The Toronto Raptors are now in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for the start of training camp. They have a lot of choices and things to get accomplished. Let’s take a look at some of the major decisions that lie ahead in training camp and the preseason for Dwane Casey and the organization, in addition some of the goals he has for his squad this season.
I was at Raptors Media Day and listened to Coach Casey talk on a number of these topics. Casey brought up an interesting stat, that the Toronto Raptors were the only team that finished in the Top 10 in defensive field goal percentage to miss the playoffs. The goal for this year is for the Raptors to make the postseason.
DeMar DeRozan thinks this is the most talent he has had to play with as he enters his fourth NBA season. Bryan Colangelo, meanwhile, sees this team as comparable to the first full year he had the job in Toronto in 2006-07. The major difference is that the division the Raptors play in has improved by leaps and bounds since that season.
Playoffs or not, the Raptors' road to improvement is still the same path for training camp and preseason.
Here are some things that need to happen to start the Raptors on that path to playoff contention.
The Raptors are saying they are entering training camp with a competition at the point guard position between Kyle Lowry and Jose Calderon. I don’t think anyone really believes that. The Raptors feel the need to show some respect to the longest-serving Raptor in Calderon.
Dwane Casey says a decision will come sooner rather than later. He feels that he owes that to Jose. I would say he owes it to Kyle Lowry as well and should let him establish himself as the new starter.
The wild card in the mix is John Lucas, who is not in the hunt for starting job. Both Colangelo and Casey made a point to mention Lucas. What does that say? The obvious surface answer is they like John Lucas.
There maybe an underlying message. If Jose Calderon is not happy being No. 2, the Raptors would consider moving him for the right deal. It should be noted no one said this. Instead, Colangelo touted the great trio they had, saying they might have arguably the best depth at the position in the league.
Whatever the case is, let’s move on with it and name the starter. It is as easy as counting 1-2-3.
Dwane Casey established a defensive culture for a franchise that has seen little of that in its history. “Pound the Rock” was the catch phrase that Casey used to sell his system. The players and even the fans were sold on it.
Casey promises more of the same this year. The famous rock still remains in the Raptor locker room. Casey has some new people to help pound that rock. The new additions should at the very least help the Raptors maintain what they established on defense with far less talent.
The Raptors are hopeful that Jonas Valanciunas can step into the center position and have an impact right away. They like his aggressive style and feel that, once they can have him adapt to the NBA style of play, he will be an asset on both ends of the floor.
Where he can have his greatest impact is on the defensive end, in my opinion. He is a legit center in terms of size and weight. He will have to get used to the fact that the NBA is full of strong guys and over time he will need to build his strength.
In his comments to media on Monday, Casey made some comparisons to Sam Bowie at the same age. The Raptors seem perfectly fine with all the expectations they have created for him.
The message from Casey is simple: No matter if your name is Jonas, Andrea or anyone else, if you want to play minutes on this team, you had better work on both ends of the floor.
In order for Jonas Valanciunas to do anything good or bad, he first has to get on the floor to do it.
Colangelo and Casey both said that they are not looking to rush Jonas back from the calf injury he suffered recently. The Raptors may have learned that lesson last season with Andrea Bargnani.
This injury is far less serious in nature, according to the Raptors. They will wait for the medical staff to give the green light before allowing Jonas to return to floor, something that his coach informed the media he is very eager to do.
It is vital he gets out there soon though. It is true he can learn some things as just an observer, but other things need to be experienced to be taught.
Ed Davis has had his issues with missing camp in his rookie season with a knee injury. Davis has a lot to prove of himself this season, but his lack of development time in his first two seasons has not helped matters.
Jonas has a larger learning curve to deal with, so it is important he gets back soon. It is a tricky balancing act, but obviously the Raptors see him as a long-term future asset. They want to be careful and make this just a bump in the road, instead of a reoccurring issue like it was with Bargnani last season.
This is what people would call a positive problem for Dwane Casey. There is more talent and thus more choices to make. Who will start at center if Jonas is not ready? Will it be Ed Davis or Amir Johnson who cracks the rotation of big men?
How does he address the wing positions for this team? Landry Fields was brought in to address the problems at the wing spot. The Raptors also drafted Terrence Ross, who will push DeMar DeRozan whether that is in practice or for actual minutes on the floor. Will Linas Kleiza play like he did at the Olympics and find his way into some playing time at the small forward?
Will we even see DeRozan play some more at that position? It was mentioned earlier that the Raptors are high on John Lucas, but does he ever see the floor in a situational roll? How deep, ultimately, does Dwane Casey want his rotation to be?
The Raptors' plan is to play hard on defense and get out and run in transition. Will this style of play lend itself to a larger rotation of players? All of these are questions to be answered as well as the minutes allotted for all of the various pieces within that rotation.
This may raise some eyebrows. Some might feel that DeMar DeRozan has not done enough to risk extending him now. You gamble now or you gamble later in terms of DeMar DeRozan.
When you look at the NBA landscape in free agency for RFAs, do the Raptors want to let some other team decide what DeMar DeRozan is worth?
The topic of an extension came up in both Bryan Colangelo and DeRozan’s scrums with media on Monday. You got the standard answers on both sides that it was being talked about with Colangelo and DeRozan’s agent.
In a place like Toronto that has seen star players walk away, it is important to get someone like DeRozan inked for the long term. They do have Terrence Ross, who they drafted this past season, but I don’t see him as a guy who could just step in and replace DeRozan.
The sides have 30 days to work out an extension. The Raptors could get quite the deal if they take the risk on DeRozan now. If he is able to have a breakout season with this new cast, whatever they pay now will seem like a good deal.
Sure, it is taking a risk to do it, but it could be a far bigger gamble if they choose not to get something worked out. At his core, DeRozan is a kid who works hard and wants to improve. That is the type of player worth rolling the dice on.
While Dwane Casey is still focused on his defensive agenda, he does realize this team needs to improve on offense as well.
A healthy Andrea Bargnani will go a long way in helping that. The Raptors hope that the additions they have made will make it a little easier for both Bargnani and DeRozan to score.
In the past, especially last season, teams could load up on Bargnani when he was in the lineup and when he wasn’t on DeRozan. The Raptors hope that guys like Lowry and Fields can make that a more costly game plan for teams.
Eventually they even would like to see Jonas Valanciunas used in pick-and-rolls and in the post to free up space for others.
They ultimately want to push the pace, run more and use their defense to create some easy offense. There was no question the limited amount practice time and the focus on defense caused the Raptors to be challenged to score at times last season.
Now with a full training camp, more practice time and an improved roster, the hope is that will help. The Raptors will look to maintain what they established on the other end of the floor as well. In a league of "Super Teams," the Raptors are going to need to show they can score as well as defend.
Perhaps the one major focus will be the three-point line. The Raptors have a long history of being a good team at making triples. In the last few years, that has not been the case.
Their long streak of consecutive games making at least one three pointer came to an end last season. It was a sign of the lack of long-distance shooters they had outside of Bargnani.