Early Predictions for Toronto Raptors' Starting Lineup Next Season

Christopher Walder@@WalderSportsContributor IIJuly 30, 2014

Early Predictions for Toronto Raptors' Starting Lineup Next Season

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    With many of the upper-echelon teams in the Eastern Conference set to field new starting lineups for the 2014-15 regular season, the Toronto Raptors will buck the trend as they bring back their core five guys in their regular starter roles. 

    This offseason wasn't devoid of drama and intrigue, as some of the biggest stars the NBA has to offer will be donning new colors in just a few short months. 

    LeBron James ditched the warm weather and palm trees of South Beach to return home to Cleveland, Lance Stephenson signed on with the Charlotte Hornets and Pau Gasol left a sinking ship in Los Angeles to join Derrick Rose and company in the Windy City.

    That doesn't even take into account some of the more under-the-radar deals that didn't get nearly the same amount of coverage, such as Rodney Stuckey to Indiana, Paul Pierce to Washington and Luol Deng to Miami

    The landscape of the East has undergone a complete overhaul with so many faces changing places. What the Raptors have going for them is continuity and stability in a basketball world where a single move can make or break a team's chances.

    Why ruin a good thing, right? The Raptors are coming off (arguably) their most successful season ever, winning 48 games (franchise record) and earning a second Atlantic Division title. They also came within one Kyle Lowry layup of knocking off the Brooklyn Nets in the opening round of the NBA playoffs.

    Change is exciting but not always necessary. Fans have yearned for some sort of consistency in both the front office and with the on-court product for years. History has shown that players come and go in the proverbial revolving door that never stops moving.

    With general manager Masai Ujiri guiding the ship, fans can breathe easy, as "The Messiah" acts as the steady influence behind the scenes that keeps talent locked in, happy and bleeding Raptor red.

    The return of two third-year players, a veteran forward beloved by the city, a scoring machine coming off his first All-Star appearance and a newly signed $48 million point guard to the lineup is a consistency most welcome. 

Center: Jonas Valanciunas

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    2013-14 statistics: 80 games, 28.3 minutes, 11.4 points, 53.0 field-goal percentage, 8.9 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.9 blocks, 1.7 turnovers, 16.1 player efficiency rating

     

    Jonas Valanciunas will remain the man in the middle because, frankly, there's no one else in the rotation who can be viewed as a legitimate center. 

    Ujiri screwed the pooch by not scouring for another 7'0" big man on the open market who can play right away. Lucas Nogueira, formally of the Atlanta Hawks, was a nice get for the future, but he may be a year or two away from contributing.

    This is only an issue when Valanciunas encounters foul trouble, something he's prone to doing early in games. His 249 fouls were 10th in the league, per ESPN.com.  

    Everything else troublesome about his game can easily be rectified through further training and practice, including working with Hakeem Olajuwon over the summer. Valanciunas doesn't have a go-to move in the paint that he can use for easy buckets. A few lessons with "The Dream" should get the juices flowing. 

     

    Valanciunas ended last season on a high note, averaging a double-double of 16.8 points and 11.0 rebounds in the month of April. Those numbers fell to 10.9 points and 9.7 rebounds in the playoffs, but for a sophomore seeing his first postseason action, that's still respectable.

    Look for Valanciunas to get more touches around the basket next season and his rapport with his teammates to grow and evolve. As Zarar Siddiqi of Raptors Republic points out, Valanciunas' average of 20.1 frontcourt touches was behind John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez and Lowry. 

    Unacceptable. 

    The Raptors need Valanciunas to turn into a back-to-the-basket terror with a gluttony of post moves at his disposal. He's not there yet, but he's not far off. 

Power Forward: Amir Johnson

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    Claus Andersen/Getty Images

    2013-14 statistics: 77 games, 28.9 minutes, 10.5 points, 56.3 field-goal percentage, 6.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.2 blocks, 1.6 turnovers, 15.5 player efficiency rating

     

    Bald is beautiful. 

    Arguably the most popular player on the roster, Amir Johnson returns to the starting frontcourt with a little less on the top. If it was medically possible to take hair follicles and use them as a way to mend weak ankles, that would be great also. 

    Amir Johnson getting in some work with the kids of the #Raptors Basketball Academy! #RTZ #WeTheNorth https://t.co/ggQWWlRLkr

    — Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) July 29, 2014

    There are never going to be any internal discussions over Johnson mailing it in or not giving it his all. He's earned a reputation as an energy guy who can do a laundry list of things on the court to help his team win, all while putting his body through a meat grinder.

    The fact that he played 77 games last season is a testament to how tough a man Johnson is. He worked through a majority of the campaign on one good ankle, which either makes him a robot who can feel no pain or stubborn as a mule. 

    According to ESPN.com, Johnson ranked 16th in the NBA in real plus-minus at 4.61, meaning the Raptors were all the better because he was on the floor. No wonder he wanted to compete so bad. 

    Doug Smith of the Toronto Star noted in his blog on July 3 that Johnson had "decided against off-season surgery on his ankle and will try to strengthen it through exercise and rehabilitation." 

    If you haven't put two and two together yet, Johnson's ankle and overall health will be the main point of emphasis on his 2014-15 journey. Signing Patrick Patterson to a three-year, $18 million deal was a nice insurance policy should he need to sit some games out, which I highly doubt he'll allow himself to do. 

