Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Predictions for the 2014-15 Toronto Raptors

It's that time of year and Toronto's best sports franchise is back. I was trying to figure out how to frame this year's predictions, so I decided I'd steal these questions from my favourite Raptors' website.

It feels strange this year, because the NBA is generally a highly predicative league. That is, with only five players on the floor, assuming teams stay healthy, there isn't a lot of unexpected movement. That's what made the raptors season last year so surprising after the Gay trade, because they did move.

However, the change in pieces explained that. So did the break through seasons for Lowry and Derozan. And so now we're at a very strange place. The Raptors are expected to win the division. They are expected to get to the playoffs, expected to get to the second round of the playoffs. And unlike the Blue Jays, who made a trade and before seeing the results on the field were predicting a World Series appearance, we know this Raptors team will be good. How good, we're not sure. But they play an entertaining, unselfish style, they go two deep at every position, and will grind other teams into the ground with their relentlessness. As a fan, what more can you ask for. (Except for signing Kevin Durant next season. Drake, you there?)

1. What will the Raptors record be?

Almost guaranteed to be in the 44 to 52 range. A lot of prognosticators seem particularly bullish on the Raptors getting to 50 wins. I'm not. The Eastern conference has become more balanced with LeBron's shift to Cleveland and the return of Rose to Chicago, though it clearly remains the weaker conference. Toronto started 6 - 12 before the trade last year, but everything after that went as smoothly as one could imagine. No injuries, other than Johnson's wonky ankles. They had great team chemistry, and everyone accepted their roles. 

Some have suggested that Lowry's breakout was due to a contract year. Or that we're bound to see a dip in play. Nothing we've learned about Lowry has suggested that he will be anything less than he was last year. And Derozan has looked even better in the pre-season, his confidence skyrocketing after making the US World championship squad. 

So where does that leave us? I'm predicting another 48 win season, which in an improved conference with more parity, is actually an upgrade. They'll win the division title and lose in the second round to the Bulls. 

2. Do Lowry or DeRozan make the All-Star team?

Yes. It's a much harder path for Lowry, but if he puts up the numbers in the first half of the season that he had last year, he'll make it. And Derozan is -- depending on Dwayne Wade's health -- the best or second best shooting guard in the East. 

Their record will come into play here, bu their schedule favours a fast start. If they're leading the division with a decent record, say eight or nine games above .500, they'll get two in the game. Thinking back to last year, I still get frustrated thinking about Lowry's exclusion. Here's hoping the fans stop being idiots and voting in a player like Irving. The next time Irving plays defense will be the first time. He's a decent offensive player but the most overrated player in the Eastern Conference, and it's not close. Raptor fans, make sure you vote.
3. Take a guess at the numbers for Ross and Valanciunas

For both players, the steps they need to make won't be found in their individual numbers. (Not the basic stats anyway, in the advanced stats those steps ARE measured. For the purposes of this site, I try to keep the advanced numbers to a minimum, though I'll reference them occasionally.) For JV, his biggest contribution will be on the defensive end. He needs to better on his rotations, he seemed to arrive a step too slow last year. He also needs to play with an edge. Centers in basketball are like centers in football, they need to play smart and mean. He's packed on some muscle and its his third season. Bigs always take longer to develop. I fully expect him to be better this year. And despite that lumbering shot fake, if he develops anything going to his left, he can be a scoring machine down low. I'm saying 15PPG and 10RPG, but watch closely his work on the defensive end.

As for Ross, he's got a great role model in Derozan. I just don't think he has DD's fire. He can shoot it though, and he's got unbelievable athletic ability. Let's see, agains, like JV, what his perimeter defense looks like this year. He can't coast and he can't stop the ball on offense. He needs to hunt his shots and move the ball. I'd like to see 3 assists per game. If he gets to that, you'll know he's moving in the right direction. I'll go with 13 PPG, 2 RPG and 2APG. Again though, it's going to be more nuanced as to marking his improvement this year.

4. What change would you like to see on offense?

Not much. They need to move the ball like they did last year. We'll see how they integrate Lou Williams and James Johnson (who sometimes thinks he's a scoring point guard) and how that affects the chemistry and flow. They also need to get Valunciunas more involved. Last year he saw the ball early and they never went back to him. The young center can score, keep him involved. 

5. What change would you like to see on defense?

Where to begin. Casey is an excellent defensive coach, and he has some new toys this year, particularly James Johnson, who can guard positions 1 - 4. And when Amir Johnson is on the floor, one of the best pick and roll big men defenders in the NBA,  the Raptors are capable of playing elite defense.

Let's see how JV adjusts, and whether Derozan can play at least average defense. Lowry is an excellent defender, and Ross has shown flashes. Their defense will decide what happens this year, because the team can score.

Final thoughts
The Raptors have a chance to be very good. They are one of the deepest teams in the NBA, and the deepest in the Association. If any of their young core takes a significant step forward they'll challenge for one of the top two seeds in the conference. Their schedule, however, somewhat demands they get out to an early start. Which means Casey has to figure out very quickly how his new pieces fit into his rotations. It's a concern, but not a major one. The kids have another year to grow, and the vetrans like Lowry and Derozan won't let this thing get off the rails. In other words, Raptors' fans can prepare for a fun season of solid and enjoyable basketball, and if the chips fall right, they just might find their team in the Conference Finals.