Following Sunday's embarrassing loss to the Washington Wizards, the Toronto Raptors' season came to a disappointing end.
The season started out so well, as they opened the season sharing the ball and winning games, leading the Eastern Conference in wins early on. Then came the DeMar DeRozan injury, destroying all synergy from the team. They needed an extra scorer besides Kyle Lowry, forcing Terrence Ross and Greivis Vasquez to take on the vast majority of the scoring load, a role they both struggled mightily in.
Over that stretch though, Raptor fans got to see the real James Johnson and how big of a role he could play as a defensive three, who also scored now and again. With his help, the team ended with a winning record during DeRozan's injury.
However, once DeRozan came back, the team struggled again, with many blaming DeRozan for the happenstance. Yet, the play of Ross and Vasquez played the biggest role in the team's failures, due to them still trying to do too much. Ross's play was so bad that Dwane Casey decided to bench him over the less struggling Vasquez.
Vasquez finally stepped back in his role as a pass-first point guard, who can score occasionally, and produced at a higher level for the rest of the season than in the first half of the season. But, something else happened to the Raptors at that time. They became very predictable.
The team became very guard selfish, allowing Lowry, DeRozan, and Lou Williams to score the majority of the points, essentially running the offense through them, instead of playing a more open offense that led to their success in the first half.
The team would also play little defense from that day forward, as Lowry, DeRozan, and Williams completely gave up on that side of the ball due to focusing more on scoring. Also, Amir Johnson was not the same player Raptor fans grew up with and loved as well. As he played with two injured knees, being less of a defensive force than he was in years previous. Yet, despite the bad play, the big man continued to get playing time.
What led to the terrible finish to the regular season and to the complete domination that pursued in the playoffs was that teams knew how to beat the Toronto Raptors. If they focused on stopping Lowry, DeRozan, and Williams (all inefficient scorers by the way), they could beat the Toronto Raptors, which is exactly what happened during the Washington Wizards series.
Washington stopped the three scorers and played team ball, having all their starting five come up big at key points during the series. Yet, Coach Casey did not change up his lineup at all during any point during the series.
Now that the series is over, the Raptors need to focus on how they can get better and less predictable. To start, they should seriously consider trading away Terrence Ross, who has been hurting the team more than helping them since being selected in the draft in 2012. The young guard still has upside and potential though, which can help the Raptors get another piece in their lineup, like a power forward that can hold his own (Taj Gibson, Kenneth Faried, or David West). If there is no potential deal out there, he should be coming off the bench, due to his skills already being existent in the Raptors' starting five.
Many fans of the Toronto Raptors would cringe at the fact of letting go of Terrence Ross, due to the lack of depth Toronto has at the three. Yet, do not forget about Bruno Cabolco, the player the Raptors drafted this year in the first round. He is the future at the three, and James Johnson is good enough to bridge the gap between the two players.
Yet, the Raptors also delayed his development quite a bit this year, by not having a D-League affiliate of their own early enough to place him in. Grabbing one of those will need to be essential during this offseason, not only for players like Cabolco, but for players like DeAndre Daniels, Julyan Stone, and Tomislav Zubcic as well.
Next, the Raptors need to let go of Amir Johnson, who granted is a fan favorite to the fans of Toronto, but whose knees are not in a good enough shape to keep starting for them. Also, Patrick Patterson, whom the Raptors signed to a large deal last year, does many of the same things that Johnson does on the court, which decreases the need to keep Johnson around.
Dwane Casey also needs to be let go. His offense has become predictable to other teams, and the team has lost all motivation to play defense under him. He also handles minutes terribly, always playing players like DeRozan and Lowry too much and players like Jonas Valanciunas and James Johnson too little.
A proper way to handle the Raptors offense at this point would be allowing Jonas Valanciunas to get more touches on offense. He is strong enough to push other big men away and has enough feel to knock down a mid-range jump shot. He is also one of those players, whose defensive capabilities skyrocket when his offensive numbers are up.
Also, when the team is filled with offensive-oriented players, like a DeRozan, Lowry, or a Williams, it is best to start a defensive-oriented player like James Johnson to offset anything lost on the defensive end that is gained on the offensive side. Playing a Terrence Ross, who gets lost playing upper-echelon threes, is not a good way to handle the starting five players (he also shoots way too much and the ball is sometimes stagnant in his hands).
Instead of planning a run at upper-echelon players, like a Kevin Durant or an Andrew Wiggins, this team just needs to rework some of the things they are doing and that starts at head coach. This team has what it takes to win right now, if the team is run correctly.