Monday, May 5, 2014
Summer Scoop: Raptors' road ahead
By Marc Stein
ESPN.com senior writer Marc Stein has the lowdown on the Raptors as they head into the offseason.
Five burning questions and answers about the Toronto Raptors' immediate future in the wake of their Game 7 loss at home Sunday to the Brooklyn Nets:
1. How will you remember the only team from the NBA's Greatest First Round of All Time to lose Game 7 at home?
Not like that.
Sunday's desperately narrow defeat to visiting Brooklyn, with a spot in the second round for only the second time in franchise history just two points away, is not a fair epitaph for this Raptors season.
I prefer to regard these Raps as the Phoenix Suns of the Eastern Conference.
Which is to say the team in the East, a la Phoenix, that swatted all of our preseason projections into the 10th row and made the concept of so-called experts look as silly as Charles Barkley always makes it sound from his TNT pulpit.
As disappointing as the ending was, with a home loss in Game 1 as well as Game 7, we can't just gloss over everything Toronto achieved post-Rudy Gay.
The Raptors won the Atlantic Division for the first time since 2007, snagged the East's No. 3 seed and reintroduced the rest of the NBA to one of its most devoted (and raucous) fan bases. Five-figure crowds routinely gathered outside the arena for playoff-watching parties to put a pretty bow on season that will be remembered for DeMar DeRozan playing his way onto the East's All-Star squad. And for Kyle Lowry uncorking a career year that A) made him this season's most famous All-Star snubee in the East and B) forced the Raptors to take him off the trading block and abandon any notion of playing for pingpong balls.
Which is as impressive as it gets in a season where a Canadian teen phenom named Andrew Wiggins is projected as a consensus top-three pick.
2. If we're reading No. 1 correctly, Dwane Casey did enough to get a contract extension. Right?
Yes, indeed: You read it right. And, yes, it's hard to muster any sort of argument against Casey ultimately getting a new contract.
Everyone remembers that Raptors GM Masai Ujiri inherited Casey, so the season began with most coaching insiders expecting Ujiri to be on the hunt for his own man by now.
But Toronto's turnaround -- and the way Casey connected with Lowry after more than one coach before him tried and failed -- has spawned the expectation around town that he'll ultimately score, at worst, a new two-year extension.
3. If you think Casey is getting a new deal, then the same surely holds for Lowry. Correct?
Skeptics are quick to dismiss Lowry's willingness to be coached, and his best-ever season of citizenship, as nothing more than a free agent-to-be playing for a new contract.
As one of those well-placed skeptics said this week: "This was the perfect storm for the Raptors. Lowry was in the last year of his contract and showed up for camp in the best shape of his life."
The thinly veiled suggestion there is that it all changes once Lowry gets his money. But it would be a stunner now, no less surprising than the season we just witnessed, if the Raptors bought into that sort of talk. Ujiri has tried to mentor Lowry this season and appears to have broken through.
Washington is known as the team sporting the East's consensus Backcourt of the Future, thanks to John Wall and Bradley Beal, but Lowry and DeRozan sure give the impression that they're not only determined to keep Toronto in the conversation but also serious about upholding their roles they've taken on as the Raps' co-leaders.
"Why would he leave?" DeRozan told local reporters Sunday after Toronto's elimination, insisting "I ain't worried about that."
4. What will the Raps be missing even if they get those two deals done?
They obviously need continued development from Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, for starters, but the Raptors clearly need more size to be a viable playoff contender.
More length, more toughness and an injection of speed in the backcourt or on the wings wouldn't hurt, either.
5. Any offseason surprises in store from the Raps?
Could former Raptor Vince Carter return to the place that made him a superstar?
There's a pretty tasty free-agent scenario in circulation ... if it comes to fruition.
Word is that the Raptors have been kicking around the idea of making a free-agent play this summer to try to bring Vince Carter "home" by trying to sign the former face of the franchise away from the Mavericks.
Be advised that Carter has been very happy in Dallas these past three seasons. Very happy. He's emerged as the emotional leader of Dirk Nowitzki's team at this late stage of his career and, by all accounts, wants to re-sign with Dallas.
The Mavs, furthermore, are said to be just as interested in signing the 37-year-old to a new deal, especially after Carter capped his bargain three-year, $9 million pact with a a turn-back-the-clock series against the Spurs.
I suppose this is where some Raptors diehards are going to follow up by berating me with loud claims that Vince would never be welcomed back north of the border after the circumstances surrounding his departure in 2004. But I ain't buyin' it. I've never bought that. Trying to sign him now, as a veteran sage on a young team, is precisely the sort of splash we know new Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president Tim Leiweke loves to make.
Makes too much sense for the Raps not to explore it.