SB Nation

Paul Flannery | November 1, 2015

Sunday Shootaround New hope for the Raptors

New hope for the Raptors

BOSTON -- For the last few years the Toronto Raptors have existed at the intersection of hope and reality. They have been an objectively good team, good enough to make the playoffs the last two seasons and claim a pair of division crowns. The reality is they have failed to advance past the first round and that division accomplishment is one of the most hollow in the sport, especially coming as it did in the weakest five-team grouping in the league.

The Raptors have been a team of contradictions. They started last season with a 15-4 record and entered the All-Star break comfortably in second place in the conference. But they faded late, going 13-16 down the stretch and were swept rather rudely by the Washington Wizards in the first round. They have All-Stars in the backcourt in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, whose games have been picked apart by critics as much as they’ve been heralded by supporters. Until proven otherwise, Paul Pierce’s stinging critique -- that they fail to inspire concern in opponents -- hangs over them like one of the dagger 3-pointers he buried in their back during the playoffs.

Between Cleveland and Philadelphia, the East is one big jumble of cautious optimism. The Raptors are just one of many with playoff aspirations. The Bulls have a former MVP, a breakout star in Jimmy Butler and a host of up-and-coming players to mix with a roster full of veteran All-Stars. The Hawks won 60 games. The Heat loaded up for yet another run. The Wizards have a backcourt that’s bursting with potential. The Raptors, well, the Raptors are good. You can’t take that away from them, but can you build on it?

"First, we’ve got to get back to the playoffs," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said following the team’s shootaround. "Nothing is given there. Our goal is to move beyond, but again, I’m going to emphasize this: The playoffs are not a given. Nobody’s going to walk in and earn a playoff berth just because you did it last year. We’ve got to earn it. We’ve got to prove ourselves after how we finished last year that we’re for real. Everybody in the East has gotten better. There’s more balance in the East this year so there’s no nights off at all this year."

There is hope in the form of a 7-foot center Jonas Valanciunas, still just 23 years old, who has made incremental but steady progress on the offensive end. There is also the distant promise of Bruno Caboclo, the 20-year-old Brazilian prodigy who has played a grand total of 23 NBA minutes. Neither has shown nearly enough to warrant franchise building block status, and so the Raptors return with a familiar core of players augmented with a handful of free agent additions.

In the offseason, general manager Masai Ujiri added point guard Cory Joseph and big man Bismack Biyombo to bolster their depth, while also signing veterans Luis Scola and DeMarre Carroll, who are the new starting forwards. All of them are part of the rotation, but Carroll is the key.

"His versatility is one of his great strengths," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "He can shoot it. We all know that he’s got a great way about him and a demeanor and a passion that’s contagious. He’s a winner. He impacts winning."

With Carroll on board, Casey has a proven perimeter defender. He can also play big or small, which has a trickle-down effect on the rest of his roster.

"He’s as close to a 2-way player as you can get at the three position," Casey said. "With that, DeMar DeRozan doesn’t have to guard the bigger threes and Terrence Ross doesn’t have to guard those guys. So it frees them up to guard guys at their position."

Carroll’s addition will also have an impact on the offensive end. Long an ISO-team that relied heavily on Lowry, DeRozan and Lou Williams (now a Laker) to create shots for themselves, Casey has begun to implement a scheme more in line with the current trend toward spacing and shooting. The Raptors were surprisingly efficient on offense last season, but Carroll’s long-range shooting adds a much-needed element to the mix.

"We needed the toughness, the grit that he brings to the table," Casey said. "Not only on the defensive end. He plays with a grit and an edge on the offensive end: attacking the basket, cutting, shooting the three."

Friday’s game against the Celtics was instructive. The Raps launched 26 threes and their guards picked the Boston defense apart with drives and kickouts to open shooters on the perimeter. Carroll knocked down 4-of-7 shots from long range and with room to operate, Lowry and DeRozan lived at the free throw line. And with Carroll guarding opposing forwards, Terrence Ross was able to thrive at his natural off-guard position. On defense they were active and jumped passing lanes, which led to numerous fast break and transition opportunities.

Early season statement games mean little in the grand scheme of things, but this was still an effective reminder that they remain the team to beat in their little corner of the universe. Still, the Raptors have had early-season success before. They have to prove they can sustain it.

"Our biggest expectation that I always tell the team is we want to be better later in the season than we are at the beginning," Carroll said. "You don’t want to be the same team Game 81 that you are in Game 3. It’s just about getting better. You’ve got to understand it’s a marathon. Coming from Atlanta, Coach (Mike Budenholzer) really taught me that you’ve got to get better each game."

While Carroll was the one member of the Atlanta starting five who didn’t make the All-Star Game, in many ways he became the unlikely face of the Hawks’ stunning turnaround last season. His journeyman background was less a hindrance than a source of pride for a team that achieved beyond expectations by playing a tightly-connected team game that accentuated positives and trusted development.

Never was his importance more understood than in the conference finals when he gamely tried to play through a knee injury. With Carroll at less than full strength, the Hawks were limited and compromised against the Cavaliers.

The lesson from the Hawks is that if you get enough good players committed to playing for and with each other, then you can excel beyond the perceived limits of your abilities. Carroll was a backup forward without a position when he joined Atlanta. When he left, he was a coveted free agent.

"Coming from Atlanta helped me understand this game, understand what it takes to win at a high level," Carroll said. "It don’t happen overnight. A lot of people forget, our first year we won 38 games. When you win, all that losing, people forget about that."

