The Toronto Raptors have been stuck between good and great for a while now. Fans have learned the hard way that what happens during the regular season has no bearing on the team’s playoff success. The Raptors have seen steady improvement under Dwane Casey in terms of wins, and a trip to the conference finals is impressive. Still, you have to take a long, hard look at yourself if you want to be considered elite. The franchise must answer the following questions: Are Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan a backcourt capable of winning a championship? Do they have enough 3-point shooting to compliment them? Are their power-forwards versatile? Do they have a quality center? Do they have bench depth? We will answer these questions. We will also provide the Raptors with five things they must do in order to be considered a legitimate championship contender.
Turning the Toronto Raptors into a Contender
Are Lowry and DeRozan what you would call a championship backcourt? They have shown they can be. In Game 4 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, they combined for 67 points against the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers to even that series at 2 games each. Lowry and DeRozan were considered playoff elites for a brief moment. Unfortunately, due to the inefficient play of Lowry and DeRozan, they went on to lose games 5 and 6 of that series and were swept by those same Cavaliers in the next year’s playoffs.
It is nearly impossible to know how this backcourt will perform in the postseason, which is a problem. Few question the abilities of Lowry and DeRozan as All-Star caliber players, but the two have never been able to develop a consistency that makes them reliable. It is difficult to say if they are a backcourt capable of beating elite playoff opponents. Whether or not Lowry and DeRozan have been rested and healthy heading into the playoffs has best determined playoff success. The Raptors should make this their first priority.
#1: Keep Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan rested and healthy during the regular season.
If you expect to contend in today’s NBA, you need great shooting from multiple players. Off-season addition C.J. Miles fits in nicely next to DeRozan and Lowry, and he looks like a great shooter so far. Miles is tall for his position; he has a quick release and is extremely proficient from the corner. The problem is he does not defend well. Fortunately for the Raptors, they employ a draft day steal; OG Anunoby is his name, and he has been the most pleasant of surprises this year. He might already be the team’s best wing defender, and he is shooting the ball better than expected.
If Casey could somehow merge the abilities of Miles and Anunoby, he would have an elite 3-point shooting, lock-down defender that would perfectly compliment Lowry and DeRozan. But only one can play at a time. Eventually, one needs to be chosen as the starter that can develop some advanced chemistry with Lowry and DeRozan. So, does Miles’ shooting ability make up for his lack of defensive skill? Does Anunoby’s defensive ability outweigh his lack of experience and limited offensive arsenal? Casey needs answers and the sooner he finds them, the better.
#2: Figure out which small-forward best compliments Lowry and DeRozan ASAP.
All championship teams (these days) seem to have a power-forward that has the size of a traditional big man, but with 3-point shooting range. Players like this are Kevin Love or Draymond Green. Serge Ibaka is Toronto’s version. Ibaka is one of the better shot blockers in the NBA; he has the foot speed to guard smaller players and a good-looking jump shot with 3-point range. He has great games on occasion but he is also capable of disappearing.
The Raptors have been able to survive despite Ibaka’s inconsistency thanks to Pascal Siakam, who has developed into a better reserve faster than predicted. He too has extended his range to the 3-point line, which makes him more valuable. All things considered, those two might actually be the best power forward duo of the Lowry-DeRozan era. Anytime Ibaka ends up playing subpar basketball, Siakam has proven a worthy substitute.
#3: The power-forward situation is not broken for once, so do not try to fix it.
The Valanciunas Problem
Jonas Valanciunas has been on the cusp of breaking out and becoming an above average center for quite a while. It has not happened so far. He often does not play fourth quarters because he is a liability on defense, where he struggles to guard the pick and roll. Even second-year Raptors center Jakob Poeltl has shown better passing ability and instinct. Valanciunas is still valuable and his size is an asset, especially in the playoffs.
That being said, his time is running out. He has been on the trading block before and rumors surrounding him will likely surface again in February, but the Raptors do not have many good options. Assuming they keep Valanciunas, Casey should do all he can to foster the development of the Austrian center Poeltl, because he shows promise. To have Poeltl ready to play a role in the playoffs will help the Raptors now and in the future.
#4: Play Jakob Poeltl now. He will reward you in the playoffs.
The Toronto Raptors’ Bench
The Raptors’ bench is solid. Losing Delon Wright to a shoulder injury weakened it significantly, but it is functioning without him. The bench’s objective is to inject energy into games and to hold leads created by the starters. Not only has the bench done well, but at times this season the script has flipped, and the bench has been the unit to outscore opponents. Credit for this should go to the Raptors’ D-League affiliate, Raptors 905, that has helped to keep reserves ready when they are not in the rotation. Fred VanVleet, Siakam and Poeltl all spent time with the Raptors 905, and they all play significant roles for the Raptors now. The bench will continue to improve with time, as long as injuries do not take a toll.
#5: Keep developing young talent, it is working.
CHICAGO, USA – OCTOBER 13: Kyle Lowry (7) of Toronto Raptors in action during a preseason NBA game between Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors at the United Center on October 13, 2017 in Chicago, United States. (Photo by Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)