NBA 2014-15 Power Rankings Preview: #7 Toronto Raptors

The Raptors are entering 2014-15 with the highest expectations the franchise has ever seen. Was last year a fluke or are they worth the hype?

This NBA offseason has been very eventful, and the preseason is now in full swing. To help hoops junkies with the transition from the lull of summer back to competitive basketball, we here at numberFire will be rolling out our projections for next season in the form of team previews, starting at 30 and going all the way to number one. We continue today with the 7th-ranked Toronto Raptors!

Last season was a tale of two very different Toronto Raptors squads. Before reaching an agreement with the Sacramento Kings to trade Rudy Gay in early December, the Raps were 6-12 and on pace to finish the season well outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. After the trade went down, Toronto shocked the NBA by going 42-22 and finishing with an Atlantic Division banner and the third seed in the East. They had the fifth best record in the whole Association after the deal and the best in their conference by three wins. It was a turnaround that very few people saw coming and some are still scratching their heads over. Toronto may have lost their first round series to the Brooklyn Nets by a hair, but they clearly showed that they were a team that the world outside of Canada should start taking more seriously.

This offseason, the Raptors got the band back together with several key re-signings and bolstered their depth through trades and free agency. Considering they were one of only four teams to finish last season ranked in the top 10 in both offensive efficiency (107.2, 9th) and defensive efficiency (102.4, 8th), the fact that they arguably got better on paper through player movement would lead one to expect even bigger things from the team in 2014-15. Most pundits are cautious to dub Toronto a top team and contender out east after a 19-year history of general ineptitude, but our algorithms aren't shy about crowning them number two in the conference, even over the restocked Chicago Bulls. There are a lot of variables and questions surrounding the team and its players, but the pieces are in place for the Raps to celebrate their 20th anniversary with their best season in franchise history.

numberFire Metrics

Projected Record: 48-34
Eastern Conference Rank: 2nd
NBA Rank: 7th
nERD: 57.2
Playoff Chances: 87.11%
Championship Chances: 7.35%

The Raptors set a franchise record for wins last season with 48 and we have them projected to match that for the second year in a row. Considering a full season of their post-Gay pace last year would've had them at a 54-28 final record, there's always the possibility that they exceed expectations yet again this season. We have them as a veritable shoo-in to make the playoffs, but we also give them the sixth-best championship chances at 7.35% (the second highest among Eastern Conference squads). While some people might see Toronto's success last year as a bit of an anomaly, our metrics put a lot of confidence in All-Star DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, this particular group of players, and their coach Dwane Casey's balanced, two-way approach.

Player Movement

Notable Additions
Bruno Caboclo (via draft)
Lou Williams (via trade)
James Johnson (via free agency)
Greg Stiemsma (via free agency)
Jordan Hamilton (via free agency)
Lucas "Bebe" Nogueira (via trade)
Will Cherry (via free agency)

Notable Losses
Steve Novak (trade)
John Salmons (trade)
Nando de Colo (playing in Russia)

Toronto has a bit of a reputation for not being able to retain its stars, having watched lottery picks Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and Chris Bosh all leave in free agency (or forced trades) for less-frozen pastures at the peaks of their careers. Kyle Lowry broke that cycle this summer, when he signed on for four more years of basketball in the Great White North.

Being the destination of choice for one of this summer's top free agents over places like Miami and Los Angeles was the big coup of the offseason for Toronto, but the re-upping of solid rotation pieces Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez were huge gets as well. Patterson and Vasquez could have easily signed and started elsewhere in the league, but they bought into GM extraordinaire Masai Ujiri's plan to keep this eclectic blend of talent and chemistry together à la the San Antonio Spurs model of team building.

Meanwhile, the Raptors made their most shocking draft pick since Rafael Araujo when they took the unknown prospect Bruno Caboclo with the 20th pick this year. Whether you believe he's "the Brazilian Kevin Durant" or "two years away from being two years away", the intrigue surrounding the raw 19-year-old is undeniable and a fun storyline for this season. Beyond that, the Raptors stocked their already solid rotation with a scoring spark in Lou Williams, needed perimeter defense in James Johnson, and guys like Stiemsma, Hamilton, Nogueira, and Cherry to fight for the last few roster spots on a Raptors team that's perhaps the deepest it's ever been.

