51 Questions: Can Toronto repeat its franchise-best season?

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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season. Today:

Can Toronto repeat its franchise-best season?

The Toronto Raptors won a franchise record 56 games last season. Then they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. After the season had ended, they put two players on the gold medal winning USA team at the Rio Olympics. All that in a year the city also hosted the NBA All-Star Game. Through it all, the Raptors’ large fan base rallied around the team like never before.

Best. Season. Ever. At least in Raptors’ history.

As we head into training camp the question becomes, can they do it again?

On one hand, it’s tempting to say yes, because they are bringing back all the core pieces from a year ago.

Toronto’s goal No. 1 in the summer was keeping DeMar DeRozan — which wasn’t that hard, he didn’t want to leave (sorry Lakers fans, it’s true). When the Raptors came in with the second largest contract in NBA history at five-years, $139 million the deal was sealed. DeRozan’s shortcomings, specifically his willingness to take or ability to make threes, becomes bigger in the playoffs, and that’s a concern. Still, we’re talking about a guy who can get to the rim and score averaging 23.5 points and 4 assists per game last season. He’s an All-Star and an Olympian. He’s a great second option for the Raptors and they needed to keep him at any price.

Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, and DeMarre Carroll were already all under contract, as were reserves like Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph. The Raptors off-season losses — Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo — were ones they could live with. (It would have been nice to keep the shot blocking of Biyombo, but not at the four-year, $72 million price tag Orlando put out there.)

The Raptors needed to upgrade at the power forward position, and they did that with the stopgap measure of Jared Sullinger. Boston fans would be all too happy to discuss their frustrations with Sullinger — the lack of conditioning, his inability or willingness to live up to his potential — but the fact is he’s better than Scola right now. What the Raptors need next to Valanciunas is a stretch four, and Sullinger is a poor man’s version of that. He took 41.5 percent of his shots from 16 feet and beyond last season, he just doesn’t hit them often enough to be a real threat (28.2 percent from three, for example). Still, he can rebound, pass well, defend one-on-one down low, all skills the Raptors can put to use.

The Raptors are also going to lean heavily on rookie Jakob Poeltl to back up Valanciunas at center. Norman Powell will have a larger role off the bench on the wing.

Considering all that, it’s possible the Raptors could win 56 games again.

But I expect a small step back. More like 51-53 wins.

There are a few reasons for this. One, the Raptors had the point differential of a 53-win team a year ago, they just outperformed that number (something the Raptors have done a few years in a row). Second, both Lowry and DeRozan had career-best years, not just in terms of points scored but in terms of efficiency doing so, and it is safe to assume one or both take a small step back. Also, both guards were relatively healthy all season, and that could change as well.

But the biggest reason to expect a small step back is that the East is getting better — it’s going to be harder to win games. The 48-win Celtics added Al Horford to the mix. The Indiana Pacers added Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young, they should take a step forward. Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons are improving. So it goes through large swaths of the East. Even if the Raptors are as good a team as they were a season ago, reaching 56 wins again would be a tall task.

That said, I expect Toronto and Boston to be battling it out for the two seed in the East. (Seed matters, teams want to be the two or three seed in the East, because the four seed will get Cleveland in the second round.)

The Raptors could very well reach the Conference Finals again. It’s impossible to predict in September who will be healthy come May, who will have found the rotations that work best, and how the playoff rounds will shake out in the East. If it were to come down to Boston and Toronto in the second round for the right to advance, on paper it looks like a must-watch series. But teams such as Detroit and Indiana (and maybe Atlanta, if you believe in the rejuvenation of Dwight Howard) could have a say in all of it.

Regardless, Raptor fans are in for another of the best seasons in franchise history, something to get them through the cold winter months and the Maple Leafs’ struggles. This is a very good Raptors team. There’s a reason Masai Ujiri just got a contract extension.