Toronto Raptors: How They Can Join NBA's Eastern Conference Elite

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Toronto Raptors: How They Can Join NBA's Eastern Conference Elite
USA TODAY Sports

After the most successful season for the Toronto Raptors in quite some time, fans are sure to be chomping at the bit for the Raps to become an elite team in the NBA's Eastern Conference next season.

Not to displease the passionate fan base, but this notion is largely full of wishful thinking, as taking that next step is going to be very tough given Toronto's current situation.

Even general manager Masai Ujiri—who's practically a miracle worker in the front office—is going to have a tough time making any huge splashes or drastic changes to the roster this season.

With only an estimated $18 million in cap room to work with and four free agents of their own to possibly re-sign, the Raptors don't have much room (barring a Ujiri miracle) to go out and make waves on the free agent market.

It is important that Toronto does not go out and try to get good too quickly. Use the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons as examples with this, as both teams have been trying to rebuild now for a little too long largely because of some ill-fated free agent moves.

So far during this offseason, all signs from Ujiri have pointed toward keeping last year's team together as best as possible, growing and developing the current players, drafting well and possibly making a couple smaller moves by either trading for a veteran player or trading up higher in the draft.

Will that plan elevate the Raps to elite status in the Eastern Conference in just one year? No, it is not very likely.

It is more likely to help continue the growth and improvement of the solid core in Toronto and ensure that in 2015 they will be primed to make a run at a big fish in free agency, which would certainly put them into an elite discussion.

Yes, it is true: The Raptors are going to need a superstar-type player to achieve the level of success that everyone in Toronto ultimately wants. Look at all the best teams in the NBA—Miami, San Antonio and Oklahoma City—and you see that they are all led by at least one bona fide superstar.

Knowing that the elite level of success Toronto fans are looking for may not be possible until 2015, let's at least take a look at what the Raps can do to ensure continued success and improvement during the upcoming season, and how they can position themselves to take home another Atlantic Division title this season to be primed for a championship run in 2015.

 

Do Not Let Kyle Lowry Out of Toronto

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First and foremost, the Raptors must re-sign Kyle Lowry. He is what makes the Raptors' engine go and is absolutely vital to the club's current and future success.

Without Lowry, the team would take a significant step back and cause severe unhappiness for the passionate fanbase. 

He is also going to be key next summer in luring big time free agents to Toronto. It is safe to say that he needs to be wearing a Raptors jersey next season.

Lowry's comments immediately after the last playoff game seemed to suggesthe wanted to stay in Toronto, as reported by TSN's Josh Lewenberg. However, ESPN's Brian Windhorst recently reported Lowry and Miami Heat had "mutual interest."

The big issue with the Raptors and re-signing Lowry is money. Lowry made $6.2 million in 2013-14 and, after a breakout season where he averaged 17.9 points, 7.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds, he is due for a big raise come 2014-15.

Based on his production and the current market, it is reasonable to think that Lowry is going to demand anywhere between $9 and $12 million per year for four years.

Going up to $12 million is certainly going to have Ujiri sweating and will cause the salary cap to drastically shrink, but that is a price that they are going to have to pay to ensure future success.

If the Raptors want to achieve elite status in the Eastern Conference, it all starts and ends with their floor general Lowry.

 

Develop and Grow Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas

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Some people may say that the Raptors have reached their ceiling with this current roster, but from here on out, wherever that ceiling stops is largely predicated on the growth and development of Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas.

These are two young and extremely promising players who have breakout star potential oozing out of them.

The question is: Can head coach Dwane Casey and his staff help them realize that potential?

Can Valanciunas develop into a player like Marc Gasol? Can Ross come out from the shadow of DeMar DeRozan and make a real name for himself? Can he improve his consistency as a shooter?

It wasn't until the latter part of the season, but everyone saw Valanciunas' potential as a dominant big man, and the same potential as a great wing player was evident when Ross dropped 51 points in January of this past season.

Having these two players come into their own and realize their potential would certainly help claim back-to-back Atlantic Division titles and really help ensure that the club becomes elite a lot sooner than later.

