The Runner Sports

3 Big Questions For The Raptors This Season

The Toronto Raptors have been one of the most successful teams in the NBA since 2013. They have made the playoffs with a top-4 seed in the East each of the last four seasons. They have had at least one All-Star in all of those seasons and have advanced past the first round in the past two playoffs. Toronto has also grown as a basketball city, with the game’s popularity growing to new heights with the Raps’ success in the NBA.

This year, they have stiffer competition, starting with division rivals the Boston Celtics. Cleveland made some changes as well, and as long as they have LeBron James, will always be the favorite in the East. Washington has another year of improvement under them, and their own superstar in John Wall. Milwaukee is lurking, and could become the next big thing. Even Philadelphia seems like a tougher opponent for the first time in years.

Toronto is going to have some questions to answer this year, but these are the three that I think will define their season:

1. Which young guys will make a jump?

I’m not sure how many Raptors fans actually watched the preseason opener against the Clippers Sunday, but whoever did was probably drooling over this take by Norman Powell:

Now, we’ve seen this before with young Raptors players. They’re known for getting athletic guys who show potential and then inexplicably don’t make the jump to big-time contributors. Terrence Ross, James Johnson, Sonny Weems; Raptors fans can all name a few off the top of their heads. All of them had bunnies just like Powell, but never really became the guy that many hoped they would.

Norm is the most likely candidate to make a leap for this team, and boy does he look promising. His handle looked a bit tighter last night, which was something he noticeably needed to work on. He’s been inconsistent from long range since he came into the league, so if that doesn’t change, strong takes like the one above are going to be huge for him and the team. If Norm can make himself into a reliable offensive piece, he might be the two-way player the Raptors have needed on the wing for years.

Lucas Nogueira, Delon Wright, and Jakob Poeltl are going to be getting some big minutes off the bench, and Dwane Casey will have 82 games to determine who can be counted on in the playoffs. Wright looks bigger and stronger each year and has shown some serious finishing potential at the rim. He also has the tools to be a long, versatile defender, and that will come in handy against top offensive teams like Cleveland and Boston.

Nogueira, Pascal Siakam, and Poeltl are young bigs who can do a variety of things well, but are flawed. Nogueira with his quickness, or lack thereof, and Siakam/Poeltl are limited outside of the restricted area on offense. Any of these guys could take a step up this year, and if one of them do, the Raptors are going to be much more dangerous. The smart money is on Powell or Wright being that guy.

2. How hot are Dwane Casey’s pants?

No, not because I think he’s a liar or his pants are on fire, but the seat under him has flipped between lukewarm and “THIS GUY IS A TOTAL SCRUB HOW DOES HE HAVE A JOB IN THE NBA?!” at least 10 times since he became the coach. It’s hard to believe that the team had made the playoffs a grand total of five times before Casey came onto the scene. In 2014, they began a stretch which has easily been the most successful in the history of the team. Fans can be the harshest critics, unfortunately, and now nothing but an extended playoff run will suffice.

Casey has been touted as a defensive-minded coach since day one, and the results of his expertise have been mixed. Take a look at the Raptors’ finishes in Defensive Rating the last 5 seasons, according to Basketball Reference:

2012-13: 22nd

2013-14: 10th

2014-15: 25th

2015-16: 11th

2016-17: 11th

That is a mixed bag if I’ve ever seen one. The offense has been a roller coaster ride too, especially in the postseason. C.J. Miles should help with some outside shooting, and Serge Ibaka being with them all season will make an impact as well. These are theoretical though, and Casey will be on the fans’, and perhaps management’s naughty list if the Raptors have a disappointing playoff experience.

3. Can the Starting Lineup be Elite?

The last few seasons, the Raptors have experimented with different starters, such as Luis Scola, Pascal Siakam, and Tyler Hansbrough. The dirty little secret of the team’s success in the regular season has been that their bench has absolutely feasted on weaker units for years. Ever since the Rudy Gay trade, depth has been a calling card that makes the Raps a tougher regular season team than most.

Why is that a problem you ask? Well, the starting lineup has been run of the mill, to say the least, even though they have an All-Star backcourt. There’s a reason the team took Scola out the starting unit in the playoffs, or why Siakam was super-glued to the bench once Ibaka came along last season.

In the postseason, when teams are better, and playing each other multiple times in a row, the starters inevitably get more minutes. So the Raps’ bench advantage is not able to help them much, and they’ve struggled to adjust. Casey has tried a variety of adjustments, again, with mixed results. They stumbled on a great unit in 2016 (due to a Jonas Valanciunas injury), centered by Bismack Biyombo. I mean, has the ACC been louder for a basketball game than this?

The starters, led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, need to find that chemistry again if they want to succeed in the playoffs this year. The East has improved in that top 4, and the Bucks and Sixers are coming. Toronto has been jogging in place for the last couple years, and they need to solidify the top unit if they are looking to go deep into May again.

If all turns out well, they could do just that. But keep these major points in mind when watching them this year, because they are going to be as important as anything in determining how well the team performs. If not, fans will spend another year waiting for Bruno Caboclo to check in during garbage time.