It’s that time of year again: the NBA season is about to begin. Last season, the Toronto Raptors finished 51–31, which was good enough to lock up their second straight 50-win season and third place status in the Eastern Conference. Their impressive regular season success, however, didn’t translate in the playoffs in the way fans were hoping for.
After a tough six-game series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Raptors advanced to play a familiar foe in LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. While many were hoping for a competitive rematch, LeBron and company had different ideas: they swept them in four games.
After a long offseason, the Raptors were able to re-sign core team members Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell in hopes of climbing the Eastern Conference ladder.
Despite many players returning to the franchise in 2017, one familiar face won’t be back. The Raptors traded DeMarre Carroll and two 2018 draft picks to the Brooklyn Nets for Justin Hamilton.
After the trade was completed, Carroll told Postmedia, “I feel like a lot of guys didn’t trust each other, and a lot of guys, they didn’t feel like other guys could produce.” Raptors team President Masai Ujiri dismissed the comments and said that he takes them “with a grain of salt.” While many fans were also quick to dismiss Carroll’s comments, the numbers never lie — if we look at Toronto’s on-court stats, his statement seems to hold true.
The Raptors ranked dead last in assist percentage per game last season and were ranked second in isolation basketball. It’s easy to come to the incorrect conclusion that, since the Raptors won 51 games last year, their system works. You might be able to get away with playing isolation basketball during the regular season, but against tougher teams night in and night out during the playoffs, you need to be able to rely on other players.
The numbers show this to be true: the Raptors’ offensive rating ranked sixth in the regular season, while in the playoffs it was ranked third worst. Essentially, the Raptors were too predictable in the playoffs, which was almost their downfall against the Bucks, who ranked first in defense ratings in the playoffs, and it was certainly their downfall against the Cavaliers. Ujiri did try to address the team’s offensive woes by acquiring sharpshooter CJ Miles and drafting OG Anunoby. These additions add versatility to the wings and three-point shooting that is vital to making a deep run in the playoffs.
There’s been a lot of talk about how the Eastern Conference has become less competitive over the past decade, though with all the moves made this summer, you could argue that the notion is a thing of the past. The blockbuster trade of the summer happened between the top two teams in the east last year, the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The trade centred around star guards Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas. It’s too early to tell who won this trade, but we know that it gives Boston the star power they were looking for and Cleveland the depth they were lacking. For the Raptors, this means that their strongest competitors last year arguably got even better.
While many teams have decided to wait out the Golden State Warriors era in basketball, there are still some teams in the west that are competing and changing up their rosters in the hopes of taking down this dynasty.
Oklahoma City Thunder made the biggest splash this offseason by adding all-stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony; the Houston Rockets added Chris Paul to pair with James Harden; the Minnesota Timberwolves added Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler to their young core; and the San Antonio Spurs added Rudy Gay to add depth to their roster.
For the Raptors, the road to the finals is a long one. But the key to their success this year is moving the ball a lot more on offense. With a full training camp and preseason to get familiar with one another, it’s important that trust is built between players.