Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller are previewing all 30 teams via conversation. Next up: the Toronto Raptors. Find all of the Flanns and Zillz previews here.
ZILLER: It's sensible to claim that the Raptors did not get better this offseason. They lost Bismack Biyombo, who was vital in the playoffs, and only signed Jared Sullinger. The No. 9 pick in the draft, Jakob Poeltl, shouldn't be expected to make a huge impact from the jump simply because this is a high-level team and the dude will only turn 20 a week before opening night. Toronto had a tough row to hoe in the 2016 offseason through no fault of its own. They had to play defense to keep DeMar DeRozan, and that cost them their cap space.
That said, I'm not sure the Raptors needed to get better. Toronto challenged Cleveland for the No. 1 seed to the bitter end. The Cavaliers weren't going to be stopped in any Eastern arena this year, but the fight was still valuable for the Raptors. The playoffs didn't go terribly well, yet Toronto still made the Eastern Conference Finals. That's huge progress.
We're both fans of the non-binary way of grading success. In other words, we don't believe teams that fall short of the title are failures. In that sense, keeping relatively status quo is a boon for a team at this level, especially considering that much of the roster hasn't yet reached its expected prime. Being in position to capitalize on weird stuff that may happen to the Eastern hegemony is a smart place to be in my book. What do you make of the Raptors?
FLANNERY: The Raptors did what they had to do, both last season and this past summer. We've become so jaded that we can't even stop to appreciate the best season in a particular franchise's history. I don't know that they've gotten better, but it's tough to say that they've gotten worse. Sullinger was a disappointment in Boston, but he's an upgrade over Luis Scola at this stage of their careers. Presumably, Jonas Valanciunius can finally put it all together and make up for Biyombo's loss.
And you're right. They didn't need to do much to maintain their status as one of the better teams in the East. If a couple of breaks come their way ...
ZILLER: It's what we've said about the Thunder and Clippers for years. A favorable draw, an upset, an injury ... and you're in the NBA Finals.
Look, there's just about nothing reasonable Toronto could do to be better on paper than a team with LeBron, Kyrie, and Kevin Love. But being better on paper doesn't matter every year. Things happen. And the Raptors are right there! Staying there this summer is a victory, even if it meant giving DeRozan a massive, massive contract.
Can we talk about Norm Powell? I think Norm Powell can be difference-maker. Terrence Ross has never panned out, but hey, here's Norm Powell.
Raptors HQ season preview
Raptors HQ season preview
FLANNERY: I enjoyed the Norm Powell Experience during the playoffs. That's exactly what this team needs, a couple of wild cards who dramatically outperform expectations. Powell could be that dude. Ross clearly isn't. I expect literally nothing out of Lucas Nogueira, but maybe he can be the next Biymobo? And then there's Bruno Caboclo ... who has shown nothing, expect someone who should know said he was the best player in the D-League a couple of years ago.
So let's say Powell takes a step or three. Who else is coming with him?
ZILLER: I refuse to continue to say "Jonas Valanciunas." I think I'm finally cured of my belief in his potential as a top-tier center, even with the standards of that honor being reduced by the reduced importance of the center position. But he's actually pretty darn good, averaging better than 17/12 per 36 minutes last year. We also have to remember he's just 24. And here I am talking myself into him again ...
Someone who matters a lot: DeMarre Carroll. If he can stay healthy this season -- only 26 games played last year -- he can be a defensive difference maker. The East has some monster scoring forwards, and a healthy Carroll can help Toronto deal with them.
FLANNERY: It's so easy to talk yourself into Jonas. Don't lose that innocence Tom!
So, bottom line: This will be a really good team again, probably the second-best squad in the East and hope for unicorns.
ZILLER: Or hope for crocodiles to infest the upper Cuyahoga. Whichever.