The Raptors blew up their roster early in the season, prompting many to believe they were tanking to retool through the draft. However, the move only helped galvanise their roster and Toronto made their first playoff appearance since 2008. They have several key decisions to make in the offseason, but are in a great position to return to become postseason regulars.
Boasting several elite athletes, a savvy veteran point guard and some promising frontcourt prospects, the Raptors had their eye on a return to the postseason as early as last offseason.
However, Toronto’s season got off to an unimpressive start, as they struggled to a 7-12 record, prompting them to make a drastic change to their roster.
After only 51 games north of the border, Toronto decided it was time to part ways with swingman Rudy Gay.
And while many thought it signalled the waving of the white flag, the Raptors became a better team for it.
Gay was shipped to the Sacramento Kings with Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray for Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez, a move that was the catalyst for Toronto’s dramatic change of fortunes.
After stumbling to that 7-12 start, the Raps went 41-22 over the remainder of the season and secured the third seed in the Eastern Conference – Toronto’s first playoff appearance since 2008.
While the absence of Gay removed an element of star power from the roster, it also made room for others on the team to improve as it freed up shots for others and encouraged a smoother offence.
Toronto also developed into a top-10 defensive team, finishing the year seventh in points allowed against (98.0) per game and 10th for defensive efficiency (105.3) – up from 17th (98.7) and 22nd (107.5) respectively the season before.
Unfortunately, the Raptors dream run came to an abrupt end at the hands of the lower-seeded, veteran-packed Brooklyn Nets, bowing out 3-4 to the NBA’s most expensive franchise.
However, the season was far from a failure for the Raps.
Toronto continued to develop an exciting young core and won only their second Atlantic Division crown. It took them five years to make it back to the playoffs, but it shouldn’t take them that long to rejoin the postseason party again.
In a contract year, Kyle Lowry was an integral part of the Raptors improvement. All-Star selectors favoured the high-flying DeMar DeRozan when it came to casting votes, but there was a legitimate case to be made for Lowry to have earned that spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
In his second season with the team, Lowry finished the year averaging 17.9 points, 7.4 assists (seventh in the league) and 1.5 steals (20th) per night – all career-bests.
Jonas Valanciunas (11.3 points at 53.1% from the floor [15th in the NBA] and 8.8 rebounds), Amir Johnson (10.4 points at 56.2% [fifth in the L] and 6.6 rebounds), Terrence Ross (10.9 points, 39.5% 3FG) and Patterson (9.1 points, 41.1% 3FG and 5.1 rebounds) were also influential to Toronto’s success.
Most Valuable Player
When the explosive DeRozan signed a four-year, $38 million (plus incentives) contract extension in 2012, many eyebrows were raised around the league.
Fast-forward two years and Toronto’s evaluation of the former USC Trojan has definitely been vindicated.
After the Gay deal, DeRozan thrived as the team’s primary scorer, averaging 22.7 points (10th in the league), 4.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game – all career-highs. The scoring is nice, and DeRozan shot over 30.0% from downtown for the first time in his career (30.5% 3FG), but the rebounds and assists are the icing on the cake for a player that had previously been labeled as ‘just a scorer’.
As mentioned above, DeRozan was chosen ahead of the impressive Lowry to represent the Raptors at the All-Star game – the first selection of his five-year career.
DeRozan took a huge step forward as a scorer this season, continuing to be aggressive and attacking the basket with reckless abandon throughout the year.
This season, DeRozan was amongst the league’s leaders in both free throw attempts and makes (sixth and fourth respectively – better than LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George), getting to the line almost three more times every game than his previous career-high – 8.0 attempts to 5.3.
DeRozan also played the third-most minutes in the league, behind only Kevin Durant and Monta Ellis, showing great leadership and endurance.
Toronto fans have been thirsting for a star player since the egregious exits of Vince Carter and Chris Bosh.
DeMar DeRozan is ready to be that player.
Shoutout to Drake and his lint roller, but Toronto’s biggest game-changer was the early season trade that sent Gay to Sacramento.
When the Raptors parted ways with Gay, many thought it signalled their intention to prepare for the draft and make a move for Canadian native Andrew Wiggins.
However, sending Gay to Sacramento proved to be the turning point in the Raptors’ season and the catalyst for their return to the postseason.
Gay needed the ball in his hands to be effective and was never an efficient scorer during his short Canadian stint. Removing him from the roster gave the Raps’ offence greater fluidity and created opportunities for growth and development for their younger stars.
DeRozan thrived with greater freedom in Toronto’s offence, improving his production to 23.0 points (up from 21.6), 4.5 rebounds (3.8) and 4.3 assists (2.8) per game post-Gay trade.
The Raptors’ newest All-Star was not the only player to better their play after the Gay deal.
Lowry (before: 14.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 6.7 assists. After: 18.9, 5.0 and 7.7), Ross (before: 6.5 points and 34.5% 3FG. After: 12.2 and 40.2%), Patterson (before: 6.9 points and 23.1% 3FG. After: 9.1 and 41.1%) and Valanciunas (before: 9.1 points, 47.1% FG and 7.6 rebounds. After: 12.0, 54.9% and 9.2) all thrived in Toronto’s restructured offence.
Toronto raised many eye brows on draft night, selecting little-known Brazilian prospect, Bruno Caboclo, with the 20th pick, leaving the likes of Rodney Hood, Shabazz Napier and Kyle Anderson (amongst many others) on the board.
Caboclo comes with the hype of being the “Brazilian Kevin Durant” and oozes upside and potential, but is still several years away from joining the Raptors. However, Raps fans will get a sneak peak of their newest addition as he suits up for their Summer League side in July.
Reports suggested that Toronto tried to pry homegrown point guard, Tyler Ennis, away from the Phoenix Suns, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, Toronto owns all of their first-rounders heading forward (plus a 2016 first-round selection from the New York Knicks thanks to the Andrea Bargnani deal).
The Raptors had one of the more expensive payrolls this season (seventh-highest in the league), but will have approximately $21 million in cap space to play with according to 2014-15 salary cap predictions.
A decision will need to be made over the future of Lowry and team options for Johnson and Salmons will be debated. Patterson is also out of contract.
If Toronto re-signs Lowry, it all but eliminates them from the race for any free agent unless they can negotiate a sign-and-trade with someone.
Bringing back Lowry, Johnson, Paterson and their three rookies gives them a roster of 15 and a similar payroll to that of this season.
If they can free up some cash to splash, a move for an offensive-minded power forward like Pau Gasol or Greg Monroe would add another dimension to their squad. However, both will likely be out of their price range.
There is not much room for Toronto to wiggle in the offseason.
Thankfully for Raps fans, they are already a playoff-ready team.
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