Three Burning Questions

Was last season the new norm for Kyle Lowry or an outlier?
Players don't typically wait until year eight of their career for their big breakout season, but that was certainly the case with Kyle Lowry. In 2013-14, Lowry put up career highs in points (17.9), rebounds (4.7), assists (7.4), and three-pointers made (2.4) per contest. He did this while playing the most minutes per game (36.2) of his career and with his highest usage rate ever (22.9%). He was snubbed as both an All-Star and All-NBA honoree, finishing eighth in win shares with 11.7, tenth in win shares per 48 minutes at a .197 rate, and 11th on our Player Power Rankings with a nERD of 10.7.

Lowry's career prior to last season's transcendence looked to be heading the way of the life-long backup, constantly faced with questions about his attitude, ability to lead, and even his conditioning. After flipping the script last season by jelling with Dwane Casey and carrying the Raptors on his back to a division title, one can't help but wonder which Lowry the Raptors just paid $48 million to play on their team for the next four years. Is a regression inevitable or can Lowry prove his doubters wrong by putting up another great year and getting the All-Star and All-NBA recognition that he deserved in 2013-14? How far the Raptors go this year will depend greatly on the answer to this question.

Are the Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross breakouts coming this year?
The Raptors enter 2014-15 with two third-year lottery picks in their starting lineup. Both Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross have shown that they can be solid contributors to this team, but neither are at the point where we can say that their potential has been fully realized. Ross could be a participant in both the dunk contest and the three-point shootout for the rest of his career, but the Raptors are hoping for more consistent scoring and further growth on his way to becoming a reliable "3-and-D" wing player instead.

Jonas, on the other hand, has been viewed as a franchise cornerstone since he was drafted fifth overall in 2011, but has yet to seize that role. The mere 28.2 minutes per game and low 18.5% usage rate probably have a lot to do with that, but if Casey concedes more time and possessions to Valanciunas after his impressive summer at the FIBA World Cup, the Lithuanian big man will have to respond with a level of play that matches the hype that's surrounded him for years. If one (or both) of these guys manages to take the leap this year, the Raptors will start looking more and more the part of true contenders.

What's this team's ceiling and what are their expectations for 2014-15?
The Raptors have only had six playoff appearances in their 19 years as a franchise, and a mere five winning seasons. Of those six trips to the playoffs, they've been ousted in the first round five times, with their one trip to the second round in 2001 easily being the biggest on their short list of postseason accomplishments. That's a big part of the reason why no one's comfortable with dubbing them contenders this season, despite the fact that they've done everything to prove that they are.

Considering this is probably the highest the Raptors have ever been touted going into a season in their 20-year existence, can they be satisfied with just another trip to the playoffs? Will making it to the second round be an accomplishment at this point or is it Eastern Conference Finals or bust? Can these guys be taken seriously as Finals contenders out east along with the Bulls and Cavaliers or can they only hope to be one of the better fringe contenders?

Fantasy Hoops Stock Watch

C Jonas Valanciunas (Yahoo O-Rank: 68)
As stated above, Jonas has not quite reached his potential just yet. He finished both of his first two seasons outside the top 125 in fantasy hoops, but don't sleep on him this season as a breakout candidate and potentially one of the best fantasy centers in the game. Over the last month of 2013-14, Jonas was the 39th-ranked player in nine-category leagues, posting averages of 14.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks per game, while shooting 56.8% from the floor and 83.1% from the line. He's the rare kind of center that has the potential to provide you with the usual points, rebounds, blocks, and field goal percentage that are synonymous with the position, while also keeping your team very competitive in free throw percentage and turnovers. His average draft position (ADP) is creeping up higher by the day, but he's still worth picking in the middle rounds for his massive upside. Don't pass him up.

PF/C Amir Johnson (Yahoo O-Rank: 103)
Lowry, DeRozan, and Valanciunas are the sexy names on the Raptors that people are targeting in this year's fantasy drafts, but many are sleeping on the solid and reliable production of Amir Johnson. Amir has finished in the top 100 in nine category leagues in each of the last two seasons - topping out at 46th in 2012-13 - but people seem scared of the idea of Patrick Patterson eating into his minutes and are subsequently letting him slip to the late rounds this year. As of now, it still appears that Patterson is a key part of Casey's second unit and the starting job is still very much Amir's to lose, at least if preseason lineups are any indication. If that stays the case, there aren't many better places to find solid rebounding, field goal percentage, low turnovers, and near-elite blocks this late in the draft. He could be a big sleeper pick this season for his quietly consistent production.