After bottoming out with a 60 loss season in 2010-11, new head coach Dwane Casey turned the Raptors into a solid defensive team that played hard start to finish, giving fans hope moving forward.
Casey's job was made all the more challenging following the loss of top scorer Andrea Bargnani, who was off to the best start of his career before injuring himself in the season's 11th game.
The Raptors would go on to lose the next six games and were just 10-25 without their productive big man, who battled injuries all season.
They would miss the playoffs by a wide margin but did at least manage to win one more game (23) than they did in 2010-11 despite playing 16 fewer contests.
1. New Point Man - While Colangelo failed in his pursuit of his top off-season target, Steve Nash, he quickly re-grouped and made a move to acquire point guard Kyle Lowry from the Houston Rockets for a protected first round pick. The undersized but explosive guard averaged over 14 points per game and nearly seven assists last season, but clashed with coach, Kevin McHale. The Raptors are hoping he will be a better fit under the tutelage of Casey, who makes no secret of his infatuation with the type of high energy, dogged defence that Lowry brings to the table.
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2. European Flavour - After paying his European team the $2.5 million required to release him from his contract, Raptors fans will get a chance to see the their fifth pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Jonas Valanciunas compete against the world's best in 2012-13. The hype around the 20-year-old has grown since the time Toronto drafted him, as the Lithuanian was named the most valuable player at the 2011 FIBA Under-19 World Championship and was impressive with his European club team, Lietuvos Rytas, averaging over 14 points and seven rebounds per game. Still, he struggled facing top competition at the 2012 London Olympics, and despite his athleticism and ability to finish around the basket, will likely go through some early growing pains as he adjusts to the bigger, quicker talent in the NBA.
3. Getting Defensive - The arrival of the man that was largely responsible with the defensive strategies that enabled the Dallas Mavericks to make a surprising run to the 2011 NBA Championship, Casey turned the Raptors into a top ten defensive team in 2011-12. He cut the team's points allowed by over 11 per game using much of the same talent that had previously struggled so badly under former coach, Jay Triano. The defence should be even better in 2012-13 with the additions of Lowry, Valanciunas and active wingman Landry Fields.
1. Offensive Struggles - The loss of Bargnani for 35 games more than anything else, worked to highlight the lack of consistent scoring options the Raptors had on their roster. Lowry's ability to penetrate and draw fouls will provide a different element, but if Toronto wants to improve significantly from their 28th ranking in points per game, they will need a healthy Bargnani and a more consistent DeMar DeRozan. After making a big leap in 2010-11, many expected the former ninth overall pick to assume an even larger role last season, but instead DeRozan took a step back, struggling with his shot and averaging just six combined assists and rebounds per game. Besides Lowry, he is the primary outside scoring presence, so a bounce back season will be crucial in order to get the team back to offensive respectability.
2. Go-To Guy? - Since the departