I've decided to break the 2013/14 Toronto Raptors' roster preview down based on what is a clear, determined starting rotation and then a new-look bench unit. Today, we examine the five holdover starters - Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry.
Much of the 'everything is always sunny in the pre-season' media coverage of the team has touted the stability of the club for bringing back a starting five that logged the biggest minutes of any five-man unit for the team last season and also grew to play pretty well together (especially the Gay/DeRozan wing combo) as the season wore down. Sure enough, Basketball Reference shows that the group was significantly above the team average in point differential while on the floor together.
Still, I can't help look at it as the embrace of - at best - mediocrity, returning a unit that might take a few steps forward (more on that in a minute), but ultimately had to be held accountable for some of the blame following a 34-48 season in which they had widely expected to contend for a playoff spot.
I remain on the fence over whether the off-season storyline of "Rudy Gay has corrective eye surgery, so he should shoot better" is comical or legitimately encouraging. I mean, if his shooting does improve significantly, doesn't it seem a little bit crazy that Toronto will have paid about $8 million for half a season of a GUY WHO CAN'T SEE??? That aside, a full season of Gay should allow him to take charge and get comfortable as the club's go-to offensive threat. It is encouraging that in his 33 games after the trade from Memphis, Gay scored at a slightly higher average (19.5 from 17.2) while actually upping his efficiency (42.5% shooting from 40.8). Failing that, there remains the ever-looming possibility of another trade (to see how many potential destinations there are for the 27-year-old, check out Bill Simmon's and Jalen Rose's Grantland video preview series).
It's nothing new for media members (myself included) to breathlessly predict a breakthrough campaign for DeRozan in which he reaches that as-yet-unseen next level. It may never happen, but this pre-season is already offering up some positive signs. There's the 55.9% shooting through three pre-season games, the considerable improvement last season from a disappointing, lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, the improved play during the second half of last season alongside Gay and some indications of DeRozan looking to broaden his game. The suggestion in the FanSided blog about posting up smaller two-guards more goes beyond typical pre-season musing and offers real hope of a young player finding a way to exploit an often-significant size advantage (at 6'7", DeRozan is larger than most shooting guards).
Most hopes for the Raptors' 2013/14 campaign begin and end with the big Lithuanian in the middle. Of course, an impressive summer of international play and a "Summer League Player of the Year" award won't be worth anything if he can't make at least some kind of Year 2 leap following a rookie campaign that was rife with both promise and signs of the big man's inexperience. If we're going to laud Valancunas for the Summer League play, we also have to acknowledge that he hasn't been very good through three pre-season contests, getting thrown around by Nikola Pekovic on Wednesday and managing modest nine-point, 6.7-rebound averages despite logging the second-most minutes on the team. The biggest benefit to the 21-year-old might be the presence of Tyler Hansbrough, who will push him for minutes while also offering all he can handle in practice.
I'm admittedly hard-pressed to find anything new and insightful to say about Johnson's on-court contributions heading into the upcoming season. He is who he is - an energy guy, rebounder and defensive presence who will make himself known by the many hustle plays he offers up on a night-to-night basis. Last season, Johnson embraced the biggest role of his eight-year career and averaged 10 points and 7.5 boards per game. Expect similar numbers in the same role this year (allowing for the possibility of injuries, but Johnson doesn't seem to let injuries get in his way). Off the court, this could be Johnson's season to climb into the pantheon of Raptor fan faves alongside Jerome "JYD" Williams, Morris Peterson, Charles Oakley and Alvin Williams. He's already earning his stripes by being a man of the people in Toronto.
It's difficult to foresee the relationship between Lowry and the Raptors lasting beyond this season, but it will be mutually beneficial for both to make the most of this campaign and put 2012/13 in the rear view mirror. Lowry didn't seem happy or comfortable in Dwane Casey's system last year and his down-from-the-past-two-seasons numbers (11.6 points, 6.4 assists) showed it. This year, both player and coach need to adjust to one another in order to allow for Lowry to take charge and get comfortable with a now-familiar cast of teammates. If all goes well, the pending free agent could be looking at a big pay day as a 27-year-old in a point guard-hungry market. However, I'd be surprised if Lowry and the Raptors organization, armed with a new GM and, quite possibly, a new direction, seek to extend the relationship.
The Raptors Tears His Achilles
Hard to think of any injury this side of Valanciunas that would have inspired the same sadness and disappointment that came about this week when news broke on Wednesday of the beloved Raptor being shelved for the season after tearing his Achilles in Halifax on Saturday.
As someone who has attended the vast majority of home games in recent seasons of some not-very-good Raptor teams, I totally get it. Half the time, the Raptor wasn't the side show so much as he was the show. I had never seen anyone mind even slightly when his handstands on garbage cans would block their sightlines of the game, while his on-court antics at halftime and during timeouts often got some of the loudest receptions of the night. His lack of presence was particularly glaring through much of the team's two ugly home pre-season games. Personally, I was always more impressed by the personality he exuded through the suit than even by his eye-catching acrobatics.
Now comes the hard part for the team - figuring out what to do in his absence. The Mini Raptor will surely be used, but the team can't expect a kid who has served as a cute, fun sideshow to be ready to take over such formidable reins. Likewise for the thought of bringing in any other mascot (they might get booed worse than Andrea Bargnani last night). And yet, the team's Game Ops department also has to know that the Dance Pak, 4 Korners and a few in-game contests won't do nearly enough to make up for the loss of the Raptor.
My suggestion: for a team that isn't likely to be very good, isn't this a good opportunity for management - and marketing-obsessed President & CEO Tim Leiweke - to go big on entertainment? Forget about the halftime high school scrimmages, let's serve up 41 games of halftime fun that include NBA mainstay shows (like the 'quick change' couple) and performers (say, didn't they just hire a Global Ambassador?). And if the Raptor can work his way back to at least roaming the ACC for some pictures, skits and fan interaction, then all the better!