The 2012-13 NBA season was nothing short of a disappointment for Toronto Raptors fans. Between missing out on the playoffs, the Andrea Bargnani conundrum and Kyle Lowry’s underwhelming season, this past year was a bust. Fortunately, the Raptors' fortunes appear to be changing for the better. Bryan Colangelo, now former general manager and the architect of the current Raptors squad, is out of the picture.
Enter Masai Ujiri, the reigning NBA Executive of the Year. Ujiri has already stated he has big plans for the Raptors, including trading Andrea Bargnani by July 1 and a possible name change for the franchise.
Could this be the start of a new era in Raptors basketball? For a franchise that has made the playoffs only five times in its 18 years of existence, surely getting the NBA Executive of the Year is a sign of good things to come.
Here are five reasons the Toronto Raptors will make a splash in the Eastern Conference next season.
Aside from the Miami Heat, New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers, the teams in the Eastern Conference are all due for a major overhaul in some way or another. The Milwaukee Bucks, the eighth seed in this year’s playoffs, are facing the possibility of losing all three of their best guards in Brandon Jennings, JJ Redick and Monta Ellis. The Boston Celtics may lose Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and the Philadelphia 76ers don’t have a head coach.
The point is, the Eastern Conference is in flux.
While several other teams in the conference have no clue what they’ll look like next season, the Raptors have a pretty good idea: Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will all be back, as well as head coach Dwayne Casey (so far, at least). In a league where teams are changing their identity with more frequency than ever, the Raptors will have secured their core and can build on the chemistry they've already begun to develop.
After finishing ninth in the conference last season, the Raptors should be more than capable of going to blows with the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics, three teams with very unclear futures.
According to ESPN’s Marc Stein, Ujiri’s first priority is to try to trade Andrea Bargnani before July 1. This isn’t all that surprising, as Colangelo also spoke of shopping Bargnani during this past NBA season. Although it’s proven to be a tad difficult to move the Italian 7-footer, no trade in the NBA is impossible. Somewhere out there, you can bet there's a team willing to gamble on Bargnani and his unique skill set.
Whether the return for Bargnani is a solid veteran, intriguing prospect or even an expiring contract, the trade will finally relieve the team of the drama surrounding him. Of course, receiving true value for him will be next to impossible given his world of talent, but the time has come to cut him loose once and for all. Teams that are perennially in the playoffs like the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs can afford some unwanted drama, but rebuilding teams like the Raptors simply don’t have the time for it.
Once Bargnani’s tenure with the Raptors is over, the team can truly begin to move into a new era.
On paper, a team that features two dynamic players and scorers in Lowry and Gay should have no problem making the playoffs. After all, the Milwaukee Bucks did it with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, right?
Of course, the situation in Toronto was much different than the one in Milwaukee. Lowry was brought in the offseason to take over the starting point guard role from Jose Calderon.
Only, he, uh, didn’t.
After coming hot out of the gates, Lowry struggled for much of the season, and Casey often went to Calderon in the clutch, leaving Lowry on the bench.
Whereas Lowry had a full season with the Raptors, Gay was brought in towards the end. Although he put up his usual numbers (19.5 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.8 APG), his offensive style never really clicked the way it needed to with Lowry and fellow wingman DeRozan. Instead of a fluid motion offense rich with off-ball cuts and screens, the Raptors offensive possessions often ended with Gay taking a forced jumper.
With a full training camp together next season, these two, alongside DeRozan, should develop an explosive offensive chemistry. Picture the old New Jersey Nets core of Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson...the year they were good, not the other years.
Ujiri has already come out and declared Valanciunas as one of the cornerstones of the franchise, which is a good thing for Raptors fans. According to Rotoworld.com, after the all-star break, Valanciunas had averages of 11.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG and 1.4 BPG with a 58.8 % FG. If he can build on those solid numbers from his rookie season, there’s no reason he shouldn't be able to become one of the best centers in the East.
One of the key components winning teams have is a true, low-post big man, who either excels defensively or on offense. Chris Bosh was phenomenal in his years as a Raptor, but he was never one to punish opposing bigs in the paint and crash the offensive boards. Valanciunas is capable of performing both of those tasks and has also shown his vast potential on offense.
JV will give the Raptors a big man advantage in the Eastern Conference that rival teams simply won’t be able to match, and if he can improve to averages of 16 PPG, 8 RPG and 1.8 BPG, he could singlehandedly change the culture of the franchise.
The Raptors have a chance to become an extraordinary offensive team. Not many other rosters boast a point guard who can score, dime and rebound; two wings who can average 20-plus PPG; and a dominant center on the rise.
If the team opts to continue its wing-based attack, it could look very similar to the Miami Heat. Consider these two videos:
Dwyane Wade to Lebron James alley-oop:
DeMar DeRozan to Rudy Gay alley-oop:
In no way am I suggesting the tandem of DeRozan and Gay is comparable to two Hall of Famers in James and Wade; however, in terms of athletic capability, these two could feature an offense that is Miami-lite. They’re both fast, great dunkers and proven scorers. If they can ever develop chemistry similar to the one Wade and James share, they’ll be an absolute terror on the fast break.