The hand-wringing in Memphis that dominated discussion of the Grizzlies' decision to break up their core by trading high-scoring small forward Rudy Gay to the Raptors obscured the fact that Toronto's new-look lineup was one of the best five-man units in the league last season. Among groups that played at least 300 minutes together, Gay, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas ranked fourth in the NBA in net rating—points scored per 100 possessions minus points allowed—at 12.9. (The Heat starting five of Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh checked in at 11.9.) Now the quintet will try to extend what was a 25-game tear over a full 82. There will be no more guessing from opponents about how coach Dwane Casey will use Gay, or how the 6'11" Valanciunas, a rookie last season, might fare. This is where the real work begins.
There will be challenges. At the point, Lowry will have to orchestrate a group that lacks both three-point shooters and floor-spacing bigs. And can the starters sustain their surprisingly stingy defense? With the 6'9" Johnson as its anchor, the lineup allowed just 92.5 points per 100 possessions last season, the third-best average for a five-man unit. If the Raptors can, they are sure to claim a spot in the postseason after a five-year absence. And if they can't, well, there's always the lottery and a shot at Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins, from nearby Vaughan, Ont.
COACH DWANE CASEY (3RD SEASON WITH RAPTORS)
2012--13 RECORD 34--48 (5TH IN ATLANTIC)
WHAT'S NEW GM Masai Ujiri was lured from the Nuggets. First order of business: a makeover for the bench.
PROJECTED LINEUP (2012--13 STATS)
PG KYLE LOWRY
11.6 PPG; 6.4 APG; 40.1 FG%; 36.2 3FG%
SG DEMAR DEROZAN
18.1 PPG; 3.9 RPG; 44.5 FG%; 28.3 3FG%
SF RUDY GAY
18.2 PPG; 6.1 RPG; 41.6 FG%; 32.3 3FG%
PF AMIR JOHNSON
10.0 PPG; 7.5 RPG; 1.4 BPG; 55.4 FG%
C JONAS VALANCIUNAS
8.9 PPG; 6.0 RPG; 1.3 BPG; 55.7 FG%
SF STEVE NOVAK
6.6 PPG; 1.9 RPG; 41.4 FG%; 42.5 3FG%
TURNOVER PERCENTAGE for forward Steve Novak last year (when he was with the Knicks), an NBA record. The catch-and-shoot specialist turned the ball over just 12 times in 1,641 minutes.
A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP THE RAPTORS
A lot is going to depend on Jonas Valanciunas. He had a great finish last year, but a lot of those games came with no pressure. Valanciunas was very assertive offensively when he got deep post position in the lane; he's got the size to hold his position, he has good hands and presents a big target. He's also an imposing defender inside. They may make a lot of changes to their roster but this is one of the guys to hold onto.... With Amir Johnson and Valanciunas, that's a nice pair for the frontcourt. Johnson is not a big-time rebounder, but he fights, he contests shots and he can finish a little bit.... If your team is good enough to get you to the end of a game, Rudy Gay can win that game for you. He has the guts and ability to make big shots.... Kyle Lowry's size is an issue, and he has a tendency to hang on to the ball instead of trying to make the play and get everybody touches and move it around. He's good enough to be a starter on a below average team. He probably has more confidence in himself than is warranted ... DeMar DeRozan is terrific. He has a great-looking jump shot, and he's extremely athletic. He's looking to catch and shoot, catch and put it on the floor—he has a multitude of weapons. The way he works to come off screens is a tribute to Dwane Casey and the execution of running sets and getting shots in the flow of the offense, as opposed to the iso-type thing.... Having Tyler Hansbrough competing with Johnson on a daily basis is going to pick it up for Amir, and that's probably something he needs.
RON TURENNE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (GAY)
CORE CONTRIBUTOR GAY
FERNANDO MEDINA/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (DEROZAN)