Few outside the grey concrete walls of the Air Canada Centre expect much from the Toronto Raptors this season, and that's nothing new for the beleaguered basketball club.
But perhaps the last time Toronto began a campaign with a forecast this grim, the Raptors wore purple, their home was the SkyDome, and DeMar DeRozan was six years old.
Numerous pre-season predictions have the Raptors finishing last in the Eastern Conference, the bleakest outlook for Canada's lone NBA franchise since its inaugural season in 1995-96.
All the Raptors can do is use it as motivation.
"Absolutely," said coach Jay Triano. "We've done that since the first day of training camp, people have us picked to be at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, that's why we feel like we have something to prove.
"We can't believe it, and we have to use it as motivation to prove everybody wrong."
It's a tall order for a team trying to find its way in the post-Chris Bosh era.
The Raptors open their season Wednesday against the visiting New York Knicks (TSN2, 7 p.m. ET), intent on improving on last season's 40-42 record that cost them a trip to playoffs.
Few believe they can actually do that. Sports Illustrated was just one publication to pick Toronto to finish 15th in the 15-team Eastern Conference, while Bodog Sportsbook gave Toronto 200-1 odds on winning the NBA title - a bottom-of-the-barrel tie with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves.
The over-under lines for Toronto wins this season sit at 26.5.
And the Raptors are No. 7 on SPIKE.com's "The Top 10 Teams Nobody Would Miss if They Went Away" list.
"Quick... name one player on the Toronto Raptors," SPIKE.com writes, lumping them in with such less-than-illustrious company as the Atlanta Thrashers and Jacksonville Jaguars.
It's all just fighting words for Triano.
"I love that challenge, I love the challenge when people tell us we're no good," the coach said.
The Raptors' stock plummeted when Bosh left after seven seasons to join the star-studded Miami Heat. Bosh was the team's leading scorer and rebounder and the cornerstone of a franchise left having to rebuild the foundation.
While he's long gone from Toronto, the Raptors are still using their former all-star forward to sell tickets. The team is promoting 11-game ticket packages that include a choice of the Miami Heat's two trips to Toronto, and Bosh, with new teammates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, figures prominently in the ad campaign.
The three Raptors in the ad are youngsters DeRozan and Sonny Weems and the underachieving Andrea Bargnani.
General manager Bryan Colangelo says that perhaps the absence of one star player might not be a bad thing.
"It's not that we're treating our players differently this year - there's a little less focus on any one player, there's no one you have to defer to," Colangelo said during training camp. "It's actually quite refreshing from the standpoint of the way that I think that Jay is dealing with the players, and with the way the players are dealing with the approach."
Call it offence by committee. Without one player through whom all the plays go, the Raptors shared the ball and the scoring wealth through the pre-season and plan to carry that approach into the regular season.
"Everyone has been reaping the benefits," said point guard Jarrett Jack. "Not just one guy, not just two guys, there's been a number of guys who've been the leading scorer (in the pre-season), oddly enough most of the time it's been guys coming off the bench, how typical is that of an NBA ballclub? It just shows how unselfish we are, the number of weapons we have on the offensive end."
Colangelo likes the youthfulness and athleticism of this season's work-in-progress roster. The Raptors are young with eight players under the age of 26. DeRozan, whose explosiveness has drawn comparisons to Vince Carter, and Ed Davis, the Raptors No. 13 pick in the 2010 draft, are just 21.
Linas Kleiza, who signed as a free agent from Denver, said the Raptors can use their speed to outhustle other teams, but they'll still have to be the hardest working team in the league.
"We came in with that attitude in training camp and we're trying to do that," said Kleiza. "We've got to take everything very seriously, we're a team that we need to go out and play hard, play hard every position, and on every possession fight, because we don't have that luxury to lay back a quarter or two and then come out and play.
"If we come out with a fighting attitude, I think we'll be OK."
Kleiza was a key addition in the off-season. The forward is lethal from three-point range, and is coming off a strong season, winning the Euroleague scoring title last season and starring for Lithuania at the world championships.
A bigger question in the front court will be Bargnani, who has been thrust into the spotlight, whether he likes it or not, with Bosh's departure. The Italian has shown flashes of brilliance but has yet to be consistently good.
In the back court, Jack could supplant Jose Calderon, who struggled in the pre-season, as starting point guard. But Triano is sure to tinker with his young lineup throughout the season.
The Raptors' big concern, as it is virtually every season, is defence. Toronto never has a problem scoring, but perennially winds up at the bottom of the league in defensive categories.
"For us to be effective in this league, we need to buckle down on the defensive end of the ball," Jack said. "If we want to be good, that's where we really need to make our mark."
A healthy Reggie Evans should help. A bruiser on the defensive end, Evans was expected to lead by example last season but missed 51 games with an injury.
The acquisition of guard Leandro Barbosa - known as The Brazilian Blur - adds instant speed and savvy, while Julian Wright and David Andersen were acquired to help fortify the paint.
The Raptors' other notable absence this season is Hedo Turkoglu - but his departure was more addition by subtraction after his lacklustre season in Toronto. Turkoglu was acquired to help the Raptors reach the playoffs, but he quickly wore out his welcome with his half-hearted effort and then demanded a trade, which Colangelo happily obliged.Report Typo/Error
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