Do The Raptors Need A Superstar To Win?

Toronto Raptors

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

As the memories of a demoralizing defeat in the playoffs fade into the background, Toronto fans are starting to look ahead to what seems like a bright future for the young and tenacious Toronto Raptors.  But after a series that saw some crucial turnovers and late-game collapses, Raps fans are starting to wonder: does new GM Masaj Ujiri need to make a big free-agency acquisition to move closer to a championship?

Let me start by saying that I have the utmost respect for and confidence in the architect of the Denver Nuggets’ current roster .  Ujiri’s ability to improve a team through chemistry and top-to-bottom talent made itself apparent when he dealt away Carmelo Anthony, and caem out smelling like roses after trading Rudy Gay for spare parts that ultimately filled vital roles on a then desperate team.  The addition of Greivis Vasquez, Pattrick Patterson, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes (yes, even Chuck), helped the wayward team hang on for the third seed in the East and narrowly missed a second-round battle with the Miami Heat.  Whatever he does, I have complete faith, and until this team has a Philadelphia 76ers-like collapse I will stand behind his decisions.

Toronto is a high-pressure market no matter which sport is under the microscope (see: Toronto Maple Leafs), and the clock is ticking for Ujiri to take this team to at least the first Conference Finals in franchise history.  This might seem like a lofty goal, but such is the nature of Toronto sports; there are few more fickle fans in sports than those in T.O.  This poses an important question: Do the Raptors have enough star power to make that next leap?

Many people will say no; despite the play of plucky PG Kyle Lowry and mean-mugging SG DeMar DeRozan, they still couldn’t beat an aging Brooklyn Nets team, one that had been sorely outplayed for stretches during the series.  They showed inconsistency on offense, with a lack of players (or player, to be exact) with the ability to take over a game and drag the team out of a shooting slump.  DeRozan showed flashes of brilliance in his first season as the main scoring threat, but for the most part the Raptors were a team that hung their hat on scoring by committee and defense, showing great cohesion and teamwork on the court; the downside of this is that without a go-to, top tier scorer, they stalled often.

With the end of the season and the start of free agency approaching, a big question mark is the future of Lowry, who is due to hit the open market this offseason.  The front office’s first matter of business is to retain the fan favourite and All-Star snub, but it won’t be cheap.

Lowry played at an elite level last season, finishing among the top at his position in almost every category finishing fourth in points (17.6), seventh in assists (7.4), and second in rebounds (4.2), while also leading all positions in charges drawn, showing his determination to win at all costs.  He was also the Raptors clutch player down the stretch, picking up their offense in tight late-game situations.  Having said that, Lowry is not, and might not ever be, a superstar in the NBA.  His size and lack of elite speed or athleticism means his ceiling drops a little below that of the top-tier players at his position.  His all-around contribution and high basketball IQ still propelled him to the fifth-best PER (player efficiency rating) and third best EWA (estimated wins added) at his position, but he will never be a player who can dominate a game with his scoring.

DeRozan, on the other hand, sits on the opposite end of the spectrum.  His scoring talent greatly overshadows his deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball, where his lack of instincts and lateral quickness make him a liability against the top scorers in the Association.  As a hybrid SG/SF, he poses the dilemma of being a little too small to defend larger wing players like LeBron James and Joe Johnson, while being a little too slow to keep fleet-footed guards like Monta Ellis or Jamal Crawford in front of him.  This poses a dilemma when creating matchups, as Raptors’ head coach Dwane Casey has another talented 2-guard in Terrence Ross behind him. Brooklyn exposed this weakness by using a lineup of larger wing players to out-muscle the Raptors, and it worked to perfection leading to a gameseven victory and the collective deflation of an entire city.

This season does have some tantalizing prospects in free agency, but I believe that the key to the Raptors success doesn’t lie in acquiring superstar talent, but rather taking on a San Antonio Spurs approach; the foundations of dynasties are built on good coaching and building the team through the draft.  The acquisitions of the athletic Ross and the hard-nosed C Jonas Valanciunas through the draft of  was a good start, as well as the installation of Casey as head coach.  Casey has bred a culture of hard-nosed, team defense that the Dinos can hang their hat on, and although the old adage might be wearing out its welcome, it’s as true as ever: Defense. Wins. Championships. Period.  With the ramped-up intensity and pace of the playoffs, the championship goes to the team that can get crucial stops in late-game situations, and that’s likely something that won’t change.

The starting lineup of Lowry, Ross, DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Valanciunas has chemistry, and more importantly has through-the-roof potential.  Lowry and DeRozan have both performed at All-Star levels, and with improvement that stays consistent with their production to date can anchor the team for years to come.  Lowry has shown himself to be an impact player, and barring any injuries, a repeat of his production from this season would be perfect.  DeRozan has steadily improved over the course of his young career, and if he can take another leap this offseason, he can develop into the type of player Ujiri hopes after shipping off Gay.

