This is the 11th in a series of articles on the teams that did not make the playoffs last season, previewing their prospects of making it to the postseason in 2012-13. Coming Tuesday: the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Toronto Raptors are one of several NBA teams in Stage 2 of a rebuild. They've gone from the playoffs to mediocrity to bottom of the barrel. The roster has been broken down, and now it's being built up again, with a young core looking to take a step forward in the 2012-13 season.
The Raps already got moving in the right direction with the hire of head coach Dwane Casey, who turned the team around defensively last season. Casey established a new culture that can function as a building block going forward.
The other building blocks are a group of young players that the Raptors have patiently put together, believing that slow and steady can win the race.
Where they've been
The Raptors' second season since the departure of Chris Bosh was better than the first. Casey's impact was clear, as his team had the most improved defense in the league, bumping their defensive ranking from 30th to 12th and allowing 8.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did in their final season under Jay Triano.
But the Raps also regressed quite a bit offensively, ranking 25th in offensive efficiency. A big reason for that were Andrea Bargnani's injury issues. He was their best offensive player, but a calf injury kept him out for more than half the season.
Furthermore, with a new coach and a young group that needed development, the Raptors were one of the teams most hurt by the lockout. In particular, second-year big man Ed Davis didn't get the Summer League action or full training camp he needed to hit the ground running.
Where they are now
The Raptors didn't make the big splash (with a guy named Nash) that they were hoping for, but they added a couple of veterans that will help them get better. Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields were acquired by very different means, the former via a cheap trade and the latter via an expensive offer sheet. But both will bring some stability on the perimeter.
The new face with the most star potential, however, is rookie Jonas Valanciunas, selected with the No. 5 pick in the 2011 Draft. The 20 year old big man from Lithuania is more ready to contribute offensively, but he has the potential to eventually make an impact on both ends of the floor.
The Raptors added another Lottery pick in this year's draft, selecting shooting guard Terrence Ross at No. 8. Ross will provide some much needed perimeter shooting for a team that ranked 21st in made 3-pointers last season.
A curious aspect of the coming season in Toronto will be the performances of Davis and DeMar DeRozan. Neither has developed as much as the Raptors would have liked, and each could quickly be pushed aside by newcomers (Valanciunas and Ross).
Point guard, with Lowry and Jose Calderon, may be the only position at which the Raptors will be able to match up with the league's best teams on a nightly basis. Otherwise, the promise is there, and defense will help this team stay relatively competitive, but it's still short on talent.
And while players like Lowry, Fields, Bargnani and Calderon could give the Raptors dreams of a playoff spot, the Raptors' youngsters need as much playing time as they can get. So Casey has a tough task in managing his rotation with an eye on the future.
Where they're going
In an improved Atlantic Division, the Raptors are clearly behind the Celtics, Knicks, Nets and Sixers (in no particular order). But they'll still be worth watching, with a group of unprovens looking to make their mark on the league.
Just how bright their future is depends a lot on Valanciunas, in whom a lot has been invested and of whom a lot is expected. If he can anchor the Raptors on either end of the floor, the other pieces will fall into place a lot easier.
Coming off last season, the offense could really use a boost. It's way too much to expect Toronto to improve offensively like it did defensively last season. But the addition of Lowry and the return of Bargnani are reasons to believe that the Raptors can at least be an average team on that end of the floor.
That would be a step forward, which is exactly what folks in Toronto are looking for at this point in the rebuilding process.