WHAT THEY TRIED IN 2017-18
To win a championship: Cleveland waxed too topsy-turvy and Boston wasn’t there yet, Toronto could mix its own impressive acquaintance with the most compelling parts of the club’s emerging bench to do what was needed. Establish DeMar DeRozan as a Raptor without peer, the sort of scorer and trademark that you can rely on to spin for 25 points and the right thing to say (with the series locked up at 2-2). Rush an entire front office’s worth of athletic wings at the man who passed the ball to where it hurt the most: TV’s LeBron James.
WHAT HAPPENED IN 2017-18
59-23, best record in the East, swept by Cavaliers in Eastern semifinals.
The team peaked well before any lead was safe. A 7-6 slide to end the regular season put the scuttle on 60 wins, a number the locker room hoped was an inessential landing spot. Early spring losses in Boston and Cleveland highlighted what we wanted to ignore all along: Toronto just didn’t have the pull in the fourth quarter. The odometer scrolled back to zeroes in the postseason — the Raptors weren’t outclassed, far from it, this roster just wasn’t going to be the one to do it.
OFFSEASON INS AND OUTS
Here: Kawhi Leonard (trade with San Antonio), Danny Green (San Antonio), $5 million (San Antonio), Greg Monroe (free agent, a year at $2.2 million), Kay Felder (free agent, a year at $1.2 million), Kyle Collinsworth (free agent), Eric Moreland (free agent), Jordan Loyd (free agent), Chris Boucher (free agent).
Gone: DeMar DeRozan (trade with San Antonio), Jakob Poeltl (trade with San Antonio), Lucas Nogueria (Spanish League), Alfonzo McKinnie (Warriors).
The Raptors parted ways with 2017-18 Coach of the Year Dwane Casey in the offseason, eventually hiring former Toronto assistant Nick Nurse as its lead after a month-long search.
PLAN FOR 2018-19
Win a championship. Dwane Casey earned the right to continue to build upon the structure that he sweated through, his equity counted, but the franchise wants a smaller menu and a season-long focus focus on today’s special:
Unbound by the expectations of the previous administrators, the Raptors are going to run smaller and leaner and slicker, taller voices beyond the backcourt’s will speak up. Masai Ujiri doesn’t just want his pet projects to play, he wants them to steer.
HOPE FOR 2018-19
His conditions beyond July speak for themselves: Kawhi doesn’t poke the palaver tuned to his future free agency. Leonard instead prefers digging into the corners that used to provide him solace, the court where everything gets to go away, the home he didn’t have last year.
Everyone is a year older, a major turn: Jonas Valanciunas defending with dignity the honor of his position since Day One, O.G. Anunoby strings along each of those five tools and more at age 21, the loads of swingmen hit from deep and Kyle Lowry stays the same, man, he sticks to the same stool.
FREAK FOR 2018-19
Lowry, 33 in April, shows his age: Toronto can handle his slides better than ever before but the drink is so much harder to enjoy (now that the straw is in street clothes).
The Raptors keep fouling, Nurse’s defense leaves the group confused. What were once “chats” have now become “conversations,” new coach Nick has to do all the talking for the first time in his professional career. The Raptors impress with midgame options again but something stays missing, Leonard’s scoring capabilities down the stretch of close games routinely disappoint: Ujiri didn’t give up a pick and and All-Star and a good 7-footer to see Fred VanVleet take center stage with two possessions left.
COME ON MAN LOOK AT
Look at this package. If Greg Monroe gets the ball down low and the eight other guys on the court collectively decide to stop moving and watch, the man becomes unstoppable.
Especially if you have a Zeller on your team, or any pivotman with a similar upbringing — if your reserve center is named “Braeden,” this second quarter is OVER.
C: Jonas Valanciunas — embarrassed himself in the playoffs by raising his averages against superior competition to 14.6 points and 10.5 boards, 1.5 blocks and over an assist by routine in only 24 minutes a contest. His rebound rates — offensive, defensive, overall — led all postseason participants. Guy is fuckin’ good.
