The Toronto Raptors have missed the postseason for five consecutive years and their play has been riddled with inconsistency. But a flurry of off-season moves have created significant intrigue as the team opens its newest season Wednesday.
The Raptors changed general managers and added free-agent grit and celebrity star backing. One seven-foot draft pick departed, and now expectations for another are sky high. They vow to be vastly improved on defence and more cohesive as a team. Perhaps this is the year that DeMar DeRozan even emerges as a bonafide star. Toronto’s title-starved sports fans dare to dream that all of this could mean the Raptors might muster a few more wins this season or at least be more exciting to watch.
The Raptors finished last season 34-48, 10th in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, and tied for last place in the Atlantic Division. Many experts project them to be slightly better this year, but still, few expect a playoff appearance. That would seem a most futile outcome: not good enough for the postseason, yet not bad enough to select from the cream of the crop in next year’s NBA draft, the top choice likely to be Canadian phenom Andrew Wiggins.
Tim Leiweke was hired as MLSE’s CEO in April. He demoted Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo and hired Masai Ujiri, the NBA’s reigning executive of the year, away from Denver. They even brought in Toronto-born rapper Drake as a global ambassador to put some star power behind the team.
Ujiri has dodged questions about tanking for draft picks and focused on changing the culture within the team and inside the Air Canada Centre.
“We have to make this place a living hell for [the opposition] to come play here,” he urged season seat holders at the team’s season preview event.
“You know what we’re going to do here? We’re going to make everybody watch us.”
The Raptors traded their 2006 first overall draft pick, the much-maligned seven-footer Andrea Bargnani, to the New York Knicks. Ujiri added free agents such as D.J Augustin, Dwight Buycks and the relentless and hard-hitting Tyler Hansbrough, who has added an edge to Raptors practices.
“If you don’t compete against [Hansbrough] in practice, you’re going to get embarrassed,” coach Dwane Casey said. “He raises the level of intensity in practice when he keeps coming at you.”
The Raptors need big strides from Jonas Valanciunas, a 21-year-old seven-foot Lithuanian, in just his second NBA season.
“Within these lines and locker room, we know what he can do,” Rudy Gay said. “He may be a wild card for you guys, but if he has a breakout season and does as well as we know he can, we wouldn’t be surprised.”
The Raptors are working on better offensive rebounds, controlling turnovers and improved defence.
“Defensively, I think we’ll be better,” said Gay, who came to Toronto in a mid-season trade last year from the Memphis Grizzlies, where he had experienced a team’s improvement. He sees similarities in how Toronto is progressing.
“I see it in practice – that’s where it started for those Memphis teams,” Gay said. “We brought in guys that were competitive and wanted to play and wanted to compete in practice.”
It will be Gay’s first full season in Toronto, yet how this team comes out of the gate falls largely on his shoulders. He would be the most likely trade target should things start poorly for the Raptors. In preseason play, he and DeRozan have been leading scorers, anchoring the starting lineup that also includes Valanciunas, Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson.
After what he had called a whole other level of training in Los Angeles in the off-season, DeRozan’s fifth NBA season could be his breakout year.
“As soon as we step on the court, our whole approach is different, our demeanour, our swagger and our approach to every game,” DeRozan said. “It’s a different confidence in each one of the guys. Everybody’s on the same page.”
Lowry, a point guard, lost some weight, improved his conditioning and as Casey attests, his attitude is more positive this year, something the team needed from a point guard. However, after an injury to his left ring finger in preseason, Lowry will play wearing a splint for six weeks.
Lowry calls this team’s identity young, tough and defensive-minded.
But their schedule, which opens Wednesday at home versus the Boston Celtics, is tough. The Raptors play six of their first nine games on the road and must play host to the reigning NBA Champs, the Miami Heat, just four games in.
“I think we will have an opportunity to fight for sixth, seventh or eighth [In the Eastern Division] – with the talent that we have, we have that capability,” Lowry said. “I think we know what we are now, we really know.”
Three Raptors to watch
Jonas Valanciunas The seven-footer was the most valuable player in the Las Vegas NBA summer league as he put up 18.8 points and 10 rebounds a game and shot 56.1 per cent from the field. He also helped Lithuania win the silver medal at the FIBA European championship. He has hit the weight room hard and added muscle to his now 257-pound frame.
Rudy Gay This sharp-shooter joined the Raptors in a January trade, so here is his chance to thrive in a full season. He had surgery in the off-season to correct his vision and also received tutoring from Hall of Fame centre Hakeem Olajuwon. Coach Dwane Casey has been pressing him to take higher percentage shots this year.
DeMar DeRozan Entering his fifth NBA season, Casey says DeRozan has matured and his defence has surprised. He impressed the coaches with hard off-season training in Los Angeles and wants to be the guy. His contract, worth $9.5-million (U.S.) a year until 2016-17, shows the team’s commitment to his leadership.