 

Acquire/Develop a Defensive Stopper and Backup Center

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I think most people would agree that these two areas are Toronto's biggest areas for improvement.

It was evident in the playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets that the Raptors desperately need a defensive stopper on the perimeter when Joe Johnson ate them up, getting open shots essentially whenever he wanted.

Whether the answer is to try and sign a veteran on the waiver wire or to make a trade happen, Toronto needs to address this. 

One solution that wouldn't cost any extra money would be developing Terrence Ross into a lockdown defender. His skill set and athletic capabilities should make him very tough to go around, but there needs to be reciprocation with him going hard every night.

If he can utilize his elite lateral quickness and explosiveness, then there's no reason he can't become a very good defender in this league.

The only need that was on par with that of a defensive stopper was the need for a solid backup center. If Ujiri can somehow address this, it'll only help the team and ensure some better depth in the frontcourt.

With the addition of these two pieces, particularly the defensive stopper on the wing, the Raptors will automatically become that much tougher and that much closer to becoming an elite team.

 

Re-Sign Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez If Cap Allows

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Patrick Patterson had a great year in Toronto and proved to be a key part in the team's success.

He averaged 10.4 points and 6.7 rebounds in the playoffs against the Nets and proved to be a viable option to possibly move into the starting lineup next season.

With the constant uncertainty of Amir Johnson's health, Patterson is a must-have for the Raptors.

He is a restricted free agent, and the Raptors currently have extended a $4.3 million qualifying offer to the fourth-year big man. Ujiri and Toronto's front office is praying that no other team comes in with a higher offer which would make Ujiri have to think long and hard, but ultimately Patterson needs to be a Raptor, even if that means having to sacrifice the ability to re-sign Vasquez.

However, assuming that Patterson signs with Toronto for the original offer, then the team will also ideally be able to sign Vasquez.

Vasquez averaged 9.6 points and 4.1 assists this past season and also proved to be a key part of Toronto's success—and the great chemistry shared on the floor by this group of players.

He currently has a $3.2 million qualifying offer on the table from the Raps. If he takes it, then great, but if another team offers more, then it might be wise of Ujiri to just let him walk.

Toronto still has Nando de Colo, who could easily back up Lowry for much cheaper and would free up a little cap space for Ujiri to possibly work his magic to help the team in other areas.

In the end, keeping both guys would be great, but if one of them has to go, the Raps should do what they can to keep Patterson.

 

Ujiri Works His Magic in Summer 2015

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Assuming the best and that everything goes to plan, Masai Ujiri will be licking his chops come the summer of 2015.

The Raptors will be able to dump the ridiculous contracts of Landry Fields and Chuck Hayes and will have much more cap space to work with.

Ujiri should be able to offer somewhere around $10 and $12 million per year—and possibly more—for a big free agent. Names such as Kevin Love, Brook Lopez, Monta Ellis, Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, among others, come to mind in the 2015 free agent class, but obviously much is still to be determined.

Whether that is the route he takes, or if he chooses to go at it through trades—however he does it, he has earned the respect of Raptor nation through the miraculous moves of getting rid of Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay's contracts.

As far as the current plan and the plan for summer 2015, the Toronto faithful must all say together, "In Masai We Trust."

 

Conclusion

All in all, the Raptors joining the Eastern Conference elite next season is going to be next to impossible with their current situation, but the future looks very promising after this season if they can stick to the plan.

Toronto needs to try and keep the current roster together as best as possible, develop the current players (particularly Ross and Valanciunas) and possibly make a couple of moves through the draft or through trades.

This seems to be what Ujiri's plan is, and in the upcoming 2014-15 season, the Raps can easily grow into a team that wins 50-plus games in the regular season and contains the obvious potential to make it out of the first round of the playoffs, lingering just outside the Eastern Conference elite.

Then, come the summer of 2015, if all goes to plan, the Raptors should be in the clear, and Ujiri will be able to work his magic and help turn this team into not just an elite team in the East, but in the entire NBA.

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