PF: O.G. Anunoby — got the reps in with those 62 starts last season, taking well over half his shots from distance and splishiddy’ing at 37.1 percent. It helps to have role models: Anunoby was working on this sort of assimilation even as an 18-year Hoosier, the young man hasn’t cared about a basketball position in his life. Casey’s commitment to sweating through O.G.’s rookie mistakes will pay off handsomely, we just hope the check cuts this season.
SF: Kawhi Leonard — his quadriceps setbacks were real, for the first few months at least, Kawhi will be counted upon rather heavily in this first year with Toronto and the Raptors are going to have to mind the muscles that we presume have blood flowing through them. The MVP talk is appropriate, Leonard can play each position very well.
SG: Danny Green — doesn’t come free from quirks, the Raptors wouldn’t have it any other way. We hope Danny doesn’t get lost in the shuffle this (age 31) season, he’s our best shot at explaining what Bryant Stith was like.
PG: Kyle Lowry — touch in the middle-paint deserted him last season so Lowry fell back upon what he knew: Kyle’s second-best friend after DeMar is the defensive board.
THERE WILL BE A BENCH
C: Serge Ibaka — should find a new energy and confidence in a spot that ain’t slumming. Ibaka’s not only going to be better than the second-tier guys he’ll point up against, the ten-year vet will also be significantly savvier in comparison to the corps surrounding him. That wasn’t the case the last time he came off the bench, as a pup back in 2009-10.
G: Fred VanVleet — apt at this role and deserves a healthier shot at it in the postseason. Fred’s proud to be a 41 percent three-point shooter after two NBA seasons, very impressive considering how heavy the ball is for him.
G: Lorenzo Brown — N.C. State battler won an MVP in the NBA’s minor league, the Raptors can’t get enough bulldogs.
G: Jordan Loyd — hybrid guard worked well in overseas and minor league stints, University of Indianapolis product is not a pure passer (but this is the Raptors).
G: Malachi Richardson — I don’t yet know what it is he does.
F/C: Chris Boucher — still has grill marks from his time on the Warriors, grew up (very much so) in Montreal and should find haven at Serge Ibaka’s side.
G: Delon Wright — weird sorta athlete, we really don’t know what sort of run he’d pitch as lead guard, mini-Kawhi now has the real thing to learn from.
G: Kay Felder — former LeBron teammate is used to the trip up and down from farm club to Show, he’ll be able to guide the many, many other Raptors that will be on the same flight this season, that shit’s important. DeMar reminded us that we can’t do it alone, it’s always better when someone else is there.
F: Deng Adel — only 21 after three years at Louisville, undrafted despite superior length and solid all-around numbers as a Cardinal, small forward will have to locate a professional kick to help distinguish himself.
F: Pascal Siakum — wants to play fancy and we wanna let him, Pascal’s eyes light up when it’s time for the extra pass that nobody (not even Fred VanVleet) saw coming. Third year should be big fun for Toronto’s most power forward’y power forward.
G: Norman Powell — popped in the thigh during preseason, exhibition season, Norman will have a tuff road ahead trying to win back the minutes Casey loved to lend him.
G: Kyle Collingsworth — ex-Maverick and training camp invite is a good athlete at guard but already 27.
C: Greg Monroe — (the 28-year old is a wicked passer and underutilized scoring center and I’m duly excited to see his turn on this team.)
C: Eric Moreland — big butt, smile.
G/F: C.J. Miles — the bark that you want on a team, from the part of Dallas that doesn’t let up.
60-22, second in the East.
LET’S WATCH THIS
He really was a rec league transplant.
Doesn’t get the respect he deserves on one end, didn’t even ask to play full-court in the first damn place, responds by shoving 20-footers and flailing runners upstream.
Says “yeah” when he means “OK,” says “yeah” when he means “fuck you,” says “yeah” when revenge becomes his.
Next up: Houston.
Previously: CLEVELAND, INDIANA, MINNESOTA, MILWAUKEE, MEMPHIS, OKLAHOMA CITY (free!), SAN ANTONIO, NEW ORLEANS, DETROIT, LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS, LOS ANGELES LAKERS (free!), DALLAS, CHICAGO, ATLANTA (free!), PHOENIX, UTAH, PHILADELPHIA, SACRAMENTO, CHARLOTTE.
(More to come.)