** This article was guest-written by Jimmy Huynh**
The Toronto Raptors will go as far as their All-Star backcourt takes them. Is that enough?
Picking up where they left off after last season’s historic playoff run, they remained in the league’s top tier with a 22-8 start. DeMar DeRozan recorded 30 or more points in 10 of the first 12 games, generating whispers of the Jordan brand’s namesake and earning an All-Star reserve selection. Kyle Lowry shot 57.7% outside the arc, averaging 4.3 threes during a 14-game span, en route to a starting All-Star spot.
But after the hot start, the resurrected Huskies plummeted, finishing 11-16 entering All-Star Weekend. They slid into the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference. In 57 games, the team achieved three four-game winning streaks, another six-game winning streak, and a five-game losing streak. Led by defensive-minded coach Dwane Casey, they reach All-Star Weekend ranked top-5 in offensive efficiency but in the bottom half in defensive efficiency.
The secondary cast (DeMarre Carroll, Jonas Valanciunas, Cory Joseph, and now-departed Terrence Ross) provided consistent contributions but the years-long glaring hole at the power forward position remained a problem all season. Patrick Patterson missed 17 games and offseason addition Jared Sullinger made his debut in mid-January. Lucas Nogueira and rookie Pascal Siakam were steady cogs, but the team once mentioned in contender conversations not long ago, was surpassed by Boston and Washington…and are nowhere near Golden State or Cleveland.
Residing in the league’s second or third tier, President Masai Ujiri acquired Serge Ibaka, a floor-spacing and rim-protecting power forward with deep playoff experience who perfectly complements Valanciunas. They traded away Ross and the lower of their two 2017 first-round draft picks. Ujiri likely believes 1) re-signing Ibaka is likely, 2) Norman Powell, or the combination of him and perhaps another trade-deadline acquisition can replace Ross’s production as the first swingman off the bench, and 3) the reward of another deep playoff run exceeds the risk incurred and could help them overtake Cleveland.
Grade: B (B- before acquiring Ibaka…B+ if Ujiri acquires small-forward depth)
(Photos via Getty Images)