Standing at fourth place in the Eastern conference, the Toronto Raptors (33-24) have set themselves up for a challenging second half of the season where they must now usurp red-hot Boston Celtics or Washington Wizards to secure a top-three finish in order to avoid a second-round match up against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Masai Ujiri to the Rescue
A dark cloud hovered on the team heading into the all-star break as few injuries coupled with the lack of defensive focus caused them to drop 14 of the 25 games played in the new year – despite a 22-8 start to the season. At that point, it was evident that All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan needed extra help if another deep playoff run was on the team’s agenda.
Team president and general manager, Masai Ujiri answered the group’s call for help, attempting to make the team better by landing two elite veterans, Serge Ibaka and former Raptors' second round pick, P.J. Tucker while only giving up Terrence Ross, Jared Sullinger's expiring contract and a couple of low-end picks.
Ibaka, known for his high-defensive I.Q. and shot blocking abilities can help Toronto’s shambling defense by filling the void left by Bismack Biyombo’s departure, and Ibaka's improved three-point shooting ability also helps stretch the floor for the isolation-heavy Raptors offense.
With Norman Powell expected to see more minutes as the backup shooting guard, P.J. Tucker, who can guard multiple positions and knock down corner threes, provides the Raptors with much-needed experience depth on the wing for nights where DeMarre Carroll requires assistance. With his forte being perimeter defense, the Raptors will look to him for defensive toughness and to slow down LeBron James, if the Raptors scores another conference finals bout with the defending champions.
Aside from Raptors fans, head coach Dwane Casey will be the most excited about Toronto’s new roster. The defensive-minded coach has struggled to get this year’s group to defend at a high level, but the addition of Ibaka and Tucker provides veteran leadership on that end of the floor signaling hope that the team can reach last year’s level of defensive commitment. Ibaka and Patrick Patterson can be the vocal leaders that Toronto needs on defense while Lowry and DeRozan run the show on offense. A closing lineup with Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll/Tucker-Ibaka-Patterson will be versatile and able to take on any team in the league mano-a-mano.
Point guard: Lowry-Cory Joseph-Delon Wright
Shooting guard: DeRozan-Norman Powell
Small forward: Carroll-Tucker
Power forward: Ibaka-Patterson
Center: Jonas Valanciunis-Lucas Noguiera
Roster depth is a characteristic of winning teams and the Raptors now have that. With the defending champions still seeming untouchable in the East, the playoffs will be an entirely new season hence having a reliable backup in every position might prove advantageous en route to being the East’s second best team. To be clear, when I say 'second-best team' in the East, I’m not referring to whichever team finishes 2nd in the standings, rather the team that gets the opportunity to challenge the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals.
During the transfer window, the Wizards added sharp-shooter, Bojan Bogdanovic while Celtics' general manager Danny Ainge decided to stand pat, after being linked to Paul George and Jimmy Butler. Playoffs present physical and defense-focused games so role players must be able to get things done when star players struggle. With Toronto’s new acquisitions, they now boast of superior team depth compared to Washington, who are lacking a solid backup point guard and Boston who still lack frontcourt depth.
How Will they Fare?
Toronto Raptors are half a game behind Washington and four games adrift the Celtics, but the second tier race is far from over. No doubt the Raptors are a much-improved team in comparison to last week, before the All-Star break - but are these new changes enough to restore them as contenders in the Eastern Conference? Although everything looks good on paper, fans will have to wait to see how much of an impact Ibaka and Tucker will make and how quickly they adapt to the system - if at all they do. Canada’s single representative in the NBA will play Boston and Washington (twice) in the next ten days, fans can expect playoff-like atmosphere as all three teams will be looking to stake their claims for the second spot.
Raptors are in a good place but in the case of a seven-game series, they’ll have to be weary of Wizard’s duo John Wall and Bradley Beal as well as fourth quarter specialist, Isaiah Thomas, and his hard playing Celtics. The management has done their part by adding valuable pieces and building Raptors best all around team till date, now it's on the team and coaching staff to deliver results.