Defence, Rebounding On Raptors' Offseason Wish List

Holly MacKenzie - Raptors.com

The Toronto Raptors are gearing up for the beginning of a very busy offseason. With six players becoming free agents when July 1 hits, there will be lots to do. Things get underway this week with the team starting pre-draft workouts in addition to a free agent camp as the search to strengthen the roster gets underway. 

While it’s impossible to know exactly which positions will need to be filled without first knowing what the future holds for each of the players who will be free agents, comments from general manager Masai Ujiri and head coach Dwane Casey in the days after their four-game sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards provide a glimpse into areas the team is looking to improve. 

Rediscovering A Defensive Identity

The single biggest change for the Raptors this season was a loss of their defensive identity. The defence tumbled downhill quickly in comparison to a season ago when the team became one of the better defensive clubs in the league. The Raptors fell from 10th in defensive rating in 2013-2014 to 25th in 2014-2015. When Casey spoke with the media for his season-ending availability, a desire to rediscover a defence-first mindset was the first thing he pointed to when assessing the season. 

A two-way perimeter player who can defend and hit three-pointers to stretch the floor is on every team’s wish list. James Johnson was brought to Toronto to slow down big and athletic wing players, but because the three-point shot isn’t a big part of his game (Johnson shot 22 per cent from beyond the arc), defences could collapse inside when he was on the floor. Terrence Ross was selected eighth overall in 2012 because he has the ability to become this type of player with his shooting stroke and athleticism. Although Ross has used his athleticism to compete in two dunk contests and deliver a jaw-dropping 51-point explosion, he’s still figuring out how to maximize that potential and skill at the NBA level. 

Witnessing the impact Paul Pierce had on a young Wizards roster up close made the idea of adding a veteran with significant postseason experience seem like an attractive option for the Raptors. Ujiri especially had complimentary words for the game — both on and off the court — that Pierce displayed in the first round with the Wizards.

The Raptors have an All-Star backcourt in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but their roster isn’t flush with players who had been through long playoff runs. Adding someone who had been there before and understands what it takes to win under the brightest lights and biggest stage is something every young team wants to add. 

As it looks today, the team has two point guards under contract: Lowry and his backup Greivis Vasquez. Reigning Sixth Man of the Year and point-guard-in-a-pinch Lou Williams becomes a free agent in July. If Williams doesn’t re-sign, the front office will want to find a third ballhandler. Even if Williams does return, adding a guard with strong defensive skills would line up with the coaching staff’s desire for the team to reclaim its former defensive identity. 

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Upgrading Up Front

The frontcourt is where the bulk of changes or moves could happen. Amir Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough, Chuck Hayes and Greg Stiemsma are all free agents and it’s unlikely that the whole group remains intact. The Raptors struggled on the glass, ranking 21st in rebounding percentage during the regular season and 16th (last place) during the postseason. Look for the team to pursue rebounders and big men who can provide interior defence as well as cover for Toronto’s perimeter defenders. 

Last offseason Ujiri got one of the biggest steals of the summer when he traded John Salmons to the Atlanta Hawks for Williams and Lucas Nogueira. Williams, of course, had a career year for the Raptors. After standing pat during the trade deadline to give the roster a chance as assembled, perhaps Ujiri will be looking to pull off another heist this year. If last summer was about keeping the band together, this summer is about improving it.