It’s finally here. The Pistons begin their 2016-17 regular season campaign against their rivals (I can say that right?) the Toronto Raptors. To give you a better sense of how the fans from ‘The Six’ feel about their squad and the season-opening game against Detroit, Sean Woodley (@WoodleySean) from Raptors HQ stopped by to drop some knowledge. You can check out the Q&A I did on the Pistons and tonight’s game at Raptors HQ here.
1) The Raptors finally made it out of the first round last year, before ultimately losing to the eventual champs, the Cavs, in the Eastern Conference Finals. What needs to happen for the Raptors to take that next step and make it to the NBA Finals?
Simply put, LeBron James needs to break down. It's a grim outlook, I know. But there's nothing to suggest this current iteration of the Raptors -- or any other team in the Eastern Conference for that matter -- has the juice to take down the King. Barring a jaw-dropping trade, the Raptors' realistic ceiling is pretty clearly a return trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Conveniently, the Raptors aren't in a place where breaking through and playing for a title feels like a necessity for this year to be considered a success. Toronto doesn't have the stench of repeated late-round failures on its breath. Last season's run was as unexpected as it was fun, and a repeat performance should be a welcome site for a fan base that has slogged through a lot of trying times. One or two more years of falling short in the final four? Maybe then talk of stagnation creeps in. But for now, the Raptors' goal should be to prove last year's success was sustainable.
2) DeMarre Carroll only played 26 games for the Raptors last year due to injuries. Reports are that he spent most of his summer rehabbing the knee and is still working back toward 100%. What's the fan-base’s mood on DeMarre Carroll this year?
Going into this season, DeMarre Carroll feels like the most unreliable guy in your inner circle of friends. You're reasonably confident in his ability to come through in times of need, but there's always the thought in the back of your mind that he could let you down.
The thing is, Toronto can't afford for Carroll's knee to not be 100 percent reliable this season. He doesn't just provide tenacious wing defense and dead-eye three-point shooting. He injects a dose of versatility into Dwane Casey's rotation that no one else on the roster does. We saw him slide down to power forward for effective spurts last season. Now, with Jared Sullinger's prolonged absence set to test the Raptors' front court depth, Carroll will be counted on to soak up real minutes at the four. No other Raptor wings can flip positions like Carroll. His health this year feels more paramount than it did in 2015-16
3) With Bismack Biyombo gone, does Jonas Valanciunas elevate his game?
Whether or not Jonas Valanciunas can take "the leap" isn't entirely up to Jonas Valanciunas. He's always been impressively efficient and productive on a Per-36 basis, but his offensive game doesn't completely fit into the Raptors' guard-centric, drive-and-kick heavy scheme. He's among the league's surest things when scoring on the roll (4th in points/possession among high volume bigs last season), but his chemistry with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan is often amiss. Finding ways to creatively craft Valanciunas' touches so as to stay within the team's game plan is among the biggest challenges facing Casey and his staff this year. Valanciunas can help by continuing to work on modern big skills like his passing and shooting range. Diversifying his approach to incorporate kick-out passes and the pick-and-pop will be critical if he wants to see an uptick in usage. (Casey could also experiment with Valanciunas as a second-unit anchor, but it may be tricky to juggle with Sullinger out). Where JV has more control over his own trajectory is on defense. It's time to accept that he's always going to be slow and lumbering, incapable of guarding out to the perimeter for more than the oddest of possessions. He can however, improve on his spotty awareness when defending the pick-and-roll, and impose himself as a rim protector who is to be feared. Basketball IQ may be an innate thing that Valanciunas simply wasn't born with, but the physical tools are there for him to at least be a somewhat neutral to slightly above average defender, even in a league that is stretching outside of his comfort zone.
4) What, if any, moves will the Raptors make during the season to increase their chances at a title run?
It seems like the Raptors have been in search of a long-term solution at power forward since Chris Bosh left in 2010. That remains the case heading into this season. There's an ongoing sense that the Raptors have been waiting to pounce on Paul Millsap for a couple years now, and if the Hawks implode around the Dennis Schröder-Dwight Howard pick-and-roll, maybe this is the year Masai Ujiri lands his prize. It's entirely unlikely to happen, because trades are damned hard to pull off. In a perfect world, though, Millsap joins Lowry and DeRozan for a more serious run at the Cavs.
A side note on daydreaming about sexy trades for difference-making big men in Toronto: it's frustrating as hell. Just when you think the Raptors might have the assets to swing a deal for star, you remember that the Boston Celtics' hold the trump card in any sort of bidding war. Those first round picks from Brooklyn are a source of crippling sadness for more than just Nets fans.
5) Prediction for the season-opening game against the Pistons?
The Raptors have made a habit of storming out of the gate the last couple years, and they're dependably strong at home. With no Reggie Jackson for Detroit, I think the Raptors win by seven or eight.
6) In honor of his 30th birthday this past Monday - favorite Drake track.
Drake's catalog is so extensive that I once wrote a game preview using just Drake lyrics. It's either the best or worst thing I've ever done.
The answer* for me is 'Still Here.' It speaks to Drake's dedication to the city of Toronto and was one of the only high points on the otherwise disappointing 'Views.'
*This answer may change if he ever dedicates a song to Cory Joseph.