It will take a lot for the Raptors to get over the sting of back-to-back playoff disappointments. Winning cures all, however, and in Carroll, they have one of the game’s unheralded winners. It’s enough to give a team hope that this time, things will be different in the end.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

We’re done with predictions and prognostications. Now is the time for way too early observations about the Association.

The Pistons look like a Stan Van Gundy team: I came very close to slotting Detroit into one of the final playoff positions in the East and I’m already regretting not going with SVG’s squad. Andre Drummond is a beast in the middle and with Reggie Jackson running downhill in pick-and-rolls, they have a dangerous combination. There are caveats: The lack of shooting remains troubling (losing Jodie Meeks to a broken foot doesn’t help) and depth could be a major concern if injuries start to pile up, but no one should underestimate Van Gundy’s sideline acumen.

The Pelicans’ schedule may be their toughest opponent: Lost amid all the injuries that have decimated Anthony Davis’ support system is a brutal opening slate of games. After getting run by the Warriors on opening night, they were in Portland the next night and looked like a shorthanded team on the second night of a back-to-back. It didn’t get any easier with a home opener against those same Warriors. Things will lighten up a little this week, but then they hit the road for eight of their next dozen games. Unless they can cobble together a couple of wins in November it will be a tough uphill climb to make a run at one of those final playoff spots.

What if DeMarcus Cousins is really the next great big? Let’s do the old compare and contrast thing. Player 1 has averaged 22 points, 12.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per 36 minutes during his career. Player 2 has posted 21.2 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists per 36 minutes. Player 1 is DeMarcus Cousins. Player 2 is Anthony Davis. Now, AD is two years younger, has been to the postseason and is playing for a coach in a system designed for him. Cousins has yet to reach the playoffs and is on his fifth coach in seven years. AD’s support system, while far from perfect, is still way more coherent than the dysfunction Cousins has endured. Both are great players, but maybe Cousins is the one poised for a breakout into the elite. Ziller and I will debate this at greater length this week.

Let’s save time and get on that Magic bandwagon now: This is a team that has been steadily acquiring talent under GM Rob Hennigan since trading away Dwight Howard. What they lacked was a sense of direction, but with Scott Skiles running the show they’ll get that and then some. The Magic may be a year or even two away from playoff contention, but they’re no longer an easy win on people’s schedules.

Pour one out for Grantland: The NBA media landscape got a little worse on Friday and while I have no doubt that Zach Lowe, Kirk Goldsberry, Jason Concepcion, Andrew Sharp et. al. will find other avenues and venues for their work, reading them was, and is, a joy. You all pushed everyone to be better, smarter and to work harder.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

On second thought

Ziller and I had some time to reflect on our preseason predictions and decided that we may have changed each other’s minds on that last playoff spot in the West. We’re so persuasive!

About Brad

I went deep with Celtics coach Brad Stevens on his approach and philosophy to coaching and life in general. There’s still a lot about Stevens that he keeps under wraps. He’s apparently the king of no-look passes in staff pickup games.

The joy of cooking

Is there anything better than watching Chef Curry cook? No, there is nothing better as Zito Madu explains.

Kobe and The Brick

Would you like to know more about the connection between Kobe Bryant and the legendary Vic ‘The Brick’ Jacobs? Why, of course you do. Jameson Miller has the tale of the golden ball via Silver Screen and Roll.

Doubting Dallas

Count me among the Mavericks skeptics this season, but Tim Cato makes excellent points as to why many of us may be sleeping on this crew. It all comes back to health.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"It was an act of police brutality, and I believe it could happen to anyone. Now I'm a lot more aware of everything that goes on. I've been, I don't want to say disillusioned, but brought back to earth in a harsh way. I look at videos of police brutality on YouTube or The other day I was watching this woman getting punched by the police for recording them arresting her husband. In a situation like this, you are helpless. If there's six people jumping me outside of the club, I scream, ‘Police, police!’ If the police are doing this to me, who you want me to turn to?" -- Hawks forward Thabo Sefolosha to GQ

Reaction: Sefolosha was put in an untenable position and emerged as a strong and thoughtful advocate for police reform. No one should have to endure what he endured, but few are able to speak truth to power better than Sefolosha. The real lesson here is found in the stories of countless others who are unable to speak or stand up for themselves. Sefolosha shouldn’t have to be a symbol, but he’s a powerful one.

"That corner shot is about patience and spacing. I’m able to curate a lot of attention. A lot of eyes are on me when I have the ball, so I’m able to look and see who’s open, which defenders are cheating off their man. And sometimes they cheat off the wrong man, and I just hit them." -- Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook to Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry

Reaction: Great stuff by Goldsberry with the normally reticent Westbrook that gets into the guts of Russell’s unique game. Westbrook’s numbers are always overwhelming but with him it’s about the how as much as the what. A ball dominant point guard can still be a great "point guard" in the way we used to talk about such things. In today’s game it’s pretty much required.

"I hate ‘em. Really I do." -- Kings center DeMarcus Cousins speaking for the masses, er discussing the Clippers

Reaction: No one likes the Clips. It’s really amazing how unified the rest of the league is on this topic. (I still like them.)

"You can change the owner, you can change the players but the Clippers are who they’ve been for the past 30 years." -- Dallas owner Mark Cuban

Reaction: That was a pretty good burn by Cuban, all things considered.

"Man, you're acting like this is your league. It's one thing to play like it. It's one thing to score like it. It's one thing to have a season like he had last year. But when you get that mindset and everybody knows and sees it, it's tough. And I told him, you're acting like it. That's dangerous." -- Draymond Green on Steph Curry

Reaction: It's Steph's world and we're all privileged to be a part of it.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

Oh dear god, Kawhi! Who does this? Besides Kawhi Leonard, obviously.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.