Raptors Need To Finish Strong

It is hard at this point in a lost season to find the motivation to put it all on the floor. There doesn’t seem to be anything important to play for, other than pride and individual stats, but the Toronto Raptors would be wise to finish the year as strong as they possibly can.

Another loss in Charlotte on Wednesday night is not the kind of effort that is going to instill any faith in this franchise going forward. Despite recent losses there are still a number of talented young players on this team that need to prove to the fan base in Toronto that there is something about this team worth holding onto going into, what could be, a very tumultuous offseason.

There are a number of reasons to finish this season as strong as possible.

Fight for your fan base

The franchise owes it to the fans to provide a glimmer of hope. Season ticket holders are mulling over their renewal options right now and fans are trying to figure out whether this team, one that has missed the postseason for five straight years, is worthy of the expense. A late season surge and impressive play from the young Raptors core could help provide the glimmer of hope the franchise is going to need to pedal tickets to buyers in the offseason. A strong finish will also help to convince fans that this team really is a playoff team if given a full year of Rudy Gay.

If nothing else, a strong end to the year will provide the paying public with a reason to come down the ACC and get their money’s worth between now and the end of the season.

Fight for your spot

The Raptor roster for next year is not anywhere near set and the Raptor players need to establish themselves as part of the core heading into what will very surely be an interesting off-season. Nobody is a slam dunk to return next year outside of (maybe) Jonas Valanciunas.

DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry, all of whom seemed like integral pieces coming into the season are tradeable assets that could be moved depending on what direction the franchise decides to take moving forward. It is imperative this group show their worth.

However, most of those players constitute what Bryan Colangelo feels will shape the core of the team going forward, but all have contracts that are very moveable if the right offer presents itself.

Fight for vindication

A strong finish, perhaps reaching as high as ninth in the conference won’t only prove this team is worthy of playoff predictions heading into next year, it will also ensure that Toronto will not lose a high first round draft pick. The higher the Raptors finish, the less likely it is that OKC receives a high draft choice in the pick they own from Toronto as a result of the Kyle Lowry trade. A lottery victory or mid-first round pick for OKC would provide Tyler Seguin level embarrassment for the Raptors. They need to finish as high as possible to make sure the lost draft choice is one that doesn’t hurt the franchise or provide embarrassment for their front office.

Fight for the Future

The word finally came down from the mouth of Dwane Casey himself, that the Raptors intend to play Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross more now that the playoff push is over. With the youngsters getting a longer look it is important to tout the future of the franchise.

Valanciunas is a player that excites the fan base. He is beginning to show more confidence and skill in his increased playing time. On Wednesday in Charlotte he looked solid inside bringing down 7 rebounds and pouring in 18 points on 54% shooting. There is legitimate hope for his future in Toronto and now is a great time to play into that.

Let the fans know this is a team on the rise and that there is a franchise player to get behind. It worked in the early days of Vince Carter and Chris Bosh and it should work now.

Fight for your employers

Whether the Raptors know it or not, they are still fighting for the future employment of both Dwane Casey and Bryan Colangelo.

Colangelo doesn’t have a contract next season and has missed the playoffs for five straight years. His job is in danger unless he can sell the fan base and the MLSE board that Rudy Gay gives this team a legit shot at the playoffs next season.

Casey has one year left in his contract, but hasn’t led the Raptors to the playoffs and his substitution pattern has been bizarre at times this season. He’s also recently taken issues with the use of analytics by the team after a recent Grantland feature by Zach Lowe brought light to the issue. Though, according to Holly MacKenzie, the team denies there is any friction, but it is still very possible Casey is playing out his last days here in Toronto.

With a few more wins and strong play from the rookies, Casey could be given another shot at the end of the season depending on what happens with Colangelo. If the players want the current coaching staff to stick around, they need to pile on some wins.

The Raptors need to show the organization, its fans and the front office exactly what is in place here for next season and prove that there is reason to believe the Raptors playoff drought is on its way to being over.

Otherwise this summer could once again be filled with change and rebuilding. Something that will not sit well with an increasingly impatient fan base.

All Eyes Are On DeRozan

For the better part of three seasons, DeMar DeRozan has been a little bit of everything. He’s been a dependable defensive presence, an important offensive weapon, a go-to scorer and a team leader.

