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Around the NBA: Toronto Raptors

The Raptors attempt to rebuild around two talented but mercurial stars and a promising youngster.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps no team illustrates the disparity between traditional and on/off methods of evaluation as starkly as the Toronto Raptors. One might look at the Raptors and see two young, near 20 point scorers on the wing, and little else, the rest of the roster explaining the team's struggles through much of last season. Or, one might look at the team which should be called the Huskies, and also see two different stars supporting a mediocre cast, albeit stars that averaged 11.6 and 10.0 points a game instead of the ones who averaged 19.5 and 18.1. If RAPM and similar stats are to be believed, then Toronto will be relying on the super duo of Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson to lead them back to the playoffs for the first time since a 41-41 mark in 2008 proved sufficient for the East's sixth seed.

This level of recent futility is just one of the many parallels between the Malamutes and Our Beloved Puppies. Both are recent entries to the NBA, come from the land of the ice and snow. Both drafted two fantastic talents in the nineties, before losing one to the starrier lights of another city. Both attempted to recoup with an All-Star power forward and absolutely no help, before drafting a European player who stayed across the pond while seeing his legend grow. Each has made it out of the first round only once, and has recently seen hope return with a glimmer of competent management, Coach Sleepy in one case, Masai Ujiri in the other.


After what feels like my entire lifetime, Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani no longer ply their trade for the league's sole Canadian outpost. Bargnani made a compelling run at LVP last year, and Ujiri getting some value for him, after former GM Colangelo publicly and unsuccessfully shopped him, was one of the most impressive bits of front office skulduggery I can remember. The team will miss Calderon's passing and efficiency, and will attempt to replace his production with former Pacer and Bobcat D.J. Augustin. In completely related news, Kyle Lowry's minutes played may be the best indicator of Toronto's success. The pugnacious guard's talent is undeniable, providing value beyond his box score statistics with his relentless attacking on each side of the ball. However, he has played more than 2,100 minutes only once, due to a combination of minor injuries and major dickishness. Rick Adelman is his only coach that hasn't benched and feuded with Lowry, and if the team struggles, the "is Lowry's on court production worth the distraction" articles will be sprinkled as liberally across the Ontario landscape as fallen maple leaves.

Speaking of my entire lifetime, Amir Johnson is only 26 years old despite being drafted the same year that Reggie Miller retired. The plus/minus demigod received a career high in minutes, and the team was better by a mindboggling 15 points/100 possessions with him on the court. His minutes have been restricted due to his proclivity for fouling anything that moves, but with the amount of hustle and defense he provides, it is worth it to just play him 35 minutes a game and embrace the idea of trying to set a new NBA record for fouling out in a season. Like Kyle Lowry, who has posted RAPMs of 3.4, 3.1, 3.7 the past three season, the advanced stats love Johnson, whose RAPMs over that time period are 3.4, 3.0, 4.7. If each player can play ~2,800 minutes this season, then Toronto has a real chance to surprise.

Rudy Gay, no longer the league's Tiresias, and DeMar DeRozan are the team's pseudo-stars. Each is very good at finding contested jumpers to shoot, but there is little evidence that either is much better than average. In DeRozan's case, average might be generous, as he reached career highs in PER (14.7), WS/48 (.075), and RAPM (-1.3) last season. The durable Gay is more helpful, the NBA's version of an average innings eater, like Kevin Tapani or Jim Clancy. This is merely a nice way of saying that there is value in not having to start Landry Fields. The two are the Mounties' highest paid players, earning a combined $27.4 million for the upcoming season, the main reason the team will be spending over $70 million on a projected lottery team, a bitter pill no amount of banana sandwiches can make palatable.

The only notable Valanciunas brother, the Canadian Unicorn (Minotaur?), had a quietly encouraging rookie season, averaging almost 14-9-2 blocks per 36 minutes. The efficient Lithuanian is on every NBA writer's short list for breakout players, especially given the larger second year improvement many European players experience. Jonas and Amir could give the Raptors a pair of tough, efficient big men. The team's reserves will be Psycho T, Aaron Gray, and Quincy Acy, and if you remembered that Hansbrough signed with Toronto this summer, then give yourself a cookie, because you are a dedicated NBA fan. This either means that Rudy Gay will be spending some time at power forward in small ball lineups, or there will be some slow, dirty lineups garnering substantial minutes this year.

The theme of questionable lineups continues with any examination of the team's reserve wings. Terrence Ross, Steve Novak, Landry Fields, and Austin Daye will fight for minutes, if "fight" is indeed the right word. Ross' most notable moment  was winning the dunk contest, and he has some "3 and dunk" potential, like a raw Chase Budinger. Fields continued to crater after a hot start to begin his career, and Novak will do Novak things. If Casey is able to hide him defensively, then he could help provide some much needed spacing, as the only feared shooter on the roster.

Those seeking Raptor news should have some interesting subplots to follow this season. Will Rudy Gay follow in the footsteps of Monta Ellis, and ill-advisedly opt out of his contract after the season? Will Ujiri acquire one of James Dolan's future progeny for a 2nd round pick and a PTBNL? When will the first "Kyle Lowry demands a trade" story, by now an annual tradition, surface? What will the inflatable mascot do next?

Toronto projects to be in the same category as Washington, Milwaukee and Cleveland, mediocre contenders for the last two playoff spots. Each of the four squads have reason for excitement (Kyrie! Wall! SANDERS! Nene! Ilyasova! Bynum's hair!) and major holes. The Huskies have exactly one quality guard and their backup center is Aaron Gray. Still, if Ujiri can flip one of their overpriced scorers for a couple average players, the team has the makings of a frisky surprise about them. The key will be improving the team's 22nd ranked defense, mostly through scheme and consistency, as the roster appears bereft of plus defenders not named Amir Johnson.

(Thanks to Sham Sports and Stats for the NBA app spot)