Biggest Needs for Toronto Raptors During 2014 Offseason
After taking a 3-2 series lead, the Toronto Raptors eventually capitulated against the more experienced and battle-tested Brooklyn Nets. By the thinnest of margins, head coach Dwane Casey's team lost Game 7 by just one point.
The team expressed optimism about how far it had come after the playoff push ended. The Raptors realize this is no time to blow things up, no time to get frustrated.
On paper, a No. 3 seed was upset by a No. 6 seed.
Anyone who was paying attention this season knows better than to read too much into that. No one expected the Raptors to be a No. 3 seed. They played some of the best basketball in the league after trading Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings. They proved they have a formidable young core that should only grow more potent in time.
All the same, no one associated with this franchise is going to be satisfied with first-round exits. They can do better, and they will do better.
Much will be up to Casey. Now that he knows what he has to work with, his first priority will be improving the club's chemistry and developing its younger pieces. The rest of the burden falls on general manager Masai Ujiri. Though he isn't expect to make any epic moves this summer, he'll face some decisions all the same.
Here's what the Raptors brain trust needs to do.
Re-Signing Kyle Lowry
Kyle Lowry is probably the best and most economical point guard the Raptors can get their hands on at this point. That could always change on the trade market if someone like Rajon Rondo becomes available, but the Raptors have to play this realistically and conservatively.
That means re-signing Lowry unless he asks for a ridiculous raise.
The dynamic floor general made just $6.2 million this season and could be due an increase to the $10 million range. He had a big season and even bigger postseason. Lowry averaged 21.1 points, 4.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds in his first-round series against the Nets.
He exploded for 36 points during Toronto's Game 5 win and easily ranked as the team's best player outside of DeMar DeRozan.
The other important factor is that it sounds like he wants to return. According to TSN's Josh Lewenberg, Lowry said, "This is only the start for us and the Raptors organization."
In other words, it sounds like he plans to be part of that organization's long-term plans. Per the National Post's Eric Koreen, Lowry also said, "I’ve had the best core group of teammates I’ve ever had in my life, in my career."
The Raptors aren't a prime free-agent destination, so Lowry's attitude matters. If the organization lets him walk, the question immediately becomes: Who's willing to come take Toronto's money? Who will fill in and play the point as well as he has?
Lowry may be a bit pricey to keep around, but he spent the last week proving he's worth it.
Developing Terrence Ross
Terrence Ross had a much-improved sophomore campaign.
The 23-year-old averaged 10.9 points and shot just a hair under 40 percent from beyond the arc. He even dropped 51 points in a game back in January. It wasn't quite a breakout season, but it was a very solid one, the next step in the development of what could be a key piece to the Raptors' future.
But Ross virtually disappeared in the postseason, reminding us that he still has a ways to go.
In seven games against the Brooklyn Nets, the shooting guard averaged just five points in 22.6 minutes per contest. He didn't post double digits until Game 7 and shot 29.8 percent for the series. That's not going to cut it if Ross is to become this team's consistent third or fourth option alongside DeRozan, Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas.
Raptors Republic's William Lou had particularly harsh words for Ross' performance through six games of the first round:
What’s worse for Ross, is that his problems are not merely skin-deep. This isn’t a case of shots not falling, or better offense overwhelming his abhorrent defense. If anything, the numbers portray Ross in a fairer light than his performance merits – Ross has been terrible on both ends of the floor. He’s not finding ways to get himself open for threes, he’s not leaking in transition, and his defensive positioning is random, at best. The most obvious sign? His smooth butterfly shooting stroke, the one that launched his career in pro basketball, looks warped and altered, as if it were designed to thread a basketball through the eye of a needle. His shot looks as ugly as that last analogy.
The downturn wasn't terribly surprising. This was Ross' first time in the playoffs, and he seemed appropriately rattled by the increased intensity.
Give him some time, and all that should change.
Those impatient with the Raptors' postseason performance will look to upgrade the team's wing rotation, but they should be careful. After all, this team was worse when Gay was here. Adding another piece could mess with chemistry.
More importantly, Ross will get better. He's young and still learning the finer points of the game, including decision-making and diversifying his offensive skill set. He has all the makings of a well-rounded scorer, and it would be unwise to give up on him so fast.
And to be fair, Ross did have his moments in the postseason, including some timely shots in Game 5, per the National Post's Noah Love:
While Wednesday night’s game was far from Ross’s best, it was a definite improvement over the four games that preceded it. He finished with eight points — including two huge three-pointers — and chipped in some excellent defence on Nets point guard Deron Williams. 'Felt good,' Ross said. 'Just trying to get a little bit of rhythm back. Every little bit helps.'
And come the 2015 postseason, Ross should be a much bigger help, too. He just needs another chance.
