After a frenetic summer filled with stunning free agent defections, big trades and exciting rookies, our heads are still spinning as we enter the 2017-18 NBA campaign. With so many new faces in new places, it leaves fans to wonder how things will shake out this year.
- Are the Toronto Raptors still the third best team in the East?
As the rest of the Eastern Conference shuffled pieces in and out of their rosters and front office staffs, the Raptors basically stood pat. For a franchise that’s won an average of 51 games the past four seasons, that’s not exactly the worst strategy. But as the landscape shifted around the club, it’s fair to wonder if Toronto did enough to hold onto their top three spot in the East.
By re-signing veteran free agents Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry, the Raptors secured the rights of two players that averaged 31.0 and 37.4 minutes per game last season. Letting one or both leave would have set up huge minute holes the team would need to plug. Instead of wholesale changes to maintain their foothold near the top of the East, Toronto is merely looking to accessorize around a stable veteran core. That’s typically a move that helps stabilize year to year production.
The only real questions Toronto faces center around the players filling out their rotation. Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll and PJ Tucker are now with other teams. That means younger players like Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, last summer’s lottery pick Jakob Poeltl, along with free agents CJ Miles and KJ McDaniels, are going to be counted on to fill in the gaps around the Raptors core contributors.
So while some teams are still trying to figure out how key pieces fit together, Toronto only needs to assess which bench players are ready for an expanded role. Especially with the focus of playing DeMar DeRozan more at point guard, the Raptors can afford for a handful of the players above to flame out and still not see their floor as an entire team drop. That’s the upside of locking in known quantities.
It also means that the teams that finished below them in the standings last season, needed to actively get better in order to surge past Toronto. After the dust cleared this summer, three teams -- Milwaukee, Washington and Miami -- likely have a real chance lead the tier in the Eastern Conference just below Boston and Cleveland. But the question is whether those teams fixed the fatal flaws that kept them at arm’s length last season.
For Milwaukee, the biggest concern was finding offense in a way that didn’t sacrifice their defense. In order to maintain a threatening offense, especially with bench-heavy units, Milwaukee head coach Jason Kidd relied heavily on backup center Greg Monroe. The veteran big man’s offensive impact showed in his season splits. When Monroe was on the floor, the Bucks sported an offensive rating of 110.1 (pretty good!). During the times Monroe was on the bench, that number dropped to 104.2 (not at all good….).
Especially with Jabari Parker projected to be out until February, the Bucks will once again be heavily relying on Monroe to boost their offense. The problem is, building anything over than a mediocre defense around a player with Monroe’s limitations is damn near impossible. It’s perhaps doable with a solid scheme and some precise rotation management, but it remains to be seen if Kidd is capable of the latter. Until Milwaukee figures this out, it’s hard to see them surpassing Toronto in the East standings.
When it comes to the Raptors' next threat, the Wizards, it’s a different type of balance that’s a problem. Instead of an offense/defense problem, Washington has a starter/bench problem. Of all the 5-man lineups that logged at least 400 minutes last year, the Marcin Gortat-Markieff Morris-Otto Porter-John Wall-Brad Beal quintet was the fourth best in the league! Yet a lot of that good was outdone when the Wizards went to their bench.
Washington devoted 1,300 minutes two players currently without jobs (Marcus Thornton and Trey Burke). Another 374 went to a player now plying his trade in China (Brandon Jennings), and roughly 1,200 more went to the likes Tomas Satoransky (who, to be fair, was completely misused by the coaching staff), Andrew Nicholson and Sheldon Mac. That’s not even including the 1,605 minutes young wing Kelly Oubre played while posting a negative VORP (Value over replacement player). On top of that, Bojan Bogdanovic, arguably the team’s best bench player, left the team this summer to join the Pacers.
In an attempt to fix a broken bench, the Wizards have brought in veteran guards Tim Frazier and Jodie Meeks, along with forward Mike Scott. It’s hard to tell what the latter two are going to bring to the table -- Meeks has struggled with injuries the past few years while Scott saw legal issues and a knee problem derail his 2016-17 season. But the Wizards are banking on those three along with improvement from Oubre to help boost a bench unit that undermined their season. But even compared to the overhauled Toronto bench, this Washington unit still has a lot to prove.
Outside of the Bucks and Wizards, the only team with a reasonable chance of catching the Raptors are a Heat that didn’t even qualify for last year’s postseason. As far as playoff contenders go, this Miami has by far the funkiest collection of players in the NBA. Yet there’s enough there to see that with a few things breaking their way, the Heat can perhaps make a leap to the top of the East’s second tier.
Miami also needs a few surprising developments that occurred this past season need to stick. Dion Waiters continuing to be an efficient scorer and James Johnson being a quirky point forward off the bench were two unexpected evolutions that spurred the team’s late season run toward the playoffs. If that continues while frontcourt additions like rookie Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk bolster the rotation, this going to be a very deep and versatile Miami team. Questions surrounding their ability to generate easy points at the free throw line and ball movement -- areas where the Heat finished in the bottom third in the league -- still exist, but if enough “ifs” come together, the Raptors might feel some…..heat (sorry!).
Barring semi-miraculous turnarounds for Orlando and Indiana, or insane growth by Philadelphia, it’s hard to see anyone else from deeper in the pack really pushing Toronto. And given all the things that need to come together for even their closest challengers, it’s safe to say Toronto is the frontrunner for, well, third. In fact, the Raptors may be closer to overtaking the East’s top two teams rather than being overtaken themselves.
Both Cleveland and Boston have undergone major facelifts this offseason. The Celtics return exactly four players from a team that finished with the East’s best regular season record. The Cavs, meanwhile, added a host of veterans to surround LeBron James in the wake of the Kyrie Irving trade. There’s enough uncertainty with each side that world’s exist where the Raptors sneak ahead of at least one of them -- in terms of regular season record that is.
For Toronto to pass Boston, it’s pretty simple. Irving, a player prone to miss games due to injury, misses a decent chunk of time and puts an onus on an underdeveloped supporting cast to manufacture enough offense to keep the machine humming along. Threw in some concerns about shooting along with the Celtics’ shoddy defensive rebounding and perhaps the Raptors sneak past them.
When it comes to Cleveland, the story is a little bit different. The Cavs have the league’s most dominant player, but James has pushed their front office to bring along a bunch of vets with questionable fits. Dwyane Wade will probably join James in conserving defensive energy until the playoffs. Neither Wade nor Derrick Rose will shoot well enough for the Cavs starting unit to avoid some regular season duds when it comes to the team’s offense. Throw in the Isaiah Thomas injury mystery and Cleveland’s regular season might be a disjointed venture.
Faced with two paths this summer, the Raptors eschewed the advice of Robert Frost and chose the one previously traveled. With the season about to start, it appears as if this decision could pay off. Toronto seems to be sitting safely above the middle tier of Eastern Conference playoff contenders while also staying positioned to capitalize on any slip ups from those at the top. Though it’s not as sexy as what other clubs have done this summer, Toronto’s commitment to continuity has them in an enviable spot out East.