…whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see.

And that, sirs and ladies, is the theme of the season. I have no idea what to expect so everything will be a surprise. Don’t ask me cuz I just don’t know. What we can do is speculate regarding where in the spectrum of possibilities each individual Raptor and the team will fall. The only difference than previous years, I suppose, is that where in the past few seasons we’ve focused on individual improvement (Bargnani’s defense, DeRozan’s jumper), the focus will now shift to team growth and development. Certainly, the years dedicated to pure player development are behind us, and the salt and pepper we’ve added in the off-season speaks more to expecting team advancement than player growth.

Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields are the principal additions (leaving the raw Jonas aside), and as much as there are question marks surrounding Fields, both signings were a signal of intent that the Raptors are starting to become buyers than bystanders in the market. The signings addressed long-standing question marks, with the franchise finally acknowledging that Kleiza, J. Johnson, and even Calderon were deficient as first choices. As with any medium-profile acquisition, there’s a risk that it doesn’t pan out and the franchise is made to look bad. On that front we’re due for a win because the only relevant trade/signing that remains on the roster is Amir Johnson, the rest have been discarded.

Training camp nears and so does the accompanying optimism, which at this stage is born of hope and longing for basketball rather than material evidence. That’s how it is every October which makes it probably the best time to be a Raptors fan: when things are 0-0, when the playing field is even, when you’re not wondering how many games under .500 they are, when simply put, anything can happen. That sense of optimism is usually quite quickly extinguished, as evidenced by the 20-game starts over the last four years:

2011-12: 6-14
2010-11: 8-12
2009-10: 7-13
2008-09: 8-12

When you’re an average of 5.5 games under .500 with 20 games gone, odds are things aren’t going to improve because as you’re hitting the mid-season swing, so are other teams. It’s imperative that if the present sense of optimism is to exist beyond mid-December, that this year’s start lay the foundation instead of dig a hole. What do the first 20 games for the Raptors look like?

Oct. 31 Indiana
Nov. 3 at Brooklyn
Nov. 4 Minnesota
Nov. 6 at Oklahoma City
Nov. 7 at Dallas
Nov. 10 Philadelphia
Nov. 12 Utah
Nov. 13 at Indiana
Nov. 17 at Boston
Nov. 18 Orlando
Nov. 20 at Philadelphia
Nov. 21 at Charlotte
Nov. 23 at Detroit
Nov. 25 San Antonio
Nov. 27 at Houston
Nov. 28 at Memphis
Nov. 30 Phoenix
Dec. 3 at Denver
Dec. 5 at Sacramento
Dec. 7 at Utah

The bookies are going to be against the Raptors for the first five games, and a possible respite against Philadelphia later it’s back to the grind. The truth is that the NBA schedule rarely “eases up” any more and if you see a soft spot in the schedule where you think the Raptors are going to make up tough stretches, it’s a mirage. And that’s fine, I don’t want the Raptors to be a team that gets theirs against the supposed weaker sisters. What they lack in talent and experience, they can try to make up in defensive discipline. If Casey continues to have the influence he had last season and improves upon the 16-place jump in defensive rating (from 30 to 14), which you would think he can considering the addition of Lowry and Valanciunas, the Raptors will be in most games.

There were too many instances last season where the offense sputtered when it mattered and whether Lowry and Fields, and an improving DeRozan and Bargnani, can provide consistent clutch production remains to be seen. The elements to at least stay in games – which is always defense – are there, and that’s probably why I’m feeling better about this season than most. In the past we’ve always relied on bullshit like “run ‘n gun” and “we’ll run when we can” nonsense to be the identity of the team, and heading into this season it’s completely different and actually endorsed by the results from last year.

Defense alone will keep you in games, timely offense will win it and to produce said offense you need talent. So here’s my ranking of the top five talented players on the Raptors:

  1. Andrea Bargnani: Still the most potent offensive weapon and the man who can cause the most trouble for opposing defenses. If that All-Star thing is ever going to happen, it’ll happen this year.
  2. Kyle Lowry: A more proven commodity than DeMar DeRozan, his ability to constantly impose pressure defenses is going to be key. The training camp is all about getting him working with the bigs and shooters.
  3. Jose Calderon: On pure talent, he’s up there on the team. A key will be how Casey can utilize Calderon’s obvious offensive in tandem with Lowry. Or will he simply avoid playing two PGs together and be done with it?
  4. DeMar DeRozan: If he comes back with anything less than a sure-shot jumper for mid-range, the Raptors should buy him a one-way plane ticket. Can’t be waiting on talent to blossom no more.
  5. Landry Fields: The talent is hardly proven, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt in this pseudo-ranking. He’s been brought here to score and provide three-point shooting, the latter being of critical importance.

Jonas Valanciunas is too raw, and although I’ve lied to/convinced myself he’s going to be have a big year, I can’t realistically expect much from him. Same for Terrence Ross, those who are expecting a Mo Pete-impact forget that in Peterson’s first year the Raptors had Vince Carter, Mark Jackson, Antonio Davis, Charles Oakley, Dell Curry, and Muggsy Bogues.

Things warming up now.