Toronto Raptors NBA season preview: How can they change it up?

Matthew Graham assesses how the Toronto Raptors can improve on a ninth place conference finish last season.

2012/13 Record: 34-48

The middle of the road isn’t a great place to be if you’re an NBA franchise. Finishing 9th or 10th in the Conference leaves a team without any play-off basketball, a very small chance of winning the draft lottery and, most likely, a mid first round draft pick that’s never guaranteed to pan out as a solid NBA player.

10th place is exactly where the Toronto Raptors finished last season and unfortunately for them it looks like they’re headed for exactly the same spot this year. This mid-conference inertia should be Toronto’s biggest concern at the moment.

The Raptors currently possess a decent set of starters. DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay are both premier NBA options on the wing while Jonas Valanciunas showed potential in his rookie season and given time should become a quality center. And while the Raptors should be looking for replacements next year when their contracts run out, Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry are both solid players.

The trouble is that ‘decent’ is all this set of players is. Valanciunas is still a little too young to be relied upon for consistent production and while Lowry and Johnson can both contribute, Toronto should be seeking for a higher calibre of starter. Gay and DeRozan may be fantastic wing players but there games are too similar for them to work as first and second options on the same team.

Between them Gay and DeRozan took 13.7 shots per game from 10-23 feet, the second highest amount of any pair of players on an NBA team. The only pair to take more were Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trailblazers, however these two hit those shots at a rate of 44% compared to Gay and DeRozan’s 36%. This tendency to rely on their mid-range game means that to many inefficient shots are being taken every game.

If we also remember that Toronto’s back up wing is Terrence Ross, a young player in need of minutes to keep his game progressing, it seems that Toronto would be best served by trading one Rudy Gay or DeMar DeRozan for young talent or future draft picks.

While this may seem like an extreme move I believe that a strong argument can be made for trading Rudy Gay. The first thing we can note is that the $17 million the Raptors are paying Gay this year is almost double the salary of the next highest paid team member DeRozan. Shifting this hefty contract would give the Raptors flexibility to build for the future, especially given the fact that Gay has a player option next year that could see $17 million bumped to $19 million. While Gay is arguably a more complete player than DeRozan, neither can serve as a viable first option for a team that is looking to win progress deep into the play-offs and both would function much better as second options and it makes more sense for Toronto to hold on to the younger, cheaper DeRozan. A bonus to losing Gay might even be that they slip down a few places in the East and earn themselves a better spot in next year’s bumper draft and bigger possibility of making Andrew Wiggins’ wish to play his basketball in Canada a reality.

With DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and, hopefully, Terrence Ross, the Raptors could build around a solid young core of players and make themselves relevant again in a few years.

Whether it’s Gay who goes or not, expect the Raptors to make some significant moves over the course of the next year as their recently hired GM, Masai Ujiri, is known for his propensity to change rosters quickly and dramatically. During his time in Denver Ujiri was responsible for shifting Carmelo Anthony to New York, a trade that could arguably be said to have secured Denver’s franchise best season last year.

Ujiri could well be the man who gets the Raptors moving in a distinct direction again, a must for a franchise that hasn’t had a season above .500 in almost six years and is in danger of stagnating.

2013/14 Predicted Record: 33-49

image: © lukes