terrence Ross could replace DeRozan’s minutes and production without the team taking a massive step backward in the standings is kind of preposterous. In fact, let’s just all agree to not have this same discussion when the Raptors max out Kyle Lowry next summer.
Overall Drakeface Rating (ODR): Intensely ignoring the haters
Despite the previously-mentioned tweaks, this a very similar Raptors squad to the one that won 56 games and made it to the Conference Finals last year, so their somewhat-boring offseason is certainly not a cause for doom and gloom.
The projected starting lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Sullinger (replacing playoff whipping boy Luis Scola) and Jonas Valanciunas won’t likely be leading a championship parade down Yonge St. in July, but should be enough to compete with any team in the league on a nightly basis. A big part of their success came from their bench unit, which is also mostly the same, with Corey Joseph, Norman Powell, Terrence Ross (provided he’s recovered from his tweaked knee that he injured on a dunk attempt during practice), Patrick Patterson, and some combination of Siakam, Poeltl, and Lucas Nogueira. It’s a roster that unquestionably has the potential to replicate last year’s success, providing they stay healthy. (Ed Note: We’re also only two years away from Bruno being ready.)
ODR: Feeling pretty good, tbqh
The Raptors are in a unique position in that even if they are able to sort of replicate last season’s success, the 2016/2017 season will be considered a huge success. Toronto sports fans can certainly be fickle, but ultimately we’re happy to root for a team that’s out there competing on a night by night basis, and putting themselves in a position to make a playoff push at the end of the season. And while it may not seem like the pieces are in place to make a serious run at LeBron and the Cavs quite yet, there remains the possibility that Masai Ujiri’s legendary patience could wear thin if the right trade presents itself, say for the perennially disgruntled Demarcus Cousins or the maybe-possibly-kind of-available Lamarcus Aldridge, in which case all bets would be off. Even with the current core, there’s still a high likelihood that their playoff performance will be better this year, for as much criticism as was levelled at DeRozan and Lowry for their shaky shooting in the first two rounds, the duo – along with Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson – tied for the Toronto Raptors record for playoff games played this year… with 31.
Players don’t just magically transform into proven playoff performers; it’s the kind of thing that comes with reps. The crazy journey that this team went through last year, not to mention the tough lessons of their previous two playoff appearances, should all add up to a unit that is a bit more unflappable in high-pressure moments this year.
ODR: Confident but trying to seem chill
The Raptors are poised to win another 50+ games and make some noise in the playoffs once again. Just that is pretty nice, right? We’ve seen some lean years as Raptors fans, just to be able to say the team is a perennial playoff fixture is pretty damn neat. So, in case some kind of terrible disaster strikes (which will totally not happen, shut up), we’ll see you in May.
Let’s close this thing out, Drake.