Anyone can have a blog about an NBA team, but some set themselves apart from the rest with the dedication and valuable insight they bring to their craft. We’ll be sharing some knowledge from these dialed-in writers on Hoops Rumors in a new feature called Top Bloggers. As with The Beat, our ongoing series of interviews with NBA beat writers, it’s part of an effort to bring Hoops Rumors readers ever closer to the pulse of the teams they follow. Last time, we spoke with Anthony Puccio of SBNation’s Nets Daily. Click here to see the entire Top Bloggers series.
Next up is William Lou, who is the NBA News Editor at the Score and a contributor at RaptorsRepublic.com, which is part of ESPN’s TrueHoop Network . You can follow William on Twitter at @william_lou and click here to check out his stories. You can also follow Raptors Republic at @raptorsrepublic.
Hoops Rumors: A number of the Raptors’ offseason moves appear to have been made with the intention of improving their defense, which was ranked No. 23 overall in the NBA last season. Do you think the team succeeded in this goal?
William Lou: The Raptors’ defense suffered last season because they had a roster of weak defenders that couldn’t keep up with the demands of their aggressive style of defense.
As for the roster, GM Masai Ujiri definitely improved his team’s defense by bringing in three plus defenders in Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, and Bismack Biyombo, while jettisoning two minus defenders in Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez. In doing so, Ujiri addressed his team’s two biggest weaknesses from last season: perimeter defense and shot-blocking.
However, it’s fair to question how much effect those newcomers will have on a Raptors’ defense that still employs the same head coach and the same core players. Early word out of training camp suggests that the Raptors might switch to a more conservative style of defense this season, which would especially minimize the defensive shortcomings of 23-year-old center Jonas Valanciunas. But until the team learns its new defensive scheme, it remains unclear as to whether an improvement has been made.
Hoops Rumors: The offseason additions of DeMarre Carroll and Bismack Biyombo appear to be tied directly to the team’s new defensive agenda. What do you think about these deals, and will Carroll’s performance live up to the level of his contract (four years, $58MM)?
William Lou: It’s a bit of a tired trope this offseason, but it’s true: the rising salary cap makes almost every deal signed this summer seem palatable. That especially applies to a player like Carroll, who was rewarded handsomely for posting just two productive seasons in the league to date, but it’s a fair price for a solid starter once the cap rises over the next two seasons.
Biyombo will make the room exception, which hardly dents the bottom line. The more interesting player is Carroll, who went from earning $2.5MM last season, to becoming the highest paid player on the Raptors.
Carroll was signed to strengthen an area of weakness for the Raptors. Terrence Ross’s inconsistency, lack of development, and defensive shortcomings made him a liability, so Ujiri opted for a two-way player like Carroll to nail down the starting small forward position. The Raptors needed someone to check the bigger wings and stretch four-types that gave the team fits on defense last season. Expect Carroll to reprise his role in Atlanta: He’ll guard the toughest wing assignment while serving primarily as a spot-up shooter on offense.
Hoops Rumors: The Raptors didn’t put up a much of a fight to retain reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams this summer. Was it a simple matter of retaining cap flexibility, or was the team, which reportedly viewed Williams as a locker room distraction at times, simply trying to improve its chemistry? Who will make up for Williams’ production off the bench this year?
William Lou: There wasn’t any issue with Williams’ persona. He was an adored presence in the locker room, and despite his burgeoning popularity after Drake released “6 Man,” Williams is actually rather soft-spoken. The reason that the Raptors let Williams walk is because Ujiri wanted to sign two-way players who held up their end of the bargain on defense. Williams was a tremendous offensive weapon off the bench, but he couldn’t guard his position. There’s also a thought that Williams was let go because he played too much individual basketball — which, to be fair, was exactly the role that was asked of him.
Hoops Rumors: The addition of former No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett, who reached a buyout deal with the Timberwolves, certainly aids in GM Masai Ujiri‘s stated plan to add more Canadians to the roster. What do the Raptors hope to get out of Bennett this season production-wise? Do you think returning to his native country will jump-start his career, or will there be added pressure to perform well in front of his countrymen, so to speak?
William Lou: Realistically, no team can expect anything from Bennett, who struggled mightily in his first two seasons in the NBA. The former No. 1 pick needs to firmly regain his health, before making the leap toward becoming a contributor for a playoff club. But given that he was a former No. 1 pick, and the not-so insignificant detail of his nationality, the Raptors chose to take a flyer on Bennett for one year at the minimum. Given those terms, there’s hardly any cost, and if Bennett makes good on his promise, the Raptors will have netted themselves a young, useful contributor on the cheap. Moreover, power forward is something of a weak spot for Toronto, with every other position in the starting lineup spoken for. It would take a lot for Bennett to overtake Patrick Patterson or Luis Scola (the early favorites to land the start), but shoring up depth at a position of weakness can’t hurt.
Hoops Rumors: There was some uncertainty about whether the Raptors would bring back coach Dwane Casey for the 2015/16 campaign after the team was swept in the first round of this year’s NBA Playoffs. How stable is Casey’s job? What will be the largest determining factor if he is to return for 2016/17?
William Lou: I’m not in a position to speculate over Casey’s job certainty, but I can tell you that he’s entering the last guaranteed year on his contract (there’s a team option for 2016/17). As for Casey’s goals for next season, improving the defense and winning a round in the playoffs should be a must. If the team comes up short in either endeavor, finding a new head coach to lead this core would be a logical move.
Hoops Rumors: What are your thoughts on the four-year, $64MM extension that Jonas Valanciunas signed this offseason? Will he become the franchise player that the team hopes he can be, or will his athletic limitations prevent him from living up to his new contract?
William Lou: Valanciunas’ contract will effectively pay him to be an above-average center, a level that the young Lithuanian has already achieved through his first three years in the NBA. He’s durable, he can shoot, he’s a good rebounder, and he’s tremendously efficient finisher around the hoop. However, the jury remains out on Valanciunas’ potential to develop into a superstar. He certainly has the tools, but he’s still best deployed as a situational player. He lacks the versatility in his game to truly dominate.
Here’s what I mean by inflexibility. On offense, Valanciunas is only good for an easy bucket in the post, or for a bit of scoring out of the pick-and-roll, but he’s a woeful passer and he can’t shoot, which makes him a liability when he doesn’t have the ball. On defense, Valanciunas is a decent rim protector when he camps out in the paint, but he lacks the foot speed and the awareness to function against smallball lineups. In order for Valanciunas to reach the next level, he needs to become a well-rounded player that can function in many settings. Otherwise, it’s too easy to for other teams to play matchups to run Valanciunas off the floor.
Hoops Rumors: Finally, it’s prediction time. Looking into your crystal ball, give us your best (educated) guess on how the Raptors’ 2015/16 season will turn out.
William Lou: The Raptors take a step back offensively, but personnel and system changes lead to a top-10 defense. As a whole, the Raptors win 48 games and finish fourth in the East. In the playoffs, the Raptors defeat the Wizards in seven games before being swept by the Cavaliers in the Conference Semifinals.