The NBA season doesn’t start for another two-and-a-half months still, but with Summer League and the bulk of free agency in the rearview, it’s about the time of year where the focus shifts forward to the season that is to come. The 2013-14 campaign should prove interesting for the Toronto Raptors, who enter as neither a favorite to be competitive nor a part of Tank Nation. The Raptors, as they’re wont to be, are stuck in the middle.

But there are always reasons for optimism, and a smart yet patient offseason approach from new general manager Masai Ujiri leaves hope that the team is moving in the right direction. The Eastern Conference is such that a playoff berth is realistic, though the calls to tank for Andrew Wiggins will be frequent, loud and, of course, completely irrational. Player development, changes to the core of the team and a final evaluation of head coach Dwane Casey all loom as potential storylines for the season.

But let’s be optimistic today, as I highlight five things I’m looking forward to this year.

Playoff Basketball

Fact: I have never seen an NBA playoff game live. I’ve been to countless regular season Raptor games and have been a season ticket holder on two occasions (including right now, as a member of Raptors Republic), but the team hasn’t been strong for some time. I’ve been told the Air Canada Centre atmosphere for the previous playoff appearance was excellent, and I’m excited at the possibility of being a part of that next spring.

Of course, the Raptors have to get there first. On paper, the Raptors can make a case for a top-eight seed in the East. With a handful of teams tanking themselves out of the discussion, the Raptors will be battling with a few teams similar to themselves, those in-betweens, for the last few playoff spots. We’ll need to see a little bit of basketball from the Raptors and teams like the Pistons, Hawks and Wizards to see how everyone stacks up, as the East has undergone a great deal of change this summer.

But the possibility exists, and that’s exciting.

Jonas Valanciunas

I’d write about my hopes for his development, but our guest poster did a pretty damn good job yesterday doing just that. In short, I saw a lot of good from Valanciunas in his rookie year and in Summer League. Player development is rarely linear but it’s easy to get excited thinking about the numbers Valanciunas could put up next season. Even if the numbers don’t end up jumping off the page, he’s an excellent building block putting in the work to get better and it will be fun to see how he evolves.

Physical Games

Valanciunas, Tyler Hansbrough, Amir Johnson and Quincy Acy all getting regular playing time. That could and should be hell for opposing bigs and would-be penetrators, as each one of those bigs plays a physical style of basketball. Fouling and hacking isn’t a skill, but disrupting the offense of other teams and changing the thought process of opposing players certainly is, and this group should do that early and often. I’m not suggesting the Raptors go out and goon it up, but developing a reputation as a tough team to play against should get some additional eyeballs on the team and create for some interesting moments throughout the season.

The Next Step in Advanced Statistics/Analytics

When Ujiri took over, he cleaned house in the front office but held on to the core of the analytics staff in Alex Rucker, who shed some light on the team’s SportVu process in a Grantland piece last season. The Raptors appear to be ahead of the curve in their usage of advanced video analysis and it will be interesting to see if that’s visible on the court at times. It’s unclear whether Casey is the type of coach to embrace suggestions of that type, but as a lame duck coach he may be open to any advantage he can get, and SportVu findings can apply on both ends of the floor. If their work in this area can provide a way of making the whole greater than the sum of the parts, that could make point one above even more realistic.

The “Core”

Among all five-man units with at least 144 minutes played together last year (that’s three full games), the seventh best unit in terms of Net Rating (offensive rating less defensive rating) belonged to the Raptors’ starting unit. 343 minutes is a somewhat small sample but for five-man line-up data it’s appreciable, and the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan-Rudy Gay-Johnson-Valanciunas five-some was great on both ends of the floor. If that unit can continue to flourish, perhaps even improve in their second year together, than the Raptors will have a leg up at the start of each half. (Of course, this could mean a frustrating hockey-style substitution pattern that we saw at times last year, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it.)

Overall, there is sound reason for optimism for this season. There are those who feel anything less than championship contendership is a waste of time, but I’m firmly in the camp that just wants exciting basketball with a reason to watch down the stretch. Give me a tight race, some strong player development and a couple of home games at the ACC in a playoff environment, and 2013-14 will be just fine by me.