On the eve of the 22nd season in Toronto Raptors history, fans can’t help but be filled with optimism after the team’s first conference finals appearance in franchise history. With the dynamic backcourt duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry fresh off a gold medal winning performance in Rio, their presence on the roster immediately places the team in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.
So, what can the Raptors possibly do for an encore? With the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers still reigning supreme in the East, the Boston Celtics seemingly now ready for primetime, and the New York Knicks making their biennial appearance on Extreme Makeover: Roster Edition, the road to the NBA Finals looks more difficult than it has been since the Raptors achieved contender status.
Does the 2016-17 edition of the Toronto Raptors have what it takes to ascend to the summit of the professional basketball world? We get our very first clue as the Raptors take on the Detroit Pistons at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night.
Regular season: 56-26 (Atlantic Division Champions, 4th in team history)
1st round: Defeated Indiana Pacers 4-3
Conference semifinals: Defeated Miami Heat 4-3
Conference finals: Lost to Cleveland Cavaliers 4-2
Love this view!!!! Pain? What pain…… pic.twitter.com/iZfZLmaUqR
— Jared Sullinger (@Jared_Sully0) October 25, 2016
A low-risk signing with some upside, Jared Sullinger was brought in from Boston after being forced out by the arrival of Al Horford among others.
The 24-year-old has always had potential but had trouble staying healthy until last season when he appeared in a career-high 81 games. Unfortunately for the Raptors, Sullinger’s bad luck has followed him to Toronto as he injured his foot early in the preseason and is sidelined for the next three months.
"Intelligence. The kid is a sponge." – Coach Casey on his early impressions of Jakob Poeltl. pic.twitter.com/DD7wHdkbRL
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) July 13, 2016
It’s not often a conference finalist gets to pick in the top-10 of the NBA Draft, but the Raptors gladly selected the 7-foot, 230lb. Austrian out of Utah as part of the Andrea Bargnani trade with the Knicks.
Jakob Poeltl isn’t a flashy, high-upside draft pick, but he is a big body and as close to NBA ready as they could have hoped for since the team’s front-court depth was depleted in the offseason.
Raps rook Pascal Siakam: "It’s the NBA … so I think that’s going to be an adjustment to make: not freaking out when you get on the court"
— Michael Grange (@michaelgrange) October 24, 2016
Along with Patrick Patterson, Pascal Siakam is likely to be one of the biggest playing time beneficiaries in the wake of Sullinger’s injury. Along with Norman Powell, look for the 22-year-old native of Cameroon to become a fan favourite due to his relentless motor on both ends of the court and his imposing wingspan.
Fred VanVleet has "overachieved" at every level he has ever played, have never seen anyone quite like him. All he can do is play, and win
— Mike Kennedy (@ShockerVoice) October 22, 2016
The former star of the Wichita State Shockers secured the last spot on the Raptors 15-man roster with a strong Summer League season and a steady preseason. A long-shot to get much playing time, 2016 will be an audition of sorts for Fred VanVleet as the team expects Delon Wright back from a shoulder injury come the New Year.
If VanVleet can impress in practice and with his limited minutes, he could battle Wright for the 3rd point guard spot behind veterans Lowry and Joseph.
Bismack Biyombo cemented his celebrity status with an electric playoff run after JV went down with an injury. Unfortunately, his strong play also sealed his fate with the team, as they couldn’t afford to pay him anywhere near his market value as contract extensions for Valanciunas and Ross kicked in this season.
Veteran depth player James Johnson never seemed to enjoy his role after being pushed down the depth chart as the season wore on. The man nicknamed Bloodsport will be missed if only because he is one of the few NBA players that you know could handle himself on and off the court.
The 35-year-old did exactly what the Raptors needed him to do. But when the playoffs came around and Luis Scola’s playing time was cut in half due to defensive deficiencies, the writing was on the wall for the veteran Argentinian.
The Raptors became the third franchise to give up on former first overall draft pick Anthony Bennett. The team hoped a return to his hometown without any pressure of performing might do him some good, but Bennett was waived in early March with little fanfare.
The 30-year-old veteran took Bennett’s place on the active roster near the end of the 2015-16 season and played minimal minutes down the stretch.
|Patrick Patterson||Jonas Valanciunas||DeMarre Carroll|
|Pascal Siakam (R)||Lucas Nogueira||Terrence Ross|
|Jared Sullinger*||Jakob Poeltl (R)||Bruno Caboclo|
|DeMar DeRozan||Kyle Lowry|
|Norman Powell||Cory Joseph|
|Fred VanVleet (R)|
* – injured
If the Toronto Raptors want to hold off what looks to be a very formidable Boston Celtics team and win the Atlantic Division for the fourth consecutive year, they are going to have to do so with a roster that isn’t as deep as last year’s conference finalist squad.
Large contract extensions that Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross signed last year have robbed the team of some of the veteran depth the Raptors relied on at times last season, so there aren’t any outside reinforcements coming for the league’s ninth highest team payroll.
It will be up to Jonas and T-Ross to take the next step in their development if the Raptors want to make another playoff run. But if the team wants to challenge the Cavaliers for conference supremacy, not only are they going to need Valanciunas and Ross to step up, they are also going to need a healthy season from DeMarre Carroll to help space the floor and for Norman Powell to become a bonafide scoring option off the bench.
Sure, the Raptors are buoyed by the continued presence of one of the league’s best backcourts, but after a prolonged playoff run and an appearance in the Summer Olympics, fatigue has to be a real concern and that is where the team’s lack of depth and secondary scoring will be tested.
I hate to say it but unfortunately, the 2016-17 Toronto Raptors have too many factors working against them in their quest for an NBA championship. Whether it is receiving career years from enigmas like Jonas Valanciunas and Terrance Ross, or hoping DeMarre Carroll’s knee holds up until the playoffs, or that there is a Porzingis-sized diamond amongst their 2016 draft class, contending teams don’t leave things in the hands of luck.
And it looks like the Raptors luck may be starting to run out.