Welcome back friends to the third annual installment of my NBA League Pass Rankings. For those new to the process, forget power rankings. Forget Vegas Over-Unders and salary cap gymnastics. Here at Knicks at Night we dive into the teams one by one to answer one simple question. If you’re shelling out the money for a League Pass subscription, which of these teams are worth that top 5 night-in, night-out slot and which of these guys are absolute, unwatchable garbage people?
Another year, another season, the same old Raptors. And you know what? I’m okay with that. Last season Toronto surprised me by being one of those teams I turned on all the time when the Knicks weren’t playing, rooting for them without really knowing why. Maybe because Kyle Lowry is a loveable bulldog, maybe because I love how they embrace their whole us vs. them US-Canada mentality, or maybe just because General Manager Masai Ujiri is cool as hell. What can I say, it’s biased coverage man. I like these guys.
Back to Lowry for a second though, because I think there’s a strong case to be made that he was better than both Kyrie Irving and John Wall last season and may have just been the 2nd best player in the Eastern Conference after Lebron. This guy averaged 21-6-5 with 2 steals per game, shooting 40% from three and grading out as the 4th best point guard in the league by RPM, behind the ridiculous Western Conference triumvirate of Steph, Westbrook, and CP3. Plus the dude has an awesome smile and a feisty warrior’s mentality for an undersized defender.
The team around him is largely the same as the Raptors squad that won 56 games last year and took the number 2 seed in the East. They committed a five year $139 million max deal to analytics-darling Demar DeRozan, which severely cut into their flexibility to do much of anything else (including retain their backup center Bismack Biyombo who was poached by the Magic). DeRozan is a very proven scorer in the league at this point, but also wildly inefficient as he doesn’t pass the ball, shoot threes, or play defense. The desire for continuity makes sense as this team went to the Conference Finals last year, but DeRozan only approached being an average wins over replacement level player last year because he drastically upped his number of free throw attempts per game.
In fact, looking at the roster the only real move these guys made was to bring in roly-poly Jared Sullinger from Boston to play power-forward and a little back-up center. The Raps should be fine at power-forward; he’ll be replacing Luis Scola who was also a wholly immobile, plus shooter from the forward position. At back-up center, though, this team is really going to miss Biyombo, who is one of the best defensive players in the league at the position. The Raptors were a really interesting team last season in that their starting 5 actually had a negative point differential; they made their money when they subbed in a line-up composed of Lowry and all of their best defensive bench players. Kyle in a two guard set with Cory Joseph surrounded by Biyombo, Patrick Patterson, and Norman Powell absolutely BLITZED opposing teams’ second units and kept this team in the NBA’s top 5 net rating.
Where this team might actually improve on defense, though, is getting a full season out of Demare Carroll. The Raptors inked the junkyard dog forward from Atlanta last summer after a breakout season where he morphed from a league retread to a lockdown 3 and D outside threat. He was hurt pretty much all of last season and even though Toronto took him off his minutes restriction during the playoffs, it was pretty clear he wasn’t 100% back. With a full offseason to recover, and with hopefully larger roles for some of the Raptors excellent bench defenders in Joseph and the supremely underrated Powell, and these guys could nasty on the perimeter.
The last piece of the puzzle is 5th year center Jonas Valanciunas who has regularly dazzled with his touch around the basket and ability to pursue offensive rebounds, but has still yet to fully gain head coach Dwight Casey’s trust. Valanciunas is slow-footed and not much of a pick and roll defender and Casey would frequently use Biyombo and his all-defense unit to close out tight games. The Raptors did select Jacob Poetl with the 9th pick in this year’s draft, but I doubt either he or Sullinger will be a better option that Valanciunas defensively, leaving a huge responsibility for the Lithuanian to take a major step forward. If he can do so, and Lowry can operate at an elite level for another season, Boston fans shouldn’t be too quick to pencil themselves in for that #2 seed in the East.
Last year’s ranking: 20 (+10)