To call the Toronto Raptors' 2013-14 season a surprise is a disservice to nouns everywhere. When Masai Ujiri pulled the trigger on a trade to send Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, it looked as if the Raptors were pressing the detonator on their season. Blow it up, rebuild the foundation from the ground up and jettison every veteran not tethered to the floorboards.
So it should come as a bit of a shock that Ujiri's summer was spent retaining many of those aforementioned veterans.
As those who were not transported via time travel from the year 1993 know, the Raptors took off after the Gay trade. They set a franchise record with 48 regular-season wins, earned the East's No. 3 seed and narrowly missed out on making the conference semifinals for the second time.
So back came the once nearly traded Kyle Lowry, the consistently underrated Greivis Vasquez and the reliable Patrick Patterson. Ujiri also added some unpredictability to the mix, signing James Johnson and shocking the world by taking mystery man Bruno Caboclo in the first round of June's draft. Caboclo is a couple years away from actually contributing and Johnson was brought in for defensive bench depth, though, so these Raptors are banking on continuity.
A team that Ujiri seemed too eager to blow up eighth months ago is the one he's now hoping can make back-to-back playoff appearances. It'll be an interesting trek given the Raptors' relative lack of stars and the (somewhat) increased difficulty of the Eastern Conference.
But with the NBA releasing its full 82-game schedule, let's check in on some of the biggest games on the slate and predict how things will pan out.
Most Notable Games
Toronto Raptors vs. Brooklyn Nets
When: December 17
The Nets and Raptors battled through a captivating seven-game series, with only one game featuring a double-digit scoring margin and the deciding contest being decided as Paul Pierce of all people came up with a block as time expired. Pierce is a Washington Wizard now and the Nets went through an offseason mired with tumult, one that saw them lose multiple rotation cogs and a head coach.
Still, those two words and those seven games echo in what could become a fun little rivalry. Kevin Garnett remains in the employ of Mikhail Prokhorov for at least one more season, and he also remains among the league's most antagonistic players. If anyone can keep the flames of a rivalry ignited, it's Garnett.
The Raptors, who undoubtedly remember that Pierce block, also have some atoning to do. Their crowd was the best I've ever seen for a first-round series. Raucous from the opening whistle, all four Toronto games were notable for their almost collegiate atmosphere. Regular-season contests aren't ever going to have the same feeling—nor, I suspect, would even a second straight playoff series—but it'll be temporarily fun to revisit last April via a highlight montage.
Oh, and I guess we should probably touch on the Eastern Conference and such. The result could matter in that regard as well given how little separation there is between the expected Nos. 4-7 seeds. I'm pretty sure actual basketball matters as much if not more than our memory funsies.
New York Knicks at Toronto Raptors
When: December 21
Andrea Bargnani homecoming, you say? Where do I sign up? Can the Raptors mic up every single fan and put it on a pay-per-view feed? I'd empty my bank account to hear the well-mannered, but still contemptuous comments thrown Bargnani's way when the Knicks visit.
The vileness will not be as high this season, but when the Toronto fanbase turns on somebody, brother, they do it in full force. Bargnani is somewhere on the Mount Rushmore of reviled players with Vince Carter, Hedo Turkoglu and Steve Francis, who was grandfathered in on behalf of Canada as a whole when the Grizzlies left Vancouver.
The intrigue with Knicks and Raptors games are also about the behind-the-scenes horrors that have been inflicted in New York. The remnants of the Bargnani trade won't be wiped off the board until 2016, when the Knicks have to convey their first-round pick to Toronto to satisfy the deal. Ujiri was also at the helm in Denver when the Knicks and Nuggets consummated the Carmelo Anthony trade, which remains a seminal moment for all involved.
“Dolan didn’t want to get fleeced again by Masai,” is an actual sentence a Knicks source said about Knicks owner James Dolan when discussing why a Lowry-to-New York deal went bust, per Frank Isola of the New York Daily News. “They had a deal ready.”
