Toronto Raptors

Raptors offseason outlook: Summer of change could be coming in Toronto

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Raptors guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (NBA.com custom illustration)

Big issue 1: Does Dwane Casey come back? The Raptors have a classic case of being unable to change the players. So, of course, the rumors have surfaced that they'll change the coach.

Casey did a terrific job during the regular season implementing the now-famed culture change in Toronto, which basically consisted of three prongs: moving away from the pick-and-roll offense that was dominated by guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan; extending the bench to rely on youngsters like Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright, and veteran C.J. Miles; putting an increased emphasis on defending the rim.

All three worked. The Raptors drastically increased their assist percentage and passes per game. They had the most productive bench in the NBA. And they moved from eighth in defensive efficiency to fifth, as well as from 14th in defending within six feet of the basket to third.

The result was a 59-win season. Great news, right? Well, yes, up until the playoffs, when the Raptors found themselves in a familiar position (playing LeBron James and Cleveland, in the semifinals) with a familiar result (a loss in a sweep, bringing the Raptors' record against the Cavs in the playoffs to a depressing 2-12).

That's set the Raptors faithful into a tailspin. Those who bought into the culture change are surely feeling duped. Those who doubted the whole thing and expected the same old playoff Raptors are feeling both vindicated and frustrated. For both camps, the pitchforks are out, and a head (or more) on a spike is expected.

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Sure Not Now

Firing Casey would be the easiest of changes to make. It probably would not accomplish much, however, especially when Casey's only sin has been an inability to beat James, something no other East team has been able to do since 2009. The Raptors could wind up making a good coach take the fall after a great season.

Big issue 2: Define "Blow it up." It's easy for fans and media members, after several seasons of relative success, to urge ownership to tear down the whole thing and start over. But remember, it's never that easy.

The ideal piece of trade bait may be Jonas Valanciunas, despite the fact that he's 26 and coming off arguably his best season as a pro. Valanciunas is a relic, the kind of slow 7-foot center that many GMs instinctively feel they need, even as it's become clear that the game has passed by such players. Valanciunas has a reasonable two years and $34 million left on his contract, but there's virtually no market for big men these days, and shopping him likely is a waste of time.

Then there's DeRozan, who is 29 and has All-Star appearances in four of his last five seasons. He also has a contract calling for an $84 million payout over the next three years, a prohibitive salary for a wing who can't shoot the 3-pointer (31.2 percent this year). Trading DeRozan would be the first step to a total rebuild, and it does not appear the Raptors would go in that direction.

As for Lowry, he is 32 with two years, $64 million on his contract. He has been an All-Star in four straight seasons, but his age and salary make him decidedly tough to move. He has value on the market, but the Raptors would have to take back some piece much, much worse (and just about as expensive) than him to make a deal work. It's hard to see any trade getting done with the Raptors' stars.

Free-agent outlook: There isn't much the Raptors can do in free agency, other than take a step back by letting VanVleet walk when he hits restricted free agency. That would be a stinging blow because VanVleet was the anchor of the Toronto bench and moved into the starting lineup by Casey in a last-ditch effort to pull the Raptors closer to Cleveland.

VanVleet is 24, and will be among a crowd of restricted free agents who should get more attention than usual this year because so many teams are tight against the luxury tax, including Toronto. VanVleet is likely to command an offer in the $12 million-per-year range, and matching it would require the Raptors to shell out exponentially more than the contract's value - around an extra $20 million in taxes for the first season.

Center Lucas Nogueira is the only other free-agent decision to be made. He can be a restricted free agent and has a $4.1 million qualifying offer for next year.

The young folks: The Raptors don't have a first-round pick in this draft (it belongs to Brooklyn as part of the DeMarre Carroll trade last year), but they will have two players who need to make strides next season.

First is OG Anunoby, who started 62 games this year as a rookie at small forward, was an excellent defender and got better with his shot as the year went on. By March, Anunoby was shooting 45.5 percent from the 3-point line, and in April that number was 47.4. He was returning from a knee injury he suffered in college, and the team hopes to unleash him a bit more next year.

Second is Poeltl, who has the size to take up massive chunks of the paint on every possession. He averaged 6.9 points and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 65.9 percent from the field, decent enough numbers considering his role, but he's capable of doing more.

Wait till next year: Most teams would be thrilled by 59 wins and a matchup against the Cavaliers. The Raptors are not most teams, though. They've had a wretched history of postseason failure, but this might be the wretchedest - after such a wonderful regular season, this one hurts a bit more than those in the past.

The problem is this pain just seems to be Toronto's fate. It's a good team that just does not have the frontline talent to be great, and no amount of culture change or coaching can fix that.

But what's wrong with 59 wins and a chance to go far in the playoffs? Raptors fans are disappointed, of course, but from a business perspective, the franchise has done well.

The best way for Eastern Conference teams to deal with James is probably to nudge him to LA or Houston. Until then, James will continue to be the talk of the playoffs, and the Raptors will have packed up for home.

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