For the Toronto Raptors, “evolve” seemed to be the word of last summer. Their isolation-heavy style of play wasn’t getting anywhere in the playoffs. Watching DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry take turns disappointing everyone and their mothers year after year was disheartening, to say the least. Then, things changed this year.
The ball moved more, as did Raptor bodies off the ball. DeRozan continued his evolution as a playmaker. Lowry took more of a backseat, but still provided his fastball when the Raptors needed it. The Raptors had a young bench, but they blew opposing second units out of the water.
Suddenly, it wasn’t just lip-service or wishful thinking. The Raptors were different. Aside from posting the East’s best record (59-23), they were one of the handful of teams that finished in the top 10 in offense and defensive rating. This was supposed to be the year the Raptors finally broke through.
Until they didn’t.
After knocking off the Washington Wizards in round one, the Raptors ran into the buzzsaw formally known as LeBron James. Four embarrassing games later, the Raptors found themselves back at square one.
The Raptors are facing the same “blow it up or tweak it” dilemma with a new twist: Dwane Casey is no longer the head coach. Not only is the roster in question, the sideline is, too.
Here to talk about the state of the Raptors is Sahal Abdi of Raptors Republic, an affiliate of ESPN’s True Hoop Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @sAbdi28.
6. ND: Toronto evolved offensively, boasted the league’s best bench, had their winningest season in franchise history, and … got swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in round 2. Was their 2017-18 campaign more of a success or a failure in your eyes?
SA: Someone once said, “The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with — but whether it is the same problem as last year.” In the Toronto Raptors’ case, they’ve had the same problem for several seasons now. That problem happens to be one of the greatest players in basketball history, LeBron James.
LeBron crowned the Raptors again, leading the Cavs to a sweep of epic proportions. Leading up to that point, Toronto was having a fantastic season, led by their star backcourt and upper echelon head coach. I believe Toronto had goals this season, like Masai Ujiri mentioned countless times — and that goal was to win a championship. Now, as long as LeBron and the Warriors are LeBron and the Warriors, that goal seems far-fetched.
On the other hand, the Raptors seemed to have the best shot they’ve had in all their years facing LeBron and the Cavaliers. Toronto and it’s fans truly believed “Hey, if we can get past the King, we’ll be fine in the East. The Celtics are injury-ravaged and the 76ers don’t have the playoff seasoning, nor the bench to compete with us”. We all know how that ended up.
Overall, I think the season was a bunch of miniature successes rolled up into a big ball of failure. It’s kinda like beating all the small ‘bosses’ in a video game, developing all the momentum possible until you run into the big boss whom you can’t beat no matter how much you try. Toronto built, and built, and built for that moment versus LeBron James and simply did not get it done.
5. Dwane Casey ended up being a casualty of Toronto’s playoff exit. As of now, no replacement has been made. Who would you like to see on the sidelines next season?
It was definitely weird, strange and sad to see Dwane Casey go. He built this foundation from the ground up. This was him. He helped make Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan into the star-caliber players they were. He helped develop that bench. He changed the losing mentality that haunted this franchise in the mid-to-late 2000s. He holds the franchise winning record for Raptors’ coaches (regular season and playoffs). He was an incredible coach, but a better human being.
In my personal opinion, I’d love to see Jerry Stackhouse or Nick Nurse get that vacant job. Jerry retired from the NBA in 2013. Just two years later, he signed with the Raptors as an assistant coach to serve under Dwane Casey. After one year as an assistant, he moved on to become the head coach of the Raptors inaugural G-League franchise, Raptors 905. He’s had an immeasurable amount of success developing and maximizing potential of the Raptors’ prospects. In just two years, he’s been crowned G-League champion and runner-up.
Nurse, on the other hand, has had a more extensive coaching career. He’s coached in the BBL (British Basketball League), the G-League and now, the NBA. Nurse has his own accolades in that NBA’s G-League as he holds the Coach of the Year award from the 2010-2011 season and has also coached the Rio Grande Valley Vipers to their own championship.
Both of these guys know how to develop talent, especially younger talent. They can get through to their players, have history with coaching these Raptors and seem entirely prepared for a job like this. I’d be excited if Toronto went either way on this one.
4. Let’s say the Raptors decide to really shake things up by breaking up their talented backcourt. Who would you rather see go, and what kind of package would you look for?
