2/13/14

Raptors First Half Success Has Created New Questions To Be Answered

So we have reached the All-Star Break for the Toronto Raptors. I think it is safe to say that no one predicted where the Raptors find themselves at this point. They have out performed very low expectations that were at first validated by their performance with Rudy Gay as part of this franchise. The change from that trade has been dramatic and altered the outlook for this season and this team’s future dramatically. The debate of if this team should basically join the group of teams playing with the draft in mind died a fast death. What helped end that debate was the under performance of Nets and Knicks in the division.

Kyle Lowry at the time of the Gay trade was next person that was going to be moved. The Raptors basically were in the final stages of cutting a deal with the New York Knicks to move Lowry. In the end the Knicks got gun shy after having Masai Ujiri make them look bad in moves for Carmelo Anthony in Denver and the deal last summer for Andrea Bargnani. The Knicks now have renewed interest in Lowry who has played to an all-star level pretty much from the time the Gay trade was made. It is unlikely we see Lowry get moved at this point which becomes the Raptors new gamble. Instead of gambling on lottery balls they are gambling on Lowry. 

The first gamble is will Lowry even want to remain a Raptor. Sure on the surface all signs seem to suggest he would. History has taught us to be very wary of such things. Tracy McGrady, Chris Bosh and others during final seasons of contracts expressed a willingness to remain in Toronto only to wind up elsewhere at the end of the day.

Lowry is looking for that big contract that will secure his future as a person not a basketball player. He wants to earn the most he possibly can to secure his life beyond his playing days for his family’s future. People can talk all about being on a team that can win and have a chance to be contender but at the end of the day there is not going to be much of a discount for that for Kyle Lowry. Despite his all-star level play it would be highly unlikely this is a guy that is going to see that max offer that is afforded to those considered the NBA Elite.

So you than have to look at this performance and motivation behind that performance and wonder how much of this is about Kyle Lowry improving compared to his motivation to earn the most he possibly can. The Raptors were convinced that Jose Calderon was their future and paid him around 10 million a season. This proved to be a bad investment at the end of the day. The Raptors overpaid expecting the level of play of Calderon to continue to rise and develop and it really did not happen.  So even if the Raptors get Kyle Lowry signed to a deal there will still be questions going forward,if that deal is one that meets his expectations of a big payday, and what the market is likely to offer him.

All of this is important because Kyle Lowry really has been the driving force of this team and the change it has under gone. DeMar DeRozan is a big part of that as well but it is unlikely he would have been able to make this change happen without Lowry. DeRozan, to continue to build on his improvement needs Kyle Lowry, or a point guard of his level, style and ability.

Lowry situation aside this has been a breakout year for DeRozan heading to New Orleans as the Raptors first All-Star since Chris Bosh. His rise to being the Raptors best player has been much different from that of Chris Bosh. When Vince Carter was traded everyone fully expected Bosh to grow and develop into his replacement as the face of the Raptors franchise.

DeRozan has always had to face his critics and doubters even dating back to this past summer. Many were having the debate on which the Raptors should trade once Masai Ujiri took over. People were very critical of one of Bryan Colangelo’s last major decisions as the Raptors G.M by signing DeRozan to an extension that would see him average close to 10 million a season. That deal now looks like one that is a very reasonable contract for a player that is an All-Star in this league.

DeRozan has become a true leader for this team. His improvement speaks for itself. He now has proven to be capable of making a three point shot. It has opened up his game and has allowed him to take advantage of his mid-range skills and ability to drive the basketball. He still needs to improve his dribbling skills and his passing is improving and growing even from the start of the season.

But it is the intangibles of what DeRozan has been doing that has been the most impressive things to me. That anger and frustration of losing being channelled into ways that can help his team win. DeRozan has been scoring baskets when the Raptors need them most. He has been pulling his team together and been vocal when things are not going well. He is accepting and willing to take on the burden of being the guy every time that needs to put up 20 points or more a night for his team to have a chance to win.

DeRozan after winning a game against the Hawks had a smile that was so big and so genuine you couldn’t help but notice it. He has worked so hard to see this team get to a point of being a winner and a team heading to the playoffs. You have to just feel so happy for this young man because he has worked hard and earned this.

Terrence Ross was a major question mark heading into this season. He started the year much like how he performed in Summer League which was a disappointment.  Something happened once Rudy Gay was sent to the Kings and by default Terrence Ross became a starter. He took that opportunity and has run with it. He has been allowed to play through his struggles and plays with less fear that one mistake will be costly and find him on the bench.

He is without question a guy that when he gets hot can have a huge impact. That was on full display in his franchise record tying 51 point performance in a loss to the Clippers. He still has his issues with passing and at times can be brilliant defender and at others look terrible. That said, with added chance to have more time to work through things he has been able to answer the challenge.  Having a solid and consistent defender to insert if needed in John Salmons is something Dwane Casey always has in his back pocket if need be.