On the bright side, Ujiri did not fleece Dolan in another trade. Dolan fleeced himself by being so consumed with past mistakes that he left an elite point guard on the table. All Lowry would do is go on to be the Eastern Conference's most consistent point guard and become one of the NBA's most coveted free agents. You know, the type who could put the Knicks in a better position to attract a third star and morph into a real contender.
Cue emojis everywhere. This will be fun.
Memphis Grizzlies at Toronto Raptors
When: November 19
Because we're getting to the point where every Vince Carter season could be his last. Carter signed a three-year deal with the Grizzlies this summer but will turn 38 years old in January and only two of those seasons are fully guaranteed. Odds are Carter will play through 2016, in large part because he's reinvented himself as an excellent two-way role player.
But his presence in the Western Conference leaves precious little time for mended fences. The Grizzlies make one trip to the Great White North every year. That game should be appointment viewing for anyone with a remote interest in Toronto basketball.
Though the relationship has had its wild fluctuations—largely on the negative side in the last decade—Carter is the best player in Raptors history. He reached unfettered superstardom by his second season in the league, knocking down long-range jumpers as well as he jumped over 7-footers. The most underrated aspect about Carter's game is that he's been an above-average three-point shooter nearly his entire career.
The most disappointing aspect is him quitting on his teammates and Toronto fans as he attempted to force a trade in 2004-05. Fans have never forgotten nor forgiven the befuddlingly lazy play, missed jumpers or lackadaisical defense. It's understandable. Carter was a homegrown talent who could have become a pantheon-level hero had he played his whole career in Toronto. To go out the way he did was seen as an unforgivable sin.
Yet there are signs the hate has subsided. There were rumors this offseason about the Raptors signing Carter on a cheap veteran contract, and there was no rioting on the streets. Some people (HI!) thought it would be a cool circle-of-NBA-life moment. Carter, who left in the most diva-ish of fashions, coming back after he rebuilt his late-career narrative by constantly doing the right thing. The Raptors, a franchise without much to celebrate, get to cheer their greatest player into the sunset.
As it stands, Toronto fans will get to do the latter. It'll just happen with Vince in a Grizzlies uniform.
The Raptors are confusion. Not confusing. They are the epitome of the word their rise last season came to embody.
On paper, the Raptors look like a classic "regression to the mean" team. Lowry got paid and had never even come close to his 2013-14 production in seven previous seasons. It's still hard to figure out what to make of DeMar DeRozan, an All-Star who has evolved beyond empty-calories scoring but still leaves me a little cold. Terrence Ross can stroke from distance but has exactly one great moment on his NBA resume. Jonas Valanciunas is an NBA starting center.
That's where the certainties end.
Viewed through a purely objective prism, the Raptors have a bunch of dudes in that "pretty good" strata. They're more than good enough to make the playoffs in the dumpster-dive East, but they profile as much more of a middling team than a true contender.
Then again, there's a credible counter argument to be made here. The Raptors ranked third in Eastern Conference scoring margin. Their Pythagorean wins-losses record would have been 51-31 or 52-30; Toronto was actually unlucky over the 82-game slate. Use data after the Gay trade, and this is a team that might have had 55 or so wins had Ujiri pulled the trigger earlier.
Meanwhile, there should be some natural progression.
DeRozan is going to be 25 on opening night and got to the free-throw line more often than LeBron freaking James last season. That's a skill almost as valuable as a reliable jumper. Ross' 51-point game showed what he can do when he's firing on all cylinders, and he's heading into his third season. Valanciunas is only 22 and big men tend to develop slowly. While Lowry has never put up the numbers he did in 2013-14, he had never been given so much responsibility.
In a nutshell: I'm not sure what to make of the Raptors. I'm equally open to the possibilities of them hanging near the bottom or in the top four of the Eastern playoff race. There's a ton more data that will need to be considered between now and my final projections in October, but I'm going to split the difference a bit here.
Season Record Projection: 44-38 (NBA championship odds: 50-1, per Oddsshark)
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