This month’s State of the Squad for our Toronto Raptors is a delightful holiday stocking, hung from a fancy fireplace in a aggressively decorated room. I dreamed this scene the other night. The stocking was empty and had no intention of being filled with any sort of treat or practical good. The entire room was a disjointed mirage of some substance and lots of empty style. The stocking was just an extra; an average piece from the whole. It had a strand or two of flash but was overwhelmed by the environment.
The Raptors were this stocking. Still there but an afterthought compared to the other flashier things in room. Nice enough to get a look and a comment, but couldn’t compete with the lights or the tree or the toys. But that was before the Rudy Gay trade. They’ve thrown the useless stocking in the fireplace and become the “Charlie Brown-like” tree in the corner; there for a reason and competing with the other items in the room that could be more than meets the eye. There are a couple of fancy crystal stars in the closet and the tree needs it bad. But for now, it’s going to be painful.
Painfully ridiculous holiday analogy aside, let’s get to the December State of the Squad.
This State leaves us in a state of flux. With rumors flying about potential deals with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan among others, it makes it impossible to know what this team is going to look like in another month. The end objective is hardly in doubt, though, and that makes it easier to ascertain motive and predict plans. The message is clear.
As for the Raptors in a vacuum, things have been relatively good for the big men. We have been calling for more involvement from both Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson since the beginning of the season. We are getting it now, especially from Johnson, who is averaging 18.6 points and 9.6 rebounds on 69 percent shooting in December. We figure that if Rudy Gay had that type of efficiency he would have not only allowed stat sheets in the locker room, but would have handed them out personally to fans before the game! Nevertheless, those are career numbers from Johnson and it gives GM Masai Ujiri some interesting options if he wishes to pursue them.
Things still have not been as smooth as we’d hoped for Valanciunas. His numbers are up slightly since Gay’s departure, but 11 points and eight rebounds in December are still disappointing to us. It would help if he consistently got more than 30 minutes a night and was featured in that time. But the offensive focus is just too inconsistent, even if it has been better since Gay left. We are not sure if coach Dwane Casey is hearing some frustration but he made sure to come out with a statement saying that Valanciunas “is going to be our center for a long time.” That’s good news and, hopefully, leads them to finally get him the consistent touches that he needs.
Kyle Lowry is playing well amid consistent trade rumors. His assist numbers have spiked a bit since Gay’s monopolization of the ball left town. There is no question he has value and we get the feeling that the Raptors would like to make a deal sooner rather than later. Newly acquired Greivis Vasquez was third in the NBA in assists last season. This would naturally be a boon to Valanciunas and an obvious change in offensive philosophy.
DeMar DeRozan is continuing to play well. We hope that unless Ujiri is blown away by a trade offer, he will keep DeRozan and make him a cornerstone of the rebuilding effort. What has especially impressed us is that he has not tried to do too much since the Gay trade. While we lauded DeRozan early in the season, we were concerned that he would try and make up for Gay’s scoring on his own, making for, essentially, the same problem they had with Gay. But he has not. His shot numbers have been consistently in the high teens, save for an occasional outburst, and he is making the most of them. We argue he is benefiting his teammates more than Gay did and it shows with the emergence of players like Johnson.
They also need to decide if Terrence Ross and DeRozan are the same player. We still see DeRozan as both superior now and with a higher ceiling. But if there is value out there for the unproven Ross, it needs to be evaluated.
It looks like this was an exercise in caution; we simply have no idea how the roster is going to look by next month’s State. We hope there is at least one more trade out there after Lowry, who is a pretty safe bet to be moved, and that we are talking next month about how comfortable Valanciunas is looking in the offense. We’ll take that weak tree now if someone promises to buy a sturdy base and fix it up a bit.