Welcome to Hoop Dreams, a season preview unlike any other you’ll read before the 2016-17 season tips off. The premise is simple. We’ll be providing 30 of these fictional forays because it simply stinks that only one team can win the title each year. The list of contending teams seems to shrink with each campaign, and we wanted to provide something to those fans who only get to dream of Larry O’Brien during the offseason. Before October, every team can win the NBA title. Don’t believe us? Then keep reading. – Ed
Jonas Valanciunas was pretty sure it was supposed to go the other way around — that he was supposed to be the one who got down on one knee and offered a blinding ring, but he blurted out “YES!” before he even realized what his assent might mean. It was the eve of the 2017 NBA Finals, and Jonas had just agreed to marry a kneeling Rihanna, who had a 4-carat diamond ring in her hand and a pleading expression on her face. It had been a long and winding road to this point, but Valanciunas felt like it would all end up OK.
The 2016-17 Raptors didn’t barnstorm through the regular season. They did what many people — outside of Boston, Chicago and New York — expected, securing the No. 2 seed in the East, thereby positioning themselves for a rematch with Cleveland in the Conference finals. But the regular season offered up a couple morsels that make them a very dangerous opponent in the playoffs: namely the improved defense of Jonas Valanciunas (who worked on his foot speed and defensive rotations all summer after seeing how much people loved Bismack Biyombo’s playoff performance in his steed), and coach Dwane Casey’s use of two different starting lineups: one with Jonas, and one without.
You see, with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry using close to 60 percent of Toronto’s plays when they share the court, Valanciunas’ blossoming offensive game was like a rudder stuck in the mud. He needed clear water on the second team to see if it could grow even more. Raptors brass was pleasantly surprised, too, when Toronto’s second unit, spearheaded by a Corey Joseph-Jonas pick-and-roll game that was borderline unstoppable against second units over the course of the season (they scored 1.34 ppp on pick-and-rolls, tops in the league — per Synergy), destroyed opponents left and right. Combined with how long and lean the Raptors are off the bench, it’s a beautiful gambit that Casey stays with throughout the season.
Norman Powell made a leap as well, making Casey’s job a lot easier. In fact, Toronto’s bench was even more effective — plus-10.5 net rating — than the starter’s on the year (a solid, but not amazing, plus-5.6).
Jonas started 22 games, but for the remaining 59 where he came off the bench, the Raptors won 50 of them (they finished 56-26). When Jonas doesn’t start, Jared Sullinger slides over to be a small-ball center, and Patrick Paterson plays the four. That unit of Sully, Paterson, Demarre Carroll, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry actually gave up more points as a unit than the team overall, but it wasn’t as bad as you’d think with a small-ball center like Sully — who can’t exactly protect the rim. Carroll and Lowry are great defenders along the perimeter and Patterson helped with the defensive rebounding. Also, DeMar improved almost as much as Jonas on the defense end.
It was really a win-win, which is why the regular season went so well.