Toronto Raptors: 2016-17 Season Outlook

The Toronto Raptors are coming off the best season in their franchise’s history, but can they build on it? Here’s a look at their 2016-17 season preview.

Toronto Raptors

Apr 1, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) and guard DeMar DeRozan (10) look on during the second half against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum. Toronto beat Memphis 99-95. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

For a fanbase that’s had very little to cheer for over its 21-year history, the Toronto Raptors have no reason to feel ashamed as they come off the most successful season in franchise history.

They won a franchise-record 56 games, made it all the way to the conference finals for the first time, and took the eventual NBA champions to six games before bowing out against a superior opponent.

And yet, heading into 2016-17, the Raptors face the same questions every surprise success story in NBA history has had to face: Where do we go from here?

Toronto took care of their biggest priority this offseason by re-signing DeMar DeRozan to a gaudy contract, making it that much harder for Kyle Lowry to leave next summer when he opts out of the final year of his deal.

They failed to upgrade the power forward spot that’s badly needed one for years now, however, and at what point does general manager Masai Ujiri feel this core has hit its ceiling? Is it before re-signing Lowry to a massive deal, or after a potential extension seals their fate for the long haul?

The Raptors have continuity going for them, but no one in their right minds will be picking them to overtake a healthy Cleveland Cavaliers team this season. In fact, Toronto could be due for some regression after so many things went right last year.

What should we expect from We The North in 2016-17? Here’s a preview and predictions for the Toronto Raptors’ upcoming season.

2015-16 Vitals

56-26, 1st in Atlantic Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference
102.7 PPG (14th)/98.2 OPP PPG (3rd)
110.0 Offensive Rating (5th)/105.2 Defensive Rating (11th)

Team Leaders
Scoring: DeMar DeRozan, 23.5 PPG
Rebounding: Jonas Valanciunas, 9.1 RPG
Assists: Kyle Lowry, 6.4 APG
Steals: Kyle Lowry, 2.1 SPG
Blocks: Bismack Biyombo, 1.6 BPG

Honors
Third Team All-NBA: Kyle Lowry

Toronto Raptors

Oct 1, 2016; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward Jared Sullinger (0) lines up to shoot as Golden State Warriors Guard Ian Clark (21) defends in the third quarter at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17 Roster

Bruno Caboclo, SF
DeMarre Carroll, SF
Drew Crawford, SG
DeMar DeRozan, SG
Brady Heslip, SG
Cory Joseph, PG
Kyle Lowry, PG
Yanick Moreira, C
Lucas Nogueira, C
Patrick Patterson, PF
Jakob Poeltl, C
Norman Powell, SG
Terrence Ross, SF
Pascal Siakam, SF
E.J. Singler, SF
Jared Sullinger, PF/C
Jarrod Uthoff, PF
Jonas Valanciunas, C
Fred VanVleet, PG
Delon Wright, PG

Offseason Additions
Drew Crawford (free agency, Bnei Herzliya {Israel}), Brady Heslip (free agency, Acqua Vitasnella Cantu {Italy}), Yanick Moreira (free agency, UCAM Murcia {Spain}), Jakob Poeltl (9th overall draft pick, Utah), Pascal Siakam (27th overall draft pick, New Mexico State), E.J. Singler (free agency, unsigned), Jared Sullinger (free agency, Boston Celtics), Jarrod Uthoff (free agency, undrafted), Fred VanVleet (free agency, undrafted)

Offseason Subtractions
Bismack Biyombo (free agency, Orlando Magic), James Johnson (free agency, Miami Heat), Luis Scola (free agency, Brooklyn Nets), Jason Thompson (free agency, Shandong Golden Stars {China}),

Quick Thoughts

Toronto’s largest offseason priority — re-signing DeMar DeRozan — was quickly accomplished in the form of a five-year, $139 million extension. This locks in the East’s best backcourt for at least another year, ensuring the Raptors are still in the pseudo-contender category in 2016-17.

Unfortunately, paying that much money, even as a necessary evil to retain a talented shooting guard who would’ve been irreplaceable on the open market, limited what the Raptors were able to do with the rest of their free agency. They were never in the running for Kevin Durant, and their best solution to an ongoing position of need was signing Jared Sullinger.

Sullinger will help the Raptors on the glass, and he still has some upside at age 24. But he won’t replace Bismack Biyombo’s shot-blocking in the middle, nor is he the long-term solution this team needs at the 4.

