At the conclusion of the 2014 NBA season, the overwhelming sentiment will likely be that the Toronto Raptors were the league’s most surprising team this year. This team was believed to be a fringe-contender at best and no one would have batted an eye should they have fallen short of the playoffs again. Those beliefs were only fortified after the Raptors dealt Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings early in the season, seemingly waving the white flag early. It is almost unheard of for a team to trade its best player so early and wind up as the third seed in the conference, but that is exactly what Toronto did.
Behind a blossoming backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, this Raptors team exceeded everyone’s expectations immensely. DeRozan made his first All-Star team and turned into a legitimate star in the absence of Gay. The trade also streamlined the development of fellow neophytes Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. With those four as the heart of this team, this is a franchise that can only continue to grow and develop into a perennial threat.
The only problem with that notion is that Lowry is a free agent. Toronto was seconds away from trading him earlier this season to the New York Knicks, but the deal ultimately fell through. After a year where he averaged 17.9 points, 7.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds, all career highs, Lowry is going to command a hefty price on the market. A big bargaining chip the Raptors have is that point guard is the deepest position in the league, and he is not the type of player that will immediately make a terrible team into a great one, so cellar-dwellers are likely out of the equation with him. The Knicks may bid for his services, but they don’t have a ton of cap space, especially if Carmelo Anthony comes back. Lowry appears to be happy and is a great fit with Toronto, so fans shouldn’t worry about hitting the panic button just yet.
The Raptors defense and bench are areas where they thrived, surprisingly enough. They allowed just 98 points per game, good for seventh in the NBA. An area where they could improve is by having another scorer off the bench who can create for himself. Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson are very good players to have on the bench, as are role players like Steve Novak, Tyler Hansbrough and Landry Fields. What the Raptors could definitely use is a true sixth man to provide instant offense. The Raptors often went stagnant in the playoffs when DeRozan or Lowry were off the floor. Coach Dwane Casey, who just signed a new three-year deal according to ESPN, utilized a small rotation in the playoffs, often calling for nobody off the bench besides Patterson and Vasquez. Ross had a horrible series and Valanciunas was in foul trouble sometimes, so the deficiency was apparent.
The thousands of people who gathered outside of the Air Canada Centre during the postseason run proved that this city and this front office is ready to support a winning team. Toronto made a big jump this year and has nothing but positivity to look forward to with so many young talented players on the roster.
Commentary by Justin Hussong