Small Forward: Terrence Ross

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 statistics: 80 games, 26.7 minutes, 10.9 points, 42.4 field-goal percentage, 39.7 three-point percentage, 3.2 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 1.1 turnovers, 12.2 player efficiency rating

     

    Terrence Ross was six seconds away from being etched in Toronto sports history had the Raptors completed their comeback against the Brooklyn Nets in Game 7. His incredible steal off an inbounds pass to Paul Pierce put the team in prime position to take the series in the dying moments.

    Things ultimately didn't pan out, but had it not been for Ross, the Raptors would have never had an opportunity as golden as the one he created. 

    His athleticism was on full display, leaping in the air with his arm stretched out as if he were ready to skyrocket his way out of the Air Canada Centre. It wasn't his three-point shooting or highlight-reel slams that got Toronto back in the game; it was his defense. 

    “I have always been a defensive-minded player and I think the more I got to play the more it showed,” Ross said back in March (per Stephen Brotherston of Pro Bball Report). “Once you get confidence, you play at a different level, so I try to maintain my confidence, go out a play with the opportunity (Casey) is providing me.”

    That's the end of the floor where head coach Dwane Casey needs Ross to be a factor on a regular basis. The 23-year-old has shown glimpses of stardom as an offensive weapon (51 points against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 25), but when his shot isn't falling, his perimeter defense will need to be his saving grace.

    At the very least, Casey now has a credible backup to work with in James Johnson should Ross flounder. At 6'9" and nearly 250 pounds, Johnson can bang around with larger swingmen and be more physical on defense than Ross has shown a willingness to be. 

    Unless Ross completely falls off the map, he shouldn't feel in jeopardy of losing his spot. He may see his minutes dwindle here and there with credible options breathing down his neck for playing time, but that's as bad as things should get. There's too much invested in him at the position. 

    As long as the confidence issues he experienced against the Nets in the postseason are a thing of the past, there's no reason to think Ross can't build on his sophomore year and really carve his niche for the Raptors. He just needs to bring his top stuff on a nightly basis. 

Shooting Guard: DeMar DeRozan

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 statistics: 78 games, 38.4 minutes, 22.8 points, 42.9 field-goal percentage, 4.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks, 2.2 turnovers, 18.4 player efficiency rating

     

    Not too many players in the annals of Raptor history can say they've been an All-Star. Only Chris Bosh, Vince Carter and Antonio Davis managed to crack the roster during their days in Toronto. 

    DeMar DeRozan joined that aforementioned list last season, and deservedly so. 

    It was apparent from the very beginning that DeRozan wasn't going to settle for anything less than a playoff berth. Four years of toiling in mediocrity and not being able to experience the glitz and prestige of postseason basketball had taken its toll on his psyche. He spent the summer working on improving his skill set and adding to his repertoire, becoming a more well-rounded player. 

    He became a better facilitator, raising his assist numbers a full 1.5 points from 2.5 to 4.0. His ability to get to the charity stripe was superb, averaging 8.0 attempts per game (seventh in the NBA). 

    It wasn't all one big song and dance, though. While his three-point shooting percentage steered upward (28.3 to 30.5 percent), it still wasn't high enough to justify 2.7 attempts a night. Nets guard Joe Johnson also turned DeRozan into a huge defensive liability in their first-round matchup, posting him up until the well ran dry.

    While labeled and recognized as the Raptors' All-Star, DeRozan isn't the best player on the team. That distinction goes to the man running the point, but that's not meant to be a shot at the USC alumnus. 

    On a positive note, DeRozan's numbers haven't regressed these past three years. He hasn't hit a wall in his development. More All-Star appearances could be in his future should that trend continue. 

Point Guard: Kyle Lowry

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    Ron Turenne/Getty Images

    2013-14 statistics: 78 games, 36.4 minutes, 17.9 points, 42.2 field-goal percentage, 38.0 three-point percentage, 4.7 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.2 blocks, 2.4 turnovers, 20.1 player efficiency rating

     

    All the advanced metrics on the planet can't evaluate heart. You can't judge leadership through calculation and a series of numbers. John Hollinger never came up with a stat for passion. 

    What you can do is reward a player who regularly displayed all of those intangibles on route to posting career highs across the board. That's exactly what Ujiri did when he gave Lowry his new contract on July 10.

    This wasn't the same Kyle Lowry we had grown to scrutinize and criticize. Long gone were the clashes with coaches and questions over his attitude. A maturation occurred over the course of the season, transforming Lowry into a more disciplined athlete. 

    He led by example, putting his body on the line through drives to the basket and drawn charges. According to Hoops Manifesto, Lowry's 31 drawn charges were second in the NBA behind DeMarcus Cousins' 36. 

    Lest we forget that he's only 6'0". Guards of that size shouldn't be standing around the basket taking those kinds of bumps. That didn't stop Lowry, though. 

    He plays with a chip on his shoulder and a certain swagger (sorry, Nick Young) to his game because he knows how good he can be. Lowry pushed himself and his teammates and never allowed anyone on the team to become complacent. That's what a true leader does. 

    Money helps, but winning is what defines a legacy. There's clearly something special building north of the border. 

    Lowry wanted in on the ground floor. 

    Will his numbers go down the drain after signing on the dotted line? Don't push your luck. 

     

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com. 

    Christopher Walder is considered by many to be the "songbird of his generation" and the greatest center to have never played professional, collegiate, high school, house league or pickup basketball. His work has been published at Bleacher Report, SB Nation, Sports Illustrated, Fansided and several other online outlets. You may follow him on Twitter at @WalderSports.