Rookie Jakob Poeltl is one of the more underrated players in this year’s draft class, but even with him, a promising Norman Powell and overall continuity on their side, it still feels like the Raptors are a major piece away from being able to truly challenge Cleveland for the Eastern crown.

Toronto Raptors

Oct 19, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) passes the ball during the first quarter against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Three Key Storylines: 1. JV Needs A Varsity Season

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the foundation of this franchise, but the 24-year-old Jonas Valanciunas was frequently pegged as the future during their rise to prominence. Without a breakout season to his name, however, those talks have sort of died down.

Over the last three seasons, JV has averaged around 12 points and just under nine rebounds per game, slightly improving those numbers in pretty much every season. Unfortunately, the growth hasn’t been quite as exponential as most were hoping, and with Lowry and DeRozan dominating the team’s shot selection, Valanciunas has yet to reach is ceiling as a 20-10 guy.

You can hardly argue with the results, since Toronto has gotten better and better over the last three seasons, culminating in a conference finals appearance last season. But with Lowry and DeRozan both enjoying career seasons in the process, it may be unlikely to expect a similar outcome in 2016-17.

With Lowry being 30 and DeRozan possibly peaking with last year’s 24-5-4 stat line, a breakout year from Valanciunas would be a great way to push the envelope in the East, or at the very least, avoid the possibility of regression.

The only problem is, Valanciunas’ defense often makes it hard for head coach Dwane Casey to trust him in late-game situations, regardless of the way he’s carried Toronto at times through their last two playoff runs. That trend may need to change with Biyombo gone, but it may also be exacerbated playing alongside a defensively limited power forward like Sullinger.

Can the Raptors alter their reliance on the backcourt and feed Valanciunas a bit more on the interior? Only time will tell, but until JV makes the leap to a varsity kind of season, the Raptors might just keep banging their heads on the same ceiling.

Toronto Raptors

Oct 1, 2016; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll (5) dribbles down court against Golden State Warriors in the third quarter at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

Three Key Storylines: 2. How Can Toronto Get Over The Hump?

Rewind all the way back to the Rudy Gay trade in 2013 and you’ll have a hard time finding anyone who believed that move would suddenly unlock Toronto’s potential.

Ujiri intended it to be the first of many moves to strip down and rebuild the franchise, but then a funny thing happened — the Raptors won 41 of their next 63 games, winning a then franchise-record 48 games and making the playoffs as the No. 3 seed. Ever since then, their gradual ascension been a feel-good story in the East.

The problem, however, is that Ujiri may be situated between a rock and a hard place now, forced to reconcile the fan base’s love for the greatest team in its franchise’s history with the sinking sensation that unless Toronto can add another star player, they may have already reached their ceiling.

The Cavs aren’t going anywhere and barring injuries, are far better. The Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons are teams on the rise who could seriously challenge Toronto within a year or two, and by the time LeBron’s prime is over, the Raptors’ window may have already closed.

That’s not to say their fate is inevitable, however. Perhaps Ujiri could find a way to swing a trade for the missing link at power forward. We’ve already heard reports that LaMarcus Aldridge is unhappy in San Antonio, and every year star players around the league grow disgruntled.

Or maybe free agency is the answer. Perhaps Blake Griffin seriously considers leaving Los Angeles next summer if the Clippers fall short again. Maybe Paul Millsap takes his talents north, or Serge Ibaka leaves after a lone season in Orlando.

Most likely though, the solution isn’t coming this season. Toronto would have to give up a considerable amount of assets to entice the Spurs, even if they are seriously contemplating an Aldridge trade, while the Raptors would have to balance Lowry’s free agency with the courtship of guys like Griffin, Ibaka and Millsap.

As Lowry himself said, Toronto’s best chance of getting over that Cavs hump is securing home-court advantage. Hoping one (or both) of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love is banged up and throwing defender after defender at LeBron James to try and slow him down would be the next step.

Having Carroll healthy for more than 26 games should help with that, as would a breakout season from JV. But as of right now, the Raptors are still playing for second-best in the East.

Toronto Raptors

Sep 26, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Toronto Raptors guards DeMar DeRozan (10) and Kyle Lowry (7) pose for pictures during media day at BioSteel Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Three Key Storylines: 3. Fighting Regression

To be perfectly honest, the Raptors are about as likely to regress in 2016-17 as they are to take another surprising step forward. Coming off a 56-win season and a conference finals appearance, it’d be very easy to fall short of that same kind of success this year.

