The Toronto Raptors wanted Steve Nash and they didn't get him. In that sense, the team's offseason was a failure. But they still were active in their quest to make the playoffs, making a big trade to acquire Houston Rockets guard Kyle Lowry and signing former New York Knicks swingman Landry Fields. Those moves, combined with the addition of 2011 first-round draft pick Jonas Valanciunas from overseas, has many Raptors fans thinking playoffs.
Did they do enough to get there? Conversely, did they sacrifice too much of their future to make these moves? Let's discuss those questions.
The Raptors got a pretty nice upgrade at point guard when they acquired Lowry, but the price to acquire him was pretty steep. Lowry's a very good player, and at times, he played like an all-star last season. At this point, though, I think he's lauded so much for being underrated that we forget that he shot 41 percent from the field last season. It's also worth noting that the Rockets didn't exactly miss him when he went down and Goran Dragic needed to step in.
To be fair to Lowry, he has gotten much better since he entered the league and is now very much an above-average point guard. In the past, he was a bit out of control: effective at throwing his body into people, but still a bit unrefined. In the past two years, though, he's significantly improved as a pick and roll player, posting a career-high 32.3 assist percentage, and he's a much stronger perimeter shooter. It's simply harder to guard him than it was in the past. Teams once ducked under ball screens and forced Lowry to beat them from the perimeter. They can't do that anymore. Moreover, while point guard defense is becoming more of a luxury in today's NBA, Lowry's definitely one of the best. The Raptors have lived with horrendous point guard defense for years with Jose Calderon, so having someone willing to dig deep and get key stops will be a nice change of pace, especially under defensive-oriented head coach Dwane Casey.
All this is to say that Lowry's a definite upgrade. But is Lowry worth a high lottery pick, which is what the Raptors very well could be giving up? That's a tougher question to answer. In Toronto's defense, they're clearly making a playoff push, and they needed help immediately to do so. Lowry is in the middle of his prime and is coming off a career year. The problem is that Lowry doesn't really have one elite skill. He does a lot of things well, but there isn't one area where he stands out relative to his peers. Guys like Jeff Teague and Ty Lawson are jet quick. Players like John Wall go so fast from end to end. Peers like Ricky Rubio have such incredible court vision. Lowry may not have their weaknesses, but he doesn't have their strengths either. That makes him more of an above-average caretaker than a real game-changer.
At $6 million a season for four years, that doesn't really matter. But when the price to acquire that kind of talent is a lottery pick? It matters a lot more. I understand why the Raptors made the trade, but I'm not sure they're going to get a great return on their investment.
Valanciunas will be great ... someday. However, given how he played in the Olympics, I'm not sure that day is today. He's made a lot of progress reducing his propensity to foul, but he still has a long ways to go. Many European players have to adjust to the way the game is called in the NBA, which will make Valanciunas' transition even more difficult. Smart Raptors fans will temper their expectations and hope that he can contribute in a part-time role this year before eventually developing into the team's anchor in the middle. The problem is that, given the Raptors' obvious playoff push, Valanciunas' long-term development may get strained in the name of achieving the eighth seed.
It's getting harder and harder to remember the Fields that burst onto the scene as a second-round rookie with the Knicks early in 2010. That Fields managed to succeed simply by cutting on the weakside and moving into open space. It worked because the Knicks played such a small lineup with Mike D'Antoni as the head coach, but as soon as Fields had to play in a traditional isolation-heavy system, his shooting deficiencies and slow shot-fake-and-dirve game was exposed. Now, in Toronto, he'll have to figure out how to fit in with another head coach that largely runs traditional offensive sets. Fields would have been great with Steve Nash. With Kyle Lowry ... I'm not holding my breath that he'll bounce back.
Another move that felt too win-now for my liking. The Raptors clearly did their homework -- they have one of the more robust analytics departments in the league -- and Ross will fit right in as a three-point shooter and (eventually) designated defender. But in their ongoing quest to find the perfect fit for this year's team, I think the Raptors reached on an inferior talent. Ross may make sense with this roster, but that's not really how they draft should be used. Someone with a little more upside might have been a better pick.
JOHN LUCAS III
I get the sense that Lucas had a career year last year that he can't possibly match. Nevertheless, he's fine as a backup point guard once the Raptors inevitably trade Calderon.