He’s also had his fair share of disappointment.

He has drawbacks to his game. He has, over the season he’s been here shied away from contact, hasn’t been able to shoot the three consistently and hasn’t not shown he can be the predominant offensive weapon on a team.

He remains a puzzle.

This is the year Raptor fans finally find out what they have in DeRozan. Is he a solid piece of the puzzle, a superstar in waiting, or just another serviceable swingman? Or, if you want to look at it more seriously; is he a part of this core going forward?

DeRozan needs to prove to the raptors and the entire NBA that he is more than just a “flashy dunker” and that he can get to the free throw line consistently.

Since he arrived in Toronto as the number nine pick out of USC in 2009, there have been expectations, perhaps unfairly assigned. Fans wanted to see a high flyer, a guy who could score in buckets, an heir apparent to Vince Carter, and a possible superstar in waiting. Suffice it to say, a lot was expected.

So far DeRozan has been a little bit of everything, but hasn’t quite lived up to the hype of the fans. He’s shown strong defensive effort since his rookie season, enough that he was able to win a starting role on a team fighting for the playoffs in his first year.

He is a great target for our point guards when coming off of a cut and he can throw it down with some of the best in the league. If not for Blake Griffin’s infamous car jumping dunk, DeRozan would have won the dunk contest in 2011.

For stretches of time last year DeRozan seemed to be putting it all together. Runs of high scoring nights and frequent trips to the stripe but then steps backward where he would disappear on offense crack under the pressure of being the number one or falter when guarded by a premier perimeter defender. Without Andrea Bargnani to share the offensive duties, DeRozan was smothered by other teams’ defenses and was not as effective as he was with stronger support.

Coming into each of the last three seasons DeRozan hasn’t had to worry about his status as a starting wing. And make no mistake about it; DeRozan will be the starting shooting guard for the Raptors once again on Oct. 31st. But he’s got some competition on the bench waiting for their opportunity.

This competition will hopefully push DeRozan a little more than he has been over the last few years. DeRozan has had it pretty easy so far in Toronto. A guaranteed spot, very little internal competition and the benefit of the doubt when playing with an injury plagued roster.

This is the year raptor fans need to see DeRozan step up and fulfill the promise he showed when he was drafted three years ago.

There is now a wealth of options on Toronto’s bench this year that could spell DeRozan at the 2 guard for stretches during the year. Landry Fields is more comfortable playing the two and is an excellent perimeter defender. Alan Anderson has earned the respect of the coaching staff with his strong work ethic and attention to defense and he could see some minutes at the 2.

Also, with three strong point guards on the roster there will likely be times when Jose Calderon or John Lucas III find themselves sharing the back court with Kyle Lowry as both posses strong shooting ability, a skill DeRozan hasn’t shown to be a strength.

The biggest threat to DeRozan this year, however, might just be rookie shooting guard Terrence Ross, albeit likely over the long-term. Ross is a strong defender and possesses a deadly long-range shot. He is a great compliment to Kyle Lowry who pushes the ball up the floor and often kicks the ball out to the perimeter. Ross is even more deadly off of a kick out because of how quickly he can release a shot. It is that deadly shot and accuracy that make Ross such an attractive option at this position.

This season will be a make or break year for DeRozan in Toronto. He is due for an extension and his agent will likely be looking for a large payday. If the Raptors don’t make the playoffs and DeRozan struggles, if he doesn’t find that magic chemistry with Lowry and the rest of the team, he may find himself wearing a new uniform this time next year.

DeRozan is going to have to prove to fans and management that he can be the player that he was thought to be back when he was drafted. DeRozan needs to be more than an average defender and a flashy dunker. He needs to take that next step and cement his place in the Raptors future.

Shooting guards who produce the numbers DeRozan has over the last three years (14.1pts, 3.4 reb, 1.5 ast, 45.7 FG% and 20.6% 3-pt %) are not terribly difficult to find around the league for a much lower price than DeRozan is likely looking for. If his stats last year (16.7 pts, 3.3 reb, 2.0 ast, 42.2 FG%, 26.1 3pt%) are an indication of what kind of player he will be this year, then he could see his last year playing north of the border. What the Raptors need is for DeMar to show he can be a three-point threat this year and score consistently in the paint.

