Five storylines to watch as Raptors kick off season
Toronto Raptors' DeMar DeRozan speaks to a journalist during media day in Toronto on Monday, September 25, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Chris Fox, CP24.com
Published Thursday, October 19, 2017 12:49PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, October 19, 2017 4:37PM EDT
The Toronto Raptors will kick off the 2017-2018 NBA season at home tonight with the same goal that they have had for the last number of years – find a way to beat or at least challenge LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers.
Though the team’s success will ultimately be measured by what they do in April and May and not October, there are still plenty of reasons to tune in during the regular season.
Here are five of the biggest storylines to watch as the Raptors begin their 23rd campaign:
Young core will get chance to step up
The Raptors have a four-year streak of playoff appearances and the battle-tested swagger that comes with it, so it is easy to forget that the team is actually pretty young. Of the 17 players on the Raptors opening night roster, 12 of them are 25-years-old or younger, giving the squad one of the greenest lineups in the NBA. An interesting subplot this season will be the development of some of the Raptors young guns, who are likely to have increased roles following the departures of veterans like Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carrol, PJ Tucker and Patrick Patterson. Look for shooting guard Norm Powell to get plenty of run during his third NBA season and for fellow third-year Raptor Delon Wright to see regular playing time for the first time in his career, as he takes over the backup point guard job from Joseph. OG Anunoby, who was the Raptors 23rd overall pick in the June draft, may also be looked on to contribute right away after he managed to recover from a torn ACL well ahead of the team’s initial expectations.
A new approach to offence
Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri famously proclaimed that the team was in need of a “culture change” after they were swept out of the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers last spring. Though many people initially took that remark to be an indictment on the team’s personnel, notably star point guard Kyle Lowry and Head Coach Dwane Casey, it has since become clear that it was more about the Raptors approach on the offensive end. Last season, the team only made an average of 8.8 three pointer per game (21st overall) but in the pre-season this year that number jumped to 14 per game. Casey has also talked up the importance of employing a more fluid offence after the team finished dead last in assists per game last season (18.6).
“It has looked good in exhibitions. We have had 30 assists twice. We have to continue that and have to continue to move the ball,” Casey told reporters on Thursday. “Kyle (Lowry) and DeMar (DeRozan) have taken the bull by the horns and moved the ball really well.”
Can DeRozan continue his ascent?
DeMar DeRozan has gained a reputation as one of the NBA’s hardest workers in the off-season, regularly finding ways to his improve his game since coming into the league in 2009. One of the big questions this year will be whether there is another level to reach for a player who is coming off what is easily the best season of his career. In the 2016-2017 season, DeRozan averaged 27.3 points per game (fifth in the NBA) and was named to the All-NBA third team but he continued to struggle from three-point range, shooting only 26.6 per cent on 1.7 attempts from long distance per game. Can the Raptors $139-million man finally add a reliable three-point shot, opening up floor space for his teammates in the process? Only time will tell.
Lowry, Ibaka and DeRozan finally have time to gel
Last February the Raptors completed a blockbuster trade to bring power forward Serge Ibaka north, giving the team the interior defensive presence that it had long lacked. The trade was met with significant enthusiasm among Raptors fans but within 10 days Lowry had been sidelined with a wrist injury that kept him out of the lineup until the final week of the regular season. As a result, the Raptors big three of Lowry, Ibaka and DeRozan had precious little time to gel before the playoffs. That presumably won’t be a problem this year and with a combined $75 million locked up in those three players this season, the Raptors are clearly hoping for big things.
A tough opening stretch
The Raptors draw the rebuilding Bulls in game one but it will get a lot tougher after that with a six-game west coast road trip that will see them take on two pre-season favourites in the San Antonio Spurs and the defending champion Golden State Warriors. They then return to the Air Canada Centre for a three-game home-stand before embarking on another tough road trip that features games against the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets. If the Raptors can hold on for the first month of the season, they will be in a good position.