After two straight seasons that ended in playoff disappointment, the Toronto Raptors have made some significant roster moves while still keeping their core intact. Fans and members of the Raptors need to be patient this season with a new team and new look.
Last season, Toronto's patience did not need to be tested as the Raptors came out of the gate on fire, going 24 and seven to start the season. This was a result of the front office electing to go with continuity after a surprisingly successful 2013-14 campaign.
Aside from a couple roster moves, the team chemistry was already there from the previous season. The offensive firepower that Toronto had played, and even though the Raptors played less than mediocre defense, was too much to handle for opposing teams. The Raptors were riding such a high that there was nowhere to go but down.
Other NBA teams started to find their own chemistry, and more importantly, they started picking up on what the Raptors were doing. The Raptors hit a huge drop off after their great start, going 25 and 30 to finish the season, including the playoffs. Their isolation-heavy offense and weak defense boded well early, but as soon as other teams caught on to what they were doing, the Raptors were no force to be reckoned with.
This season, Toronto will hang their hats on their defense. Somehow, Raptor general manager Masai Ujiri was able to transform this team from offensive to defensive in just one summer while still keeping the core intact, acquiring DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, and Bismack Biyombo to help out the defense. The Raptors even added some defensive-minded coaches as well, hiring former Bulls assistant coach Andy Greer and former NBA All-Star Jerry Stackhouse, along with Rex Kalamian, a former Oklahoma City Thunder assistant.
However, this new style of play may not necessarily translate to good basketball right away. With the team focused so much on defense, the offense, which lost bench scorers Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez, may struggle to get going early as a result of both defensive personnel and mindset.
The defense needs to be strong out of the gate this year, and it should be considering how much they have focused on it. However, two-way basketball is critical to getting wins in the NBA, and the Raptors will need their offense to crank it up, especially in the post-season. Last year's team started strong and got worse as the season progressed because they relied so heavily on their isolation-heavy offense, averaging the most isolation sets per game in the league.
This year's team should be the exact opposite. As the season goes on and the team starts to develop chemistry, the offense will become more efficient and productive while the defense should improve on what is already a strong suit. If the Raptors can keep their primary focus strong and find their stride on the offensive end of the floor, they could shape up into a well-rounded squad come playoffs time.
Toronto's work won't be cut out for them to start the season, however. The club will play 11 out of their first 15 games on the road, including some great teams; this will be a difficult way to start a season. Their ability to stick together and play well on the road will be tested early, and the adversity will help prepare them for the task at hand, to play good, consistent basketball for a full season and playoffs. For Toronto, both the team and schedule look like they will improve throughout the year.
Now, just from a few assumptions, it is not fair to write off the Raptors' first 15 as tough games. They still have to compete night in and night out. It is crucial they don't fall behind too much in this stretch because the last thing the Raptors want is a challenging, uphill battle all season to make up ground in the Eastern Conference.
Maybe Toronto's offense can continue that same offensive play early, and they jump out to a nice start by grinding out a couple road wins and taking care of business at home, or maybe their defense plays well enough to make up for the offense and they start strong.
However, with fans expecting a lot, they need to understand that this team has not played with each other very much. The chemistry will take time, and in reality, it is unlikely Toronto starts as well as they did a year ago, going 24 and seven in their first 31 games. With a team that looks more efficient and reliable defensively, they might even win a few more games than last season despite having a difficult schedule. But in a manner that is much more consistent and more importantly will carry through to the playoffs.
When it comes down to it, as long as the Raptors make the playoffs, it doesn't matter where they finish in the regular season standings. Yes, home-court advantage would help, but at the end of the day, playoff wins are what counts. Raptors fans are hungry, and it is time Toronto takes their fans at least one more step into the playoffs, as they deserve. They do need to put together a nice regular season to make it to the playoffs, but the fans have got to stick with their team through the ups and downs; something they have done an excellent job of doing in the Raptors' disappointing 20-year history.
If the Raptors can start strong and build up a solid win total heading into the final 67 games that will feature many home games, they will be in great shape. However, if they struggle, maybe even drop below .500, do not count them out.