Amir and Patterson give the Raptors a dangerous power forward tandem that can each play a traditional PF or small-ball C position and each give their team a different look.  Amir is the kind of scrapper every team needs, a glue player that holds a team together with his hustling both on offense and defense; Patterson is a versatile stretch forward with a solid low-post game and gives them another reliable option on offense when he’s on the floor.

The real question for the Raptors lies in their two youngest starters, Ross and Valanciunas.  Both played at high levels for their team this past season, with Big V (in honour of his Lithuanian forefather, Zydrunas Ilgauskas) dialing up his level of play in the playoffs and Terrence matching a Raptors single game record for points in a game (51), set by none other than the love-to-hate Vince Carter himself.

Ross has the athleticism, size and length to become a key player for the Raptors on both sides of the court in the future.  Casey has shown confidence in him and in turn (aside from his playoffs fiasco) Ross delivered, cutting down on his turnovers while often guarding the opposition’s best scoring wing.  When Patterson and Salmons were asked who surprised them the most coming to the team, both immediately showered praise on Ross, Patterson saying he “had no idea [Terrence] could shoot like that.”  His glaring fault on offense is his lack of ball-handling skills, but with hard work he could take his game into the elite level, while also holding his own defensively at a position that features scorers.

Valanciunas has impressed many with his first-round success, not long after capturing the Summer League MVP last August.  He showed decisiveness offensively in the low post and the kind of  bruising play that Toronto teams have sorely lacked since the departure of Chris Bosh.  And to think, the man is only 21 years old.  Valanciunas is  boiling over with potential, and I see a future of 18ppg/10rpg/1.5bpg in his future.  If they could get five or six seasons of that kind of production out of him it would go down as one of the last (not to mention few) things that former GM Bryan Colangelo did right in his tenure.

Look at the Spurs.  Popovich has instilled a culture that has brought his team four rings to date with their eye on a fifth this season.  He did it by drafting players that fit his system and turning them into winning machines.  Over their championship reign, they’ve had a core of players that has stayed relatively intact, allowing them to grow together as a unit and develop individual strengths in different areas.  All are great players, but would they have turned out the same in different systems, with continuously shifting teammates?  Management didn’t shell out big money in free agency for brand name players, they built them from the ground up.  This is a tried-and-true method and something that has been forgotten in the era of social media and instant messaging: dynasties, unlike insulting tweets, are not built overnight.

DeRozan and Johnson are the longest tenured Raptors, and have been in Casey’s system since his arrival; they’re also two of the Raptors best players, and that’s no coincidence.  They’ve stuck around through the bad times and Casey’s offense has become second nature to them.  They wake up thinking about screen-and-rolls and fall asleep dreaming about weak-side rotations.  They doodle double teams and day-dream about wing-top-wing ball movement.  When you get a lot of turnover in a system, it becomes difficult without a ‘Melo or Durant-like player to win at all.  But when you keep a core group of players that mesh under one head coach for an extended period of time, they gel into a cohesive unit.

The mishaps on defense lessen, because wing players have confidence in their interior defenders, and the interior players in turn know which way opposing scorers are more likely to slip through.  Rotations become more efficient and quicker, and less weak-side threes pop up.  On offense, players know where they’re supposed to be and the lack of dominating offensive players becomes less apparent; I think DeRozan will keep progressing as a go-to scorer in slump situations, but it takes the pressure off of him to carry the entire team through those moments.  Everything becomes easier.

Vasquez said the key to the Raptors success this season was that when the new players arrived, everybody immediately clicked.  That’s a rare thing for a professional organization, sports team or otherwise.  Look at the Indiana Pacers, who completely combusted mid-season because of animosity between players, with rumours of fist-fights and freeze-outs coming from the woodwork.  If you know that you have a group of players that know each other’s tendencies and work well together, you don’t mess it up.  Schemes and crossovers and jumpers can be coached, but something that is often forgotten is that chemistry just can’t be taught.  Chemistry is organic, something that people either have or they don’t.

It’s too early to tell, but the Raptors have an outside shot at becoming the next dynasty in this league.  With a plethora of young talent with heavy upside, Casey has a great young squad to work with at developing his own Popovich-like culture in Toronto.  Ujiri is a shrewd GM, and knows that in a league dominated by big stars with their faces plastered all over billboards, sometimes a blue collar team can get the job done just as well and for a much more reasonable price.  Of course having a LeBron or Kobe helps, but it’s not necessary to win a championship, and I sincerely believe that the Raptors have all the talent they need already on the roster to turn into an NBA powerhouse.

Raptors fanatic and Leafs lover. Almost semi-amateur athlete.