Without that added aspect to his game, he will eventually sit in favour of better shooters or will ultimately be replaced by a cheaper option.

He has been working hard over the summer to strengthen his game. Dwane Casey offered, when asked about DeRozan: “He did a great job this summer of really putting on strength and right now he’s doing a great job of hitting the guys first, creating contact, not being afraid of getting into the paint, and it’s going to pay big dividends for him.”

This year we will finally find out what DeMar DeRozan is made of.

DeRozan has the ability and skills to be a superstar in this league, but needs to put it together soon or the Raptors will quickly run out of patience.

It’s time we all find out what exactly Toronto has in DeRozan. One thing is for certain, however, he will be the architect of his own destiny.

This could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

Or not.

No Nash, No Problem

I, like many in Toronto, counted their chickens before they had hatched. Steve Nash is not coming home, he isn’t coming back to Canada, he isn’t even coming to the same time zone as us. Nash agreed to a 3 year $27 million contract with Kobe and the Lakers on Wednesday.

Raise your hand if you saw that coming…

Me neither.

One person did however, and that was Bryan Colangelo.

Less than 24 hours after losing out on Steve Nash and watching the phone lines at FAN590 and message boards all over the internet light up with calls for his head, Colangelo orchestrated a quick and effective move to fill the point guard position.

Acquiring Kyle Lowry will not have the same impact on merchandise sales or in the PR department as a Nash acquisition would have. At least not yet.

While Steve Nash is looked upon in Canada as an icon and a saviour for the franchise, Lowry may be the better long-term option for the Raptors.

Nash is 38 years old and could at any time break down. While I think that is unlikely he still is a little too long in the tooth to be a long-term option at the point for a very young Raptors team.

By comparison, Lowry is 12 years younger than Nash. He possesses strong defensive skills and gets to the rim frequently. He is also a very good rebounder for his position.

The Lowry acquisition may, in the end, work out better for the Raptors than Steve Nash would have, at least on the court.

Last year Lowry was instrumental in Houston’s rise back to prominence. He averaged 14.3 points per game and helped his teammates get involved with 6.6 assists per game. Those numbers climbed to 15.1 and 7.2 when he was appointed the starter. He was an integral piece in their late season surge that almost ended with a playoff berth.

Toronto fans will like his game. He takes the ball to the rim regularly and doesn’t settle for jump shots. He isn’t a ball hog and gets his teammates involved in the flow of the offense and is all over the court on the defensive end. He’s a hard worker that will likely have fans at the ACC standing in appreciation. He is a strong free throw shooter (86%) and can hit with consistency from 3-pt range (38%).

In many ways, Lowry is a much better fit for this young Raptors squad than Nash would have been. Makes you wonder why he was even available, but his relationship with coach Kevin McHale was tumultuous.

Lowry won’t have that problem here. Dwane Casey loves to preach defense and he will now have a strong defender at the top of the circle leading his team on both ends of the floor. Casey will likely put his trust in Lowry in a way McHale never did.

The icing on the cake with regard to Lowry is that he scheduled to make $5.75 million this year and $6.21 the next. That is a fraction of what the Raptors would have had to pay to get Nash to sign on the dotted line. The Raptors now still have money and assets to go out and acquire another player.

Perhaps not landing Nash was a blessing in disguise.

For the many who were calling for Colangelo’s head after the Fields signing and the Nash debacle, things now appear to be a bit brighter.

Colangelo, like he has done many times as GM of this franchise, took a punch and quickly responded. Plan B may actually turn out to be better than Plan A.

Fans in Toronto need to learn to wait until all the dust has settled before they snap to judgement. Colangelo has been around a long time and is not one of the more respected GM’s in the league for nothing. The Lowry deal proves Colangelo is a valuable asset in charge of this franchise.

In the end, the success or failure of these off-season moves cannot be accurately judged until the Raptors get on the court in the fall. But Dwane Casey did a phenomenal job with lesser talent last year. Fans wanted to see what he could do with an improved roster. Adding Landry Fields and Kyle Lowry is certainly an upgrade.

Looking forward to seeing what Casey can do with his new talent and what moves Colangelo still has up his sleeve.