Raptors on road to rebranding
It's been an eventful 12 months for the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors entered last season fairly optimistic about their prospects only to get nailed by injuries to start the year. They ended up dropping 19 of their first 23 games before another injury actually turned things around.
Andrea Bargnani went down with an elbow injury and the Raptors won eight of their next 10.
Next came a major in season trade as the Raptors sent much-loved point guard Jose Calderon and young big man Ed Davis to Memphis in exchange for Rudy Gay.
Gay instantly became the go-to guy in Toronto and the Raptors actually went .500 (18-18) after the trade to finish the season 34-48 and tied for ninth in the East.
The in-season changes were nothing compared to what has happened since though.
Off-season of change
When Tim Leiweke was hired as the new president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment it didn't take long to realize that he was brining sweeping changes with him. For the Raptors it meant saying goodbye to Bryan Colangelo, the man who had led the team for the past seven seasons, the last five of which involved missing the playoffs.
The Raptors lured up and coming executive Masai Ujiri away from the Denver Nuggets to take over from Colangelo as GM. It's fitting that the first major move made by Ujiri was to ship Bargnani, whom Colangelo selected first overall in 2006 and failed to build the team around, off to New York.
And not only was Ujiri able to move Bargnani and his bloated contract, he actually got something in return. The Raptors received Marcus Camby, Steve Novak and Quentin Richardson in the deal as well as a 2016 first round draft pick and two future second round picks.
The team waived Camby and Richardson, but Novak gives the Raptors some much needed three-point shooting and the draft picks will be major assets as the Raptors look to rebuild.
The Raptors also amnestied Linas Kleiza while adding Tyler Hansbrough, Austin Daye and D.J. Augustin to the fold for this season.
The team certainly isn't ready to be considered a contender just yet, but it's a brand new era in Toronto. And with Ujiri at the helm, the future looks bright.
Who's In/Who's Out
Key Additions: G D.J. Augustin, F Austin Daye, F Tyler Hansbrough, F Steve Novak
Key Losses: PF Andrea Bargnani, G Alan Anderson, Linas Kleiza
The Raptors have turned the page on the Bryan Colangelo-Andrea Bargnani. The Raptors future is in far better hands with Masai Ujiri at the helm and building around Jonas Valanciunas.
Toronto actually has a pretty strong starting lineup with Valanciunas flanked by Amir Johnson and Rudy Gay in the frontcourt along with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry in the backcourt. That lineup actually outscored opponents by 85 points in their 343 minutes together last season.
Valanciunas especially looks to be a real bright spot for the Raptors and could be in line for a breakout season after dominating in summer league.
The Nets are all in
2nd fiddle in New York
Flirting With .500
Embrace the rebuild
This could get ugly
A full training camp for Rudy Gay should also prove big for the Raptors. He led the team in scoring after joining them in February, averaging 19.5 points to go along with 6.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists. The team will look for him to be even better, and far more efficient, in his first full season in Toronto.
DeMar DeRozan is another player that could be in line for a breakout year. His offensive game is continuing to develop and he is also improving on the defensive end.
The team has the offensive firepower to compete night-in, night-out and could actually be in the running for a lower seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
More importantly their future looks to be on a sound footing with Ujiri who is widely regarded as a terrific talent evaluator.
The Not So Good
Dwane Casey emphasizes defence in his coaching, but the team struggled to stop opponents last season. Raptors opponents scored 104.7 points per 100 possessions last year, ranking the Raptors 22nd in the league in that category.
Their starting five project to be a pretty stout unit, but Valanciunas, Lowry and Johnson all tend to be foul prone and the defensive depth behind them isn't great.
They'll need their starters to stay out of trouble if they want to keep opponent scoring down.
Kyle Lowry is also proving to be fairly injury prone which could be problematic given the lack of point guard depth behind him.
Luckily he avoided a more significant finger injury to his non-shooting hand in a presseason game against Memphis but he will still have to wear a splint on the finger for the first six weeks of the season. He has averaged 13.5 games on the sidelines over the last four years though and neither Dwight Buycks, nor DJ Augustin looks capable of handling starter's minutes.
Another potential stumbling block for this season (thought not necessarily the long-term) is the fact that Lowry and Gay are both in the final year of their respective contracts.
Ujiri may decide may decide he wants to build elsewhere and look to move one or both players. Any such move would drop the players out of playoff contention and into the lottery. In the long run that may not actually be a bad thing as the 2014 prospect pool is loaded and the Raptors are probably targeting around 2016 for when they truly want to compete anyway.
What to Expect
As long as the Raptors don't blow things up and trade Lowry, Gay or any other starter for future assets, this will be a team that is in the hunt for the playoffs.
They should be flirting with the .500 mark all season long and if they get there it should be enough for a low playoff seed in the top-heavy Eastern Conference. They would be soundly thumped in the first round by any of the top teams most likely, but for a fan base that hasn't seen playoff basketball in years, that might be enough for now.
Of course, if Ujiri does decide to do some wheeling and dealing, the team would fall out of the playoff hunt and into the hunt for a high pick next year.
Either way, there is reason for optimism in Toronto.