As promised, we are dedicating this column to our bold predictions for the upcoming Toronto Raptors season. Last time we said that the predictions would be bold enough that we could expect to be hammered later about what we could have been thinking. That is what makes these kinds of things fun, combining reasonably sound prognostications with enough sizzle to get people talking and questioning. Our bold prediction history is certainly mixed, with plenty of good (Troy Smith and Mark Ingram to win the Heisman Trophy; Patrick Willis and Luke Kuechly to win Defensive Rookie of the Year; Wesley Johnson would be the worst draft pick in Minnesota Timberwolves history); and no shortage of bad (Omar Jacobs as a sure-fire franchise quarterback; Carlos Zambrano will win numerous Cy Young awards; Joakim Noah would be a giant bust). If you still think we have an ounce of credibility left, let’s do it.
Jonas Valanciunas is an All-Star: We do write this with some reservation. There is no doubt that we feel that Jonas has the talent to be an All-Star for the Toronto Raptors this season. We look at the other centers in the East and see quality guys, but we believe Jonas is better than all of them. Brook Lopez had huge numbers last year, but will be mired this year in a sea of former Celtics. We love Roy Hibbert, but with the addition of Luis Scola and the continued star emergence of Paul George, we feel his scoring will drop. And Andrew Bynum? We can revisit that one when he can string together three games in a row. The hesitation comes from seeing guys like Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan. They are volume shooters who are not going to suddenly change their personality. When we watched the Toronto Raptors games last season Jonas did not get the ball enough; when he did they scored. However, he had to be a bit of a black hole to do it. This year, though, we think the philosophy will change because coach Dwane Casey has said as much. He says that the offense has to go through Jonas, something he did not say last year as they were so careful about limiting his workload and exposure. But the end of the season proved different, and he put up the numbers to reward them for their faith. It will take a bit of an ego check for Gay and DeRozan, but both have stated their desire to reach the playoffs that they will buy in. And it will mean more open shots, and DeRozan has to hit them, which he claims he has improved significantly. Valanciunas line: 33 mpg, 14.7 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 1.8 bpg.
DeMar DeRozan does not become an adequate 3-point shooter: A lot has been made of DeRozan working so hard on his long jumper over the offseason and that it is the missing piece to taking the next step as a great all-around offensive player. In theory, it should be easier, as Jonas is going to draw more double teams than last year, leaving more open 3s for DeRozan, but we do not see a big improvement. We simply cannot envision a scenario in which DeRozan, whose best 3-point percentage is .283, suddenly making a leap to relative respectability. The circumstances are present for an improvement, and we expect one, but counting on DeRozan to become a consistent threat suddenly in his fifth season is not reasonable.
Goran Dragic will be traded to the Raptors: Kyle Lowry will not shake his injury history. We do not see anything serious, but it will be nagging stuff here and there, causing the Raptors to worry about their depth at the position. Dwight Buycks hasn’t proven anything and D.J. Augustin will continue his terrible play from last year. Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, our current leading candidate for Most Improved Player, play the same position and that will make Dragic expendable, not that Phoenix should be giving up any player who has NBA credentials of any kind! We get the feeling that Dragic would not have any trouble feeding the ball to Jonas Valanciunas. Just a hunch.
Other predictions: Talk of a potential Rudy Gay trade will come up early, probably during the first losing streak of three of more games. Gay has to be used to it by now, and he is in that kind of elite-ish player category that teams will always wonder what they can get in return. But the talk will subside quickly, as Gay will continue to play well and hit the 3s that DeRozan just won’t, not for a lack of trying. Also, Amir Johnson will fit into the system so well that he will be considered by some to be the most valuable player on the Raptors. While we like Tyler Hansbrough, Johnson will be so indispensable that Hansbrough will play a lesser role than many expected. He will start a few fights, though, and will make sure to see who it is before making a move!
The Toronto Raptors will go 43-39 in the 2013-14 season and will be the No. 7 seed in the East. Feel free to viciously comment when they start 1-6.