The Celtics could be a legitimate threat to Toronto’s standing as second-best in the East after adding Al Horford. Lowry and DeRozan struggled to prove to anyone that they truly exorcised their playoff demons during a very shaky run to the conference finals, and JV’s inconsistent role on offense really limits his ceiling on a backcourt-heavy team.

That backcourt is the Raptors’ greatest source of strength, but Lowry is now 30 years old. Even in a contract year, isn’t it reasonable to expect him to take a slight step back after averaging 21.2 points, 6.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game in a career year? After all, Lowry has become notorious for running out of steam late in the season and his subsequent playoff duds.

DeRozan is still only 27, but his defensive woes and continuing lack of a three-point shot limit how effective he can be. He’s basically a less efficient, less dynamic version of James Harden at this point, with nearly one-third of his points coming from the foul line and his defense weighing the team down on the other end.

In a career-best season, DeRozan put up 23.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. After earning that massive pay day and with all the good vibes surrounding this team, isn’t it possible Toronto takes a step back this year? It’s hard to stay motivated when the fan base is just happy to be there.

Barring Valanciunas and Norman Powell making the leap, DeMarre Carroll unexpectedly transforming this team into contenders, or a blockbuster trade from Ujiri, it’s entirely possible the Raptors’ star backcourt won’t be enough to prevent regression in an improving Eastern Conference.

Toronto Raptors

Oct 13, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) looks to make a move on Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson (13) in the third quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Best-Case Scenario

The Raptors stay hungry and against all odds, Lowry and DeRozan again turn in career seasons. A healthy DeMarre Carroll makes a world of difference on a night-to-night basis, providing Toronto with the 3-and-D consistency on the wing they could’ve used last year.

Valanciunas helps pick up the slack on the nights when the shots aren’t falling for Lowry and DeRozan, and although he doesn’t have a breakout 20-10 kind of season, he puts up a respectable 15 points and 10 boards a night while shoring up a bit on the defensive end.

With the Cavaliers resting their Big Three more during the regular season and Toronto dead-set on that No. 1 seed, We The North secures home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

They officially bury all the playoff narratives by advancing to the NBA Finals, albeit over a banged-up Cavs side, before losing to a superior Warriors or Spurs squad in the championship series. This success makes them appealing to free agents, which helps them finally lure the star upgrade at power forward they’ve needed all along.

Worst-Case Scenario

Carroll once again struggles to stay healthy, making it challenging for the Raptors to develop a lasting rhythm by the time the playoffs arrive. Valanciunas once again shows only marginal improvement, and the Cavs don’t rest their Big Three as often as expected.

Lowry and DeRozan both struggle to replicate their career years in 2015-16, and with the playoff field in the East more competitive than last season, Toronto slides to fourth in the standings with around 47 wins.

With the star backcourt once again struggling as soon as the playoff lights turn on, the Raptors are ousted in the first round of the postseason, leaving Lowry’s long-term future in Toronto in doubt and prompting Ujiri to think long and hard about whether it’s time to give up on this current core and start anew.

Toronto Raptors

Mar 14, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (7) talks with forward Patrick Patterson (54) and guard DeMar DeRozan (10) and guard Norman Powell (24) and forward Jason Thompson (1) during the first half against the Chicago Bulls at Air Canada Centre. The Bulls beat the Raptors 109-107. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Predictions

Lowry and DeRozan will have a hard time building on career years in 2015-16, but they’ll still be All-Star caliber point guards who run the show in Toronto and lead a very successful playoff outfit back to the East’s No. 2 seed.

Valanciunas won’t have the breakout season we’ve been waiting for, but he’ll put up around 13 and 10 per game. Meanwhile, Carroll staying healthy helps overshadow some slight regression from Toronto’s backcourt duo.

Terrence Ross fails to take the next step forward, but Norman Powell rises to the occasion, Jakob Poeltl contributes in his limited action off the bench and Dwane Casey somehow manages to make that Sullinger-JV frontcourt duo passable on the defensive end.

With Toronto gobbling up rebounds and the backcourt doing their thing, the Raptors win about 53 games and make it to the second round of the playoffs before falling to a Celtics team peaking at the right time.

Because Ujiri is unable to swing a trade for a star power forward, the franchise faces some tough decisions about Lowry’s next contract and what path this franchise needs to take in order to seriously challenge Cleveland and Boston in the East.

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