The Raptors open training camp in Victoria next week with a few key questions surrounding the team.
1) Has the "culture reset" taken place?
Following the Raptors bloody exit at the hands of the Cavaliers in the 2nd round last season, president Masai Ujiri proclaimed a "culture reset" was in order. For a team that looked poised to challenge for the Eastern throne, the season couldn't have ended any worse than it did. Cleveland swept away Toronto with ease, and it is evident there was a toxic environment within the team. Embarrassingly, Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan resorted to the 'It's unfair that we don't have Lebron on our team' excuse. However, in the NBA, talent always wins out.
Ujiri had to ride-or-die with his all-stars in hopes that replacing other players could fix any internal issues. So Lowry and Serge Ibaka were re-signed, while Ujiri overhauled the rest of the roster: Patrick Patterson, Demarre Caroll, PJ Tucker and Cory Joesph are the notables who will be plying their trade elsewhere this season, and some of the rides on the way out were bumpy. Patterson didn't bother to show up for his exit interview. Carroll criticised the Raptors after being traded to the Nets, saying there was a "lack of trust" on the team. An uneasy locker room can derail even the best of squads. A much younger group will get minutes this year, and the Raptors need their stars to help nurture the kids. Casey should be held somewhat responsible for some of last season's disharmony as well and will need to keep his players on the same page this season.
2) Should Jonas Valanciunas start?
It's no secret that Valanciunas was on the trading block this summer, but Ujiri ultimately decided it was better (rightfully) to hold onto JV rather than trade him for pennies on the dollar. So where does that leave the Lithuanian as a Raptor? Casey has alluded to JV remaining the starting center, and it makes sense: Toronto is very thin in the front-court. After Jonas and Serge Ibaka, the options at the 4 and 5 are dicey. Jakob Poeltl showed improvements in summer league but had a net -18.7 rating in four starts last season. Unless he proves he can shoot consistently, he will certainly come off the bench. The weak link in the 38 games he started last season, Pascal Siakam also showed positive signs in Las Vegas, flashing a bit of a 3-point shot (he went 4-for-11) If he can stretch the floor and combine it with his athleticism, Siakam might turn into a viable starting option. Lucas Nogueira is a player that despite the positives he brings (rim protection, efficiency), doesn't have the trust of Casey and is too poor of a rebounder (4.3 per game) to play heavy minutes.
So where are we left with this: JV starts at the 5, and Ibaka at the 4. The team wasn't great with them sharing the floor last season (-1.8 net rating in 440 minutes), but that doesn't necessarily mean things won't get better. Casey will also certainly use Ibaka at the 5 in spurts, especially against small-ball lineups and closing minutes when they need to be more mobile defensively. Also expect Valanciunas to see some time with the bench unit as more a focal point of the offense, where he will get more touches against inferior competition.
3) Norman Powell or CJ Miles?
As @CurtisRafter31 examined in his article last month, the battle for the starting small forward spot should be interesting. Offensively, the 30-year old Miles offers superior 3-point shooting (He hit 2.2 per game on 41% shooting last season). His shooting range will help open up the floor for pick-and-rolls and isolation plays the Raptors lean on so heavily. DeRozan and Lowry would surely be able to find him for some quality open looks. Powell has the benefit of having been a part of this group for the last couple years and can get to the rim. Norm performed better as a starter last season. He has also shown that he thrives on the big stage, helping swing two playoff series (See: Pacers 2016, Bucks 2017) in favor of the Raptors. Defensively, both are slightly undersized for the 3. Miles offers adequate defense but won't be confused for a stopper at any point, while Powell can make up for his lack of size (6'4) with a large wingspan and a tenacious attitude in guarding the perimeter. Both will end up playing significant roles, but my feeling is that Miles might be a better fit with the starters and Powell's versatility could be better suited off the bench. An interesting camp battle awaits.
4) Are they better off in the East this season?
This isn't a pressing camp question, but ultimately the season comes down to the bigger picture. Until proven otherwise, winning the East is a right of passage for whichever team has LeBron. While the health of Isaiah Thomas is making the situation in Cleveland uncertain for the time being, the regular season doesn't matter for the Cavs. If they are healthy enough come playoff time, the East is theirs to lose. Boston is favored to win the most games during the regular season, and the addition of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Jayson Tatum seemingly give them the best chance of unseating Cleveland. After that, the Raptors could be the 3rd best team in the conference. A close call with the Bucks and Wizards in the conversation. With the overall quality of teams in the East dipping, the playoffs are a certainty for Toronto, and obtaining homecourt advantage should be a realistic goal heading into the season.