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      Ujiri Puts Focus Back on Defence for Raptors
      Photo by Darren Calabrese-The Canadian Press
      July 10, 2015

      Ujiri Puts Focus Back on Defence for Raptors

      The abrupt nature to which a basketball season ends can be jarring, particularly if we're talking about the 2014–15 version of the Raptors, who won a franchise record 49 games in the regular season, then just over a week later were cleaning out their locker rooms after an embarrassing first-round sweep to the Washington Wizards. In the brief time head coach Dwane Casey and general manager Masai Ujiri were offered to reflect on the season, the messaging was clear: the team had lost the rope on the defensive end—a bottom ten team in defensive efficiency during the season, with all the problems coming to the forefront in the playoffs—and personnel changes were required.

      The tone was set on draft night, when the Raptors selected point guard Delon Wright—known for his defensive attributes—No. 20 overall and traded Greivis Vasquez to the Milwaukee Bucks for a future first-round pick. If the overriding theme of shifting the focus toward forging a defensive identity wasn't clear, it was confirmed when Ujiri swooped in on the first day of free agency and signed DeMarre Carroll to a four-year, $60 million contract. In addition to bidding farewell to Vasquez, Amir Johnson and Lou Williams signed with other teams (the Celtics and Lakers, respectively), while Ujiri did a wonderful job of filling out the remainder of the roster by signing Bismack Biyombo, Cory Joseph and Luis Scola. For the first time in his tenure, Ujiri's team will include players in the starting lineup that were not originally acquired by Bryan Colangelo.

      READ MORE: Ranking the Raptors' Biggest Free-Agent Signings on the Hedo Scale

      While there were no franchise-altering acquisitions like LaMarcus Aldridge (we got a meeting though!) or Paul Millsap, in aggregate, the team has done well to shift the overall focus toward addressing its defensive woes. So, what does all the roster turnover amount to? Have the Raptors vaulted themselves into contender status? Have they sacrificed too many pieces in their offence in order to plug holes on the other end of the floor?

      A lot of attention will be paid toward how Carroll fits into the starting lineup. We know what he can provide on the defensive end, as a plus perimeter defender who can guard multiple positions (and relatively speaking, a significant upgrade over what the Raptors have on their roster). On offence, it'll be interesting to see what an expanded role (which was one of the appeals, aside from the money, in signing up with Toronto) means for Carroll, who shot 39.5 percent from deep on 4.3 attempts per game in Atlanta last season, and averaged 14.6 points in the playoffs. The Raptors don't have the same ball sharing, free-flowing offence that made the Hawks so successful last season. For comparison, Atlanta led the league with 67.6 percent of its field goals assisted, compared to the Raptors who were third last at 54.7 percent. So, the offence will have to achieve more balance in order to maximize Carroll's strengths on that end. With Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan—two ball-dominant guards—in the starting lineup, it remains to be seen how things will play out.

      The bench roles seem clearly defined, as well. Joseph averaged 13.2 points while shooting 56 percent from the field in 14 starts for the Spurs last season, and can help the team manage Lowry's minutes, or be part of a three-guard lineup with the starters should the Raptors choose to go small for stretches. Scola is 35 years old, but has a nifty offensive game and has consistently been an efficient scorer, averaging over 15 points per 36 minutes for his career. He will provide much-needed low-post scoring as part of the second unit. Biyombo has no semblance of an offensive game, but is an elite rim protector. You can imagine Casey will make sure Biyombo is on the floor for the majority of time with Scola, similar to what Oklahoma City did last season by hiding Enes Kanter's defensive shortcomings in pairing his minutes with Serge Ibaka.

      The new additions will provide an assortment of skill sets, but old questions remain, specifically with regards to the development of Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, who will be entering their fourth seasons. Both players are eligible for an extension prior to the start of the 2015–16 campaign—there's definitely a case to be made for extending Valanciunas—and we'll have a much clearer picture at the end of the season how these two will factor into Ujiri's long-term plan, if at all. Valanciunas continues to make incremental improvement on both ends of the floor, but remains a liability on defence against smaller lineups and will never be a true fit under Casey's defensive schemes. If he can make any sort of leap on either end next season, it opens up Toronto's potential ceiling in the East. We keep waiting.

      Ross, meanwhile, regressed in his third season, and it's probably fair to say his disappointing campaign necessitated the Carroll signing, who represents what Ross should be in terms of the 3-point shooting and defensive presence he provides. After shuffling between the starting lineup and bench last season, Ross will have a more clearly defined role this season as the first wing off the bench. He has a lot of ground to make up to convince the team to invest in him beyond next year.

      As for the team's starting backcourt, Lowry was incredible in carrying the Raptors to the best record in the East for the first two months of the season, but was subpar (to be kind) in the playoffs. He's still the most talented player on the team, and even with Joseph and Wright in the fold, he remains Toronto's key player. DeRozan is set for a significant raise in the new cap world. At this point, we know what he provides (perimeter scoring, ability to get to the free throw line), and it's a question of whether that's enough for the Raptors to commit and pay him like a franchise player moving forward.

      The beauty of what Ujiri has done, even with all the reconstruction, is keep the team flexible moving forward. Toronto has multiple options at each position, and is expected to at least kick the tires on the pursuit for Kevin Durant next summer. This roster will also allow Ujiri to make an honest assessment of Casey and his coaching staff, who didn't have a capable roster to make any strides on defence last season. This year, those excuses go out the window. Since Ujiri's arrival, the Raptors have worked to restore credibility in the organization. The addition of the Raptors 905 D-League team next season will be a huge boon to the development of Wright, Bruno Caboclo and any other young players the Raptors acquire in the future.

      Back-to-back playoff appearances has brought a new level of expectation from the fan base. The team's mandate for the 2015-16 season is clear: establish a defensive identity during the regular season, and position itself to finally break through in the playoffs with a new style of play. You could argue all the other teams in the Atlantic Division have improved marginally, but the Raptors should still be considered the favourite to emerge as the division winner. In the East, LeBron James and the Cavaliers have to be viewed as heavy favourites, but after that, how the rest of the hierarchy sets up is wide open.

      So, really, it's just like how things were entering last season. Except now, the Raptors have to believe they have a roster that is much more equipped to carry their regular season success to the playoffs. This time around, the end of the season may not be as abrupt, or carry as much disappointment. It's been a successful offseason for Toronto, but now the real work begins.

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