The Toronto Raptors begin the 2013-2014 NBA season tonight at home against the Boston Celtics. I’ve waited until the last possible moment to offer my forecast, but that moment is here.
Additions: D.J. Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough, Steve Novak, Austin Daye, Dwight Buycks,Julyan Stone, Tim Leiweke, Masai Ujiri
Departures: Andrea Bargnani, Alan Anderson, John Lucas III, Mickael Pietrus, Sebastian Telfair, Linas Kleiza, Bryan Colangelo
If you read yesterday’s forecast for the Eastern Conference, you’ll know I called for the Raps to finish 42-40. Oddly enough, that’s actually worse than some respected NBA watchers, who are impressed with the Raps’ 6-1 preseason record. I’m not so sure those wins mean a whole lot.
Positives: The Raptors’ starting five of Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry should be more than competitive. Even marginally improved offense from JV will have a huge ripple effect, as team scoring becomes more balanced. (He’s already shown his defensive capability; he’s mobile and athletic.) Opponents who have planned to double our swingmen will need to adjust to the Raps’ first low-post threat since Chris Bosh, improving our spacing on the perimeter. Amir has added some outside shooting to his admittedly limited offensive repertoire. Kyle Lowry’s game picked up late last year, as he grew more comfortable with his friend Rudy in the lineup. DD looks and sounds committed and eager for the season to commence, as does Rudy.
Negatives: Sadly, the starters can’t play all 48 minutes. And the Raps’ bench is threadbare. Tyler Hansbrough brings some much-needed toughness, but has little to offer offensively. Aaron Gray is barely adequate even as a backup. Quincy Acy and Terrence Ross may make strides, or baby steps – who knows? But all of those concerns aside, until the backup point guard position is in good hands, the Raps will struggle. I’ve seen nothing from any of the putative second-unit PGs (Augustin, Buycks, Stone) to give me much comfort about the Raps being able to hold their own when the big boys are sitting down. If Kyle Lowry, an oft-injured whirling dervish of a player, gets hurt for any length of time, the Raps will be in serious difficulty. Kyle is already dealing with a splint on his left pinky finger; should he aggravate that injury, down he goes.
Issues: We don’t have any idea about what’s happening with Steve Novak. Is his hand injury worse than we’re being told, or is he just under wraps until needed? Can he space the floor with effective 3-point shooting? Will Austin Daye contribute as a stretch-4 or -5, or will he flame out? Can Quincy Acy make the transition to small forward? Will Landry Fields ever be an asset?
So many questions with the Raps…not enough answers. My Wish List: improvement of JV & Terrence, consistent shooting from Rudy, tougher defense from DD, one of the big 4s making 100 3-balls.
The Raps should be able to beat up on the clear-cut tanking teams like Philly, Orlando, Phoenix and perhaps Boston. Of course, so will every other self-respecting squad, so that’s no easy route to a playoff spot. To grab 42 wins and the #8 seed will require some rapid advancement by several players, and little retreat by anyone, because the Raps must beat some of the tough teams. Can they do that? On balance, and slightly voting with my heart, I’ll say Yes. We’ll be seeing playoff games for the first time in six years, but our spot won’t be guaranteed until the season’s final week.