I’ve been flip-flopping on this topic for awhile now. One day I’ll want DeMar gone if push comes to shove, and the next I’ll want Lowry gone. I want to make something clear: I want Ibaka gone regardless of what direction this franchise heads in — even status quo.
I understand the age issue and the eventual decline Kyle Lowry is bound for, but I’m going DeRozan with this one. His skillset is tailor-made for regular season dominance, but he falters far too often when it matters most. Teams have the perfect guide on how to stop DeRozan when they have the time to scheme against him. Also, having Lowry here for the next two seasons will most likely aid the development of both Fred Van Vleet and Delon Wright.
Yes, Kyle may not be worth the colossal $33M figure — but to be frank, Kyle’s been underpaid far too long for us to go crazy over his contract. He still played like an All Star this past season, and was given that honour. He also proved he can step up in the playoffs, as he was easily the best (and most consistent) Raptor in the postseason.
Maybe in a DeRozan package, Toronto can look to acquire a similar, but younger talent who doesn’t quite fit in his respective team’s structure? Did anyone say… Andrew Wiggins? Maybe going all in and packaging DeRozan, Anunoby and a pick for Kawhi Leonard? What about going totally against what Ujiri said about tanking and trading DeRozan for a top 6 draft pick in a loaded draft class? Pair him with Anunoby, Van Vleet, Wright and the other blossoming Raptors? Hmmm. All of these trades I could understand.
3. What on earth happened to Norman Powell? What’s his role moving forward?
In just one calendar year, Norman Powell went from one of the most promising Raptors in a long time to barely holding any value in Toronto’s rotation. One thing I realized this season, is a lot of Powell’s on-court performance depends on his psyche.
Dwane Casey put his trust in Powell to start the first 12 games of the season and his plan backfired. Powell looked totally uncomfortable in his role, while not fully grasping what his job was as the starting small forward. He was moved to the bench and replaced by what-was-supposed-to-be-raw rookie OG Anunoby. Anunoby took the role by the throat and never looked back. Powell on the other hand, didn’t seem to ever gain his footing — including the postseason (where he usually catches fire).
Again with Powell, there were flashes here and there, but it wasn’t enough to quell his overall season performance. I don’t think Toronto’s front office will necessarily shop Powell around, but they’ll get a preliminary value for what Norman holds around the league. To make it clear, this is a kid who I have full confidence to come back strong next season simply because he’s easily one the hardest working players on the team. His work ethic is incredible. Not to mention he’s still an uber-athletic 6’4 guard who has the ability to play lockdown defense and can hit the occasional three. Oh, and he just turned 25 years old on May 25.
2. Toronto doesn’t have a pick in this year’s draft, though there’s always the chance they buy or trade their way in. Is there a guy projected in the second round you’d like to see them move in for?
Toronto isn’t like other NBA teams. They have a plethora of young talent in their ranks. An embarrassment of riches, so to speak. At this point, whoever Toronto were to target in the 2nd round, would have to be someone Masai is absolutely drooling over.
In just the last two seasons, Ujiri has signed Fred Van Vleet, Malcolm Miller, Alfonzo McKinnie and Kennedy Meeks as undrafted free agents. One of those guys was just nominated for 6th Man of the Year — the other three led the Raptors 905 to the G-League Championship game. I want Toronto to target prospects that are high on three-point shooting ability and/or defensive disruption & length. A few players I have in mind are Dayton’s Kostas Antetokounmpo, Nevada’s Caleb Martin, and Duke irritant Grayson Allen.
1. Who are some bargain-bin free agents you’d like to see Toronto target this summer?
Toronto needs maybe 2-3 free agents to fill out their roster completely. Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Wright, CJ Miles, Powell and Van Vleet (if re-signed as a RFA) are all guaranteed roster positions on the bench (at least). McKinnie, Brown, Malachi Richardson and Miller will probably have to battle for roles on the final 15 with incoming rookies.
Again, one of Toronto’s biggest issues this season was undeniably three-point shooting. I’d love to see Ujiri and Co. target a guy like Seth Curry. Maybe even Joe Harris (assuming he doesn’t command a boatload of I-can-shoot-better-than-your-best-shooter money). I’ve always liked Nemanja Bjelica. Maybe take a one-year flier on Mario Hezonja. If cheap enough, Danny Green would be an awesome add. There are plenty of options out there for Toronto, but being so cash-strapped — they have no choice but to spend wisely.