If there is a disappointment for the Raptors it has been the play of their big people as a group and of Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson in the starting line-up. At the start of the season no two players suffered more from the selfish play of Rudy Gay than Johnson and Jonas. After a bit of a surge from both after the trade they have fallen back dramatically.

Johnson has been suffering with injury and sat the last two games before the All-Star Break. Tyler Hans rough initially was offsetting some of this lack of performance at the start of the year. He than suffered an injury that kept him out of the line-up for a large portion of 2014 and has not come back with that same fire. He, in addition to that has been somewhat replaced in rotation by Patrick Patterson.

Johnson is a great guy and gives his all but it might make sense for the Raptors to add Patterson to the starting line-up and use Johnson as a reserve. Johnson is a guy that will do whatever it takes to see his team win and if that means playing in the second unit it is not going to impact on his effort.

What has been more of a worry is the play of Jonas Valanciunas which has been dramatically inconsistent. The Raptors really don’t have much in the way of options behind him. Chuck Hayes has done far more than anyone could have expected when he was acquired from the Kings. While that is great and you admire the effort of the undersized veteran in his play on defence, and his battling on the boards, it is not what the Raptors want ideally.

Jonas has had his issues defensively and his offensive game has been to say the least erratic. Heading down the stretch the Raptors will be hoping to see the guy that has shown glimpses of being a cornerstone at the position for years to come. It is kind of ironic that he has almost had an opposite journey in comparison to Terrence Ross with both in their second season. Jonas was the talk of Las Vegas Summer League and was the MVP of the league for his play. He entered the season with a lot of expectations and he really hasn’t lived up to them. Yet he is the guy that will be playing Friday in the Rookie/Sophomore game at all-star weekend. Ross will not be in that game but defending his Dunk title from a year ago on Saturday.

The Raptors have gotten a lot from the players that came back in Rudy Gay trade. The Raptors did lose both Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray in the deal as well. That said, they were not really big parts of the Raptors rotation. While all the players that came from the Kings have been a huge part of giving the Raptors a bench that they were sorely lacking prior to the trade.

 In a touch of Irony, Vasquez, who at the time of the trade was thought to be the most interest piece coming back has been perhaps the most underwhelming. Patterson as mentioned has been the biggest contributor and has really been big for the Raptors in some games and been a big difference between winning and losing. Salmons and Hayes have been helpful in trying to keep this defensive system working. Raptors defensive play has been concerning of late and really has not been to the level it was the month to six weeks after the Rudy Gay trade.

As happy and unexpected as this Raptors season has been there are signs of this team not playing as well as it did in that stretch after the trade. There is also a lot of concern for the future of this group beyond this season and that goes back to the whole Lowry situation. The Raptors hold all the cards on everyone else that matters. The problem is that Lowry is the wild card in this whole collection that makes it all work. It is hard to figure out what the Raptors would do as plan B without him going into next season. What is even harder to predict, is if he stays, if he will maintain this level of play?

I’ve seen the Raptors make the playoffs. I have seen the Raptors make it to the second round. What I haven’t seen is the Raptors have a team that grows into a consistent contender in the Eastern Conference. While many are excited about the prospect of the Raptors returning to the playoffs I am not among them. I am happy for the guys that have worked hard for this for them like DeRozan and Johnson. Still for me it is about that larger picture and this being able to be maintained.

The reality is the East may have hit rock bottom and never be this bad ever again. A draft class that his filled with talent that at the start of the year was the focus for many on how the Raptors would rebuild into contender, will now be finding homes with other teams in the Eastern Conference. A couple of those being Canadians as well which on some level is disappointing that they will not be Raptors anytime soon.

The Raptors have fooled us a few times in their history into believing the future for this franchise was bright. This has all the feelings of those times and has the potential to have the same disappointing results. That is not what anyone wants to hear right now but it is in fact the case even if you don’t want to see it.

The major difference from the past is the people running the show. Tim Lieweke and Masai Ujiri both are guys that have some reason to have earned some respect. That said they face the same challenges that other smart people the Raptors have had guiding this ship have faced. It is easy to tear apart what Glen Grunwald and later Bryan Colangelo tried to do with the benefit of retrospect. They at the time when the Raptors were riding high had just has much faith and hope invested in them. The challenge for Masai and Lieweke is to reward fans for that faith and hope where others in the past have failed. It will not be easy to do that and if you think it will be than perhaps you need to lay off the kool-aid that is in huge supply with the Raptors unexpected rise this season.

It really comes down to if you are satisfied with this team just being decent or having a higher goal in mind of contending for championships. If the goal is to be one of the teams to in hunt to win a title the Raptors are still very far from that with lots of roadblocks and questions to be answered for that to be realistic. 

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