After a franchise record 49 wins last season, the Toronto Raptors' season came to a sad ending for the team and their fans when the Raptors were blitzed out of the first round of the playoffs by the fifth-seeded Washington Wizards in a four game sweep. It was a far less competitive series than the one they played the season before where they lost a Game 7 at home to the Brooklyn Nets on a last second defensive stop by former Wizard Paul Pierce.
On the surface, it appeared the team had taken a step back and needed to consider dismantling the core foundation they built around DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. They decided against that and interestingly enough, it was the key that led them to second-best record in the Eastern Conference and a trip to the Conference Finals. With that in mind, what can the Wizards learn from the Raptors that has lead them to the Eastern Conference Finals?
Continuity at the Coaching Position
Over the past year, we have seen three teams - Cleveland, Chicago and Houston - fire coaches despite making it to the Conference Semifinals. Toronto bucked the trend of looking for a new voice and instead stuck with their coach despite not having his regular season success translate to postseason wins until this year. They chose to value the team's steady improvement from a 23 win team to a playoff contender under Dwane Casey more than how they underwhelmed during their first two trips to the playoffs.
The Wizards are now locked into a 5 year agreement with their new coach Scott Brooks. Given his success in both the regular season and postseason, the Wizards would be wise not to overreact if the team struggles at the start of the season. Based on how the Thunder developed during his time in Oklahoma City, the Wizards will finish better than they start. Ted Leonsis is certainly known for being loyal to his coaches but the trend in the league in recent years has been quite the opposite. Remaining loyal could pay similar dividends for the Wizards in the long run.
Keeping Core Players
Toronto also kept most of their core players from the previous season. The only notable losses from the roster were Amir Johnson, who signed with the Boston Celtics, Lou Williams, the former Sixth Man of the Year who signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Lakers, and Greivis Vasquez, who Toronto traded to the Milwaukee Bucks (more on this later). They chose to keep their best players, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. As a result, both improved considerably this season. They both earned trips to the All-Star Game after setting career highs in points per game and three-point field goal percentage.
Similarly the Wizards have a core of young talented guards who have even more room to grow than Toronto's backcourt. John Wall is 25 years old, Bradley Beal will soon be 23, while DeMar DeRozan is 26 and Kyle Lowry is 30. To see a player Lowry's age continue to improve should be encouraging to the Wizards' organization. Despite last year's disappointing season, building around two guards who have Wall and Beal's potential should eventually lead to greater future success.
Fortifying Pieces Around Core Through Free Agency
Kyle Lowry is shooting 39 percent from the field in the playoffs thus far and only shot 32 percent from the field in the first round while averaging nearly 10 ppg under his season average. DeMar DeRozan has not been all that great himself, shooting 39 percent from the field in the playoffs - compared to 45 percent during the regular season.
Their improvement has not translated into this year's playoffs, but the Raptors have been able to overcome their struggles because they have improved the pieces around them last summer.
In free agency, the Raptors' President & General Manager Masai Ujiri masterfully crafted their roster to get players like DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo. Carroll, for many pundits, was considered a risk given that he signed a 4 year $60 million deal to be the team's ‘3 and D' player to compliment Lowry and DeRozan. It didn't help that he only played 26 games this season due to a knee injury that kept him out most of the season. Despite that, he has come back to play in the playoffs and has given the Raptors a viable wing option that is capable of being a lockdown defender while still being a capable three point shooter. Last season, the Raptors had to rely on players like James Johnson and Terrence Ross as primary wing defenders and neither are quite the player DeMarre Carroll is on both ends.
Yet the most important additions may have been the ones that went under the radar. Neither Cory Joseph nor Bismack Biyombo played prominent roles with their previous teams so it remained to be seen what either player was able to contribute for a contender. Joseph has provided a stable, more defensive-minded approach to the backup point guard position than Vasquez or Williams, which allows Casey to play him alongside DeRozan and Lowry at times in a three-guard lineup.
Biyombo has been a revelation with his breakout playoff performance thus far. During the regular season, he was a complementary piece behind Jonas Valanciunas, who has a more offensive-oriented post game. But even before the playoff breakout, Biyombo provided great rim protection, rebounding, and showed an ability to finish effectively as a pick and roll big man. He averaged a career-high 8.1 rebounds per game (13.0 rebounds per 36 minutes) and 1.6 blocks per game (2.6 blocks per 36 minutes), despite only averaging 22.1 minutes per game during the regular season.
In each of these moves, the Raptors addressed their biggest issue from last season, their defense. The Raptors went from being 19th in points allowed (23rd per 100 possessions) last season to being 3rd in points allowed (11th per 100 possessions) this season.
The Wizards should take a similar approach to addressing their holes in free agency this summer. If they are unable to get Kevin Durant or other big name free agents, getting complimentary players to address the Wizards inability to defend pick and roll, create shots when John Wall is not on the floor, or perhaps adding more shooters can yield them similar results.
Fortifying Pieces Around Core Through the Draft
The part of the Raptors' rebound that's the most relevant to the Wizards is their usage of the NBA draft. There is a perception that the NBA draft is only helpful to teams that are still building and perhaps the teams who have an established core do not have as much of a need for the draft. This philosophy could give credence for why the Wizards have parted ways with both of their draft picks for the upcoming draft, but as the Toronto Raptors shown, having a core in place does not mean you can't continue to add pieces through the draft to build depth for the present and future.
The Toronto Raptors added combo guard from the University of Utah, Delon Wright, in the first round who did not receive much playing time this season, but they also added UCLA shooting guard Norman Powell from the trade that sent Grevis Vasquez to Milwaukee. Powell was a second round pick that many thought would be too short to play shooting guard in the NBA, but his tenacious defense and efficient outside shooting made him a valuable piece for the Raptors this season. He played so well that he was named the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in April when he averaged 15.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 54.8 percent from the field.
His play during the season, particularly during the time where their primary ‘3 and D' player, DeMarre Carroll, was out showed how the Raptors were able to add value with a rookie on their roster in spite of their established core; and they also continued to build towards the future by adding depth with Delon Wright.
For the Wizards, this shows that having an established core does not devalue the significance of drafting young, talented players. Having players that are capable of adding depth, while still adding players on cheaper, rookie contracts gives a team like Toronto a lot of options moving forward. And as a bonus, they were able to get important contributions when injuries occurred in the present.
Having a core group of All-Stars and having regular season success did not cause the Toronto Raptors to settle, but losing in the first round the previous two years did not cause them to panic either. The way they have approached building their team shows a very level-headed approach that the Wizards can certainly note in the future.
Washington's approach over the past few seasons has been focused on specific goals as opposed to improving their team across the board. Perhaps a change in viewing what constitutes success will lead the Wizards to think about what they are ultimately trying to accomplish. With such a pivotal offseason coming up this summer, one has to wonder: Will the Wizards be willing to accept moderate improvement they can build upon, or will they go all-out this summer for a quick fix? We will find out this summer.