Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson, and DeMar DeRozan (Getty)In a league that allows for few major surprises, there's not a team in the NBA that presents a wider-range of potential outcomes this season than the Toronto Raptors.
Here's what we know heading into the 2013-2014 campaign.
The LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and the Heat are coming off their second consecutive championship and have the Bulls, Pacers, Nets, (and Knicks if you're feeling adventurous) hoping to dethrone them in the Eastern Conference. In the West, the Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Clippers, Warriors, and possibly Grizzlies all think they can contend for the title. The Sixers, Magic, Bobcats (next year they'll rightfully regain the Hornets moniker), Celtics, Suns, and Jazz are the league's bottom-feeders.
Then there's everyone else and that's where you'll find Toronto, again. There's just as good a chance that the Raptors crack the playoffs than they cut up their roster. Welcome to the NBA's middle class, population: desperately looking for a way out.
Even the players on the Raptors' roster elicit contentious debates among the hoops community.
Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan will lead the team in scoring but their inefficient means are the source of much criticism. Kyle Lowry is as divisive a player as they come – seemingly always feuding with coaches and battling injuries but a favourite of the statsheads, (yours truly included). The bench features offseason acquisition Tyler Hansbrough, which says enough about both the alienating nature and state of Toronto's bench.
The only real consensus is that Amir Johnson is underrated and Jonas Valanciunas is going to be good. How good and how soon is another question of great importance that swirls around the Raptors.
Last season the current starting five was one of the league's most effective units. When Lowry, DeRozan, Gay, Johnson, and Valanciunas shared the court they outscored opponents by 12.9 points per 100 possessions. The front court of Johnson and Valanciunas combined to hold opponents to 96.5 points per 100, which exceeded Indiana's league leading efficiency of 96.6/100. After Gay was acquired from Memphis, Toronto went 18-18.
Those are awfully positive numbers for a team that missed the playoffs. Dig a little deeper and the warts start to show.
Overall, Toronto went 9-19 (.321 winning percentage) against Eastern Conference playoffs teams last season and despite the win-loss improvement with the addition of Gay, the Raptors' offence actually worsened, going from the 11th most efficient in the league (103.8 points/100 possessions) to 21st (101.9/100). Also, Lowry, Johnson, and Valanciunas are among the most foul-prone players in the NBA and with a dearth of reliable options off the bench, that can create some mismatched lineups when all three get into foul trouble on a given night.
That's an unenviable reality of residing in the league's middle class, you're good simply isn't good enough.
If the wing play of Gay, DeRozan, and Terrence Ross is more efficient and Valanciunas takes a step forward on both ends of the floor, the playoffs are absolutely within reach. If the team battles injuries they could fall as low as 12th in the East and with Ujiri at the helm, there's a chance that the end of season roster will bear little resemblance to the one Toronto trots out on opening night.
Valanciunas' development will be monitored closely. The rest of the roster and the head coach will be under constant evaluation from the new front office.
Whether it's from their play on the court or their activity off it, the Raptors could go a multitude of directions this season.
The road out of Middle Class, NBA isn't an easy one to navigate, but for the first time in a number of years, with a new driver at the wheel, there's a belief in Toronto that the exit sign is just up ahead.
For more Toronto Raptors coverage, check out: Masai Ujiri has complete control of Toronto Raptors' present and future