Acquiring a Sixth Man
Greivis Vasquez is a nice role player who still has room to improve, but he's not the kind of consistent sixth-man presence Toronto needs.
He had two very good games in the Raptors' first-round series against Brooklyn, scoring 18 points in Game 1 and 15 in Game 5. But he also didn't break double digits in four of Toronto's games. In the all-important Game 7, Vasquez had just two points.
Veteran John Salmons and the sparingly used Landry Fields don't appear to be solutions to the Raptors' sixth-man need, either.
Patrick Patterson has shown some signs of consistent production off the bench, but you'd like to see someone in the backcourt or on the wing who can create his own shot and generate offense as a scorer and playmaker alike.
Don't expect the Raptors to magically acquire someone of Jamal Crawford's status, but a step in that direction certainly wouldn't hurt. This is a team that ultimately needs another difference-maker, someone to take the pressure off DeRozan and Lowry.
And that someone needs to be consistent. Vasquez can provide a spark, but it's his ability to do so consistently that comes into question.
Depending on decisions the club makes on guys like Vasquez and Patterson, the organization could have a little bit of money to spend in free agency. It could also look to exchange Fields' expiring contract in a package for more of an impact player.
Fields is set to make $8.5 million next season.
Finding More Opportunities for Jonas Valanciunas
Valanciunas had moments of brilliance in the postseason, posting double-digit points in four of the seven contests. He tallied double-doubles through the first three games of the first round.
Though the 21-year-old had an underwhelming Game 7 (just three points and five rebounds), he still qualified as Toronto's third-best player during the series. If we owe Ross patience, we owe it to Valanciunas that much more.
This center is just getting started.
The Toronto Sun's Ryan Wolstat noted some areas for improvement after Toronto's Game 6 loss to the Nets:
Valanciunas scored nine points and hauled in nine rebounds, missing only one of his five shot attempts Friday, but he also committed four fouls, which limited him to 26 minutes of playing time and had another three turnovers. He has averaged 3.5 fouls and 3.2 turnovers per game in this series and has had issues both defensively and at the free-throw line (61.9% after shooting 76.2% in the regular season).
The trick for Toronto will be finding ways to incorporate him into the game more. This team wasn't built around Valanciunas philosophically. He didn't emerge as a consistent force until late in the season, by which time the Raptors' identity was largely already forged.
Now that we know what Valanciunas can do, the Raptors have to design more plays for him, look for more ways to get the ball into the painted area where he can go to work. While this team's best players remain on the perimeter, they too will benefit from an inside-outside approach that forces defenders to collapse around the basket.
The nice thing about this guy is that he understands his place. He's going to play hard whether he's getting a lot of touches or not, per Canada.com's Gregory Strong: "My game is defend the basket. I’m the big man out there. I’ve got to protect the basket, protect the paint, get all the rebounds. That’s my job. It’s a physical job."
Valanciunas has the body to do that job. His meaty, 6'11" frame equips him to be a dangerous two-way player for the Raptors, the kind who could potentially take playoff series over down the road. In the meantime, we'll need to give him some time to grow.
And we'll need to give him more opportunities to do just that.
The Raptors will owe power forward Patterson a qualifying offer worth $4.3 million this summer. That makes him a restricted free agent. Should another team offer him a raise, Toronto will have to make a decision about whether to match the offer.
That won't be an easy call.
Patterson averaged 8.5 points and 5.3 rebounds during the regular season. He actually raised his production marginally during the playoffs. But how much is he worth? If a team offers him a contract starting at $6 or 7 million, do the Raptors cave?
In a vacuum, you might say yes. But keep in mind there's an opportunity cost. The money the Raptors decide to pay Patterson (and Vasquez, who's in a similar situation) is money the organization won't be able to offer other free agents.
The team faces another kind of decision with starting power forward Amir Johnson. Toronto holds a team option to have Johnson return for just $7 million next season. Given Johnson's consistent production and defensive energy, it's a good bet he comes back.
It's less likely that the team will pick up its $7 million option on Salmons.
If the team uses up most of its cap space to re-sign Lowry, it may ultimately be wiser to keep this group together rather than trying to sign external free-agent talent. The complexities of the cap make it easier for Toronto to keep its talent than import new talent.
Should the team remain more or less constructed as it is, keep an eye on its performance during the first half of the season. In the event things are turning out as ideally as hoped, the Raptors could look to upgrade via the trade market prior to February's deadline.
But either way, this team doesn't need long, bloated contracts belonging to as-yet unproven talent. That won't be good for the roster, and it won't be helpful on the trade front either. That means taking a cautious approach to contract negotiations and decisions on guys like Patterson and Vasquez.
Nice as it would be to have them back in the fold, it can't be at any cost.