After an era of overreaching and delusion, the Toronto Raptors finally succumbed to a full rebuild following Chris Bosh's exodus. The star the team had been building around was now gone, and with no lingering direction or need to push for immediate wins, the newly hired Dwane Casey was able to begin to construct a winning team from the ground up.
Casey did a phenomenal job in his rookie effort as NBA head coach, but a first step is only valuable provided that other incremental improvements follow. The Raptors are expected to improve and should very well do so with their offseason additions and Casey's program in place, but how exactly does Toronto go about clawing its way through the Eastern Conference muck and eventually earning a postseason berth?
Continued Defensive Improvement
One of the most dramatic leaps made by any team in the NBA last season came in Casey's specialized arena: team defense. After engineering the Dallas Mavericks' title-winning D in 2011, Casey brought many of the same foundational principles to an outfit that had ranked dead last in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) the year prior to his arrival.
With no Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion or Jason Kidd in Toronto, Casey was expected to use those principles as the foundation for a very gradual improvement. Instead, a team full of assumed defensive liabilities vaulted to league-average marks and finished the year ranked 14th in the NBA in defensive efficiency.
That's a monumental leap under the circumstances, albeit one that leaves the Raps with plenty of room for internal growth.
Kyle Lowry wasn't quite as tenacious on D last year as he had been in years past, but with a fresh start and a perfect match in a head coach, he should be able to renew his commitment on that end of the court. That alone could give Toronto one of the best defenders in the league at the point guard position and simultaneously alleviate Jose Calderon from being exploited in that same slot.
Factor in the technical work of Landry Fields and the defensive promise of Jonas Valanciunas, and the Raptors—even following a substantial improvement—are poised for even more defensive growth.
Toronto's offensive ineptitude last season can be attributed to a number of different factors, but among the most glaring was the predictably poor play from the Raptors' wing players.
No shooting guard or small forward on the Raptors' roster finished the season with a PER greater than the league average (15.0) last year, and while that measure is hardly the be-all, end-all of individual player analysis, it gives us a good snapshot of this group's collective inefficiency.
DeMar DeRozan and Linas Kleiza were particularly underwhelming, so much so that James Johnson was quite possibly Toronto's best wing player last season. Johnson is limited in his own right, but his stat-stuffing game provides the Raptors with a far more productive presence than DeRozan, Kleiza or Leandro Barbosa could muster.
Johnson is exactly the kind of facilitating wing that could fit in beautifully as the last option in the starting lineup of a winning team, but the fact that he outplayed the Raptors' other wing players doesn't exactly speak highly of their crop.
Lottery pick Terrence Ross and the aforementioned Fields will join that group this season, but their additions won't be enough. Casey will need to get more out of the likes of DeRozan and Kleiza—particularly on the offensive end—lest they fall out of the Raptors' plans entirely.
Control the Turnover Game
Despite their overall defensive success, the Raptors barely forced any turnovers last season—thereby forcing their rotating defenders to do far more work than they otherwise should. Now that the players in Toronto are more in tune with Casey's expectations and the basics of his defensive strategy, they should be able to improve on their statistical standing (26th in the NBA in opponent turnover percentage) in terms of turnovers forced.
Having a big, active presence at the rim in Valanciunas should also allow Toronto's defenders to take more chances on the perimeter and boost the overall defensive efficiency accordingly.
But defense isn't the only problem. The Raptors also ranked 26th in the NBA in their own turnover percentage last season, largely due to sloppy play from their reserve point guards (looking at you, Anthony Carter) and turnover-prone bigs (Amir Johnson, Aaron Gray).
The former problem fixes itself, in a sense, as Jose Calderon has been nudged into a reserve role that should serve him quite well. His conservative playmaking style should do Toronto's second unit a big favor in terms of their turnover margin, and if nothing else, Calderon is worlds better at orchestrating offensive action than the aforementioned Carter.
But the bigs will simply need to be more careful with the ball going forward, as both Johnson and Gray (among others) posted uncharacteristically high turnover rates. Some of that is attributable to the poor offensive play of Toronto's perimeter players (as a lack of outside threats allows for easier double teams and defensive dig-downs), but the daunting number of giveaways does the Raptors' offense no favors.
All statistical data used in this post is courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.