No bold predictions or promises of playoffs. But there’s a quiet sense of optimism around this season’s Toronto Raptors squad.
A year after Bryan Colangelo preached patience with a young, building team that was all about gaining experience, the Raptors made several key moves in the off-season that — on paper at least — have Toronto looking significantly better.
Colangelo added three potential starters to the roster in bulldog point guard Kyle Lowry, Lithuanian centre Jonas Valanciunas, who has proven to be a quick learner, and athletic swingman Landry Fields — and lost little in the departure of Jerryd Bayless and James Johnson.
“There’s that feeling there could be something special about this group, but time will tell,” Colangelo said.
The Raptors, who raise the curtain on the regular-season Wednesday when they host the Indiana Pacers, finished 23-43 in the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season.
But Colangelo is done talking just about development, saying this is a season to start winning some games.
And there’s some cautious optimism around the Air Canada Centre about the potential for Toronto’s first playoff appearance since 2008.
Basketball’s experts, for the most part, disagree. Most predictions pick Canada’s lone NBA franchise to win somewhere between 30 and 40 games. An ESPN report last week had the Raptors winning 33 games.
Coach Dwane Casey, in his second season with Toronto, said the criticism can work in his young squad’s favour.
“With that lack of respect, that should get us motivated to come into this gym each and every day to bust our tails.” Casey said. “That right there tells us how much lack of respect the league has for us and how much we have to continue to work to perform every day we walk on the court.”
Casey is a big reason for Toronto’s optimism. The former Dallas Mavericks assistant took a team at the bottom of the league in defence to finish in the top half last season.
They remained in the bottom third in offensive stats, however — something Casey focused on with the benefit of a full training camp.
“The numbers are staggering what happened last year (defensively),” Colangelo said. “But with respect to the pace, the offence, offensive efficiency, offensive production, we talked a lot this off-season about how we’re going to improve that.”
There hasn’t been a clear face of the franchise since Chris Bosh patrolled the ACC floor — and Vince Carter before him. This season is no different.
The team will look to Andrea Bargnani to provide a good chunk of its scoring. Bargnani was having a breakout season last year — and showed an uncharacteristic enthusiasm for defence — before a calf injury cost the team’s leading scorer 35 games. The Raptors’ season unravelled along with him.
Bargnani, the No. 1 pick from the 2006 draft, and Valanciunas could form a formidable front court. The Raptors selected Valanciunas with their No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft before leaving him in Lithuania for a year of development.
The 20-year-old, touted as the future of the franchise, definitely gives Raptors fans something to be excited about — rare athleticism for a big man, coupled with a puppy-dog enthusiasm for the game.
Valanciunas topped the league’s annual general manager’s poll as the international player most likely to have a breakout season.
Lowry received a vote in the same poll as the “most under-rated player acquisition in off-season.”
Fields, who signed a three-year deal worth about $20 million has been touted as Toronto’s so-called “glue guy.” He’s an intelligent player, with speed and vision on the wing.
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