Playoff Result: N/A
Key Additions: Masai Ujiri (GM), Dwight Buycks (free agent), Tyler Hansbrough (free agent), DJ. Augustin (free agent)
Key Losses: Andrea Bargnani (trade)
Projected 2013-14 Record: 36-46 (9th in East)*
What to Expect: The Raptors are a very hit or miss team, one vying for a Playoff spot while also looking to rebuild under new GM Masai Ujiri. Ujiri made his first big splash running the Raptors with his pulling off of the Andrea Bargnani deal, robbing the Knicks (damn it) of three picks when he’d be happy to give up “Bargs” for nothing in return. A first step of what’s sure to be many strong moves made by one of the league’s brightest front office minds.
Now as for Toronto’s on-court play, it’s really a coin flip. This team will be battling it out for the final three seeds in the Eastern Conference at it’s peak and simply has too much talent to bottom out in the league and score a top draft pick and their basement. Whether or not they make the Playoffs will be contingent on mainly 2 things: Injuries and Rudy Gay. Gay came under heavy fire year-round as inefficient high-volume FGA machine, but even as his numbers remained virtually the same as a Raptor after his trade to Toronto he turned things around for the team in certain occasions.
Surprisingly, their Lowry-DeRozan-Gay-Amir Johnson-Valanciunas lineup was marvelous. It managed to be their most-played five despite the Gay trade happening mid-season and it put up a Defensive Rating of 92.5 which would have led the league last year. Whether or not this effectiveness was a fluke is in the air, as this lineup was actually the 29th most-played in the NBA. Now although Lowry’s health and conditioning is always a question, Valanciunas is expected to be a candidate for the Most Improved Player award and a previously-unknown vision problem hampering Rudy Gay has been fixed – however his name has come up as a potential trade piece of the Ujiri bus.
So, again, coin flip. Maybe’s and what-if’s roam, just like with Toronto’s competitors on their threshold in Cleveland, Atlanta, Washington and Detroit.
Matchup with the Hawks: The biggest thing here will be how precise the Hawks perform on the offensive end. This team is arguably one of the most athletic in the league from head to toe, this being their biggest upside on the defensive end. DeRozan, Gay – these aren’t elite defenders we’re talking about. But they will devour any lackadaisical pass thrown and finish on the other end. As for their interior defenders, well they don’t stand much of a chance there. Both Valanciunas and Johnson are nimble for their respective sizes but with a mixture of coach Bud’s schemes and the wide range of scoring threats on the Hawks I doubt the Raptors as a whole can stack up on that end.
Toronto’s biggest edge will likely be in the rebounding department, where that killer defensive lineup I brought up earlier scooped up 53.8% of available rebounds, which would’ve been first in the league. Now the departed Josh Smith and Paul Millsap have very similar rebounding figures, but to be able to hang with the Raptors’ enthused boarding the Hawks may have to sacrifice spacing to go big. However, this likely won’t be a point of concern for Atlanta with recent data suggesting rebounding simply isn’t as important as many once thought. If the Hawks send 4 guys to the defensive glass, there’s no reason to fret about Toronto’s hostile athleticism.
Where the Hawks should worry is on the break, where the Raptors will not be fun to try and contain. That said, these Hawks are expected to be a fast-paced team but this probably shouldn’t be a look they go to against the Raps. Forcing Gay, DeRozan and co. to find their offense in the halfcourt should be a focus of the Hawks, and if they can pull that off, defending Toronto shouldn’t be a problem.
Smart coaches will force opposing teams into long twos. Coach Budenholzer is a smart coach. Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan love mid-range shots. Everybody wins! Except for the Raptors, who will in all likelihood get swept by the Hawks, but could steal one game if Atlanta comes in a step too slow.
*predicted record based on Bo’s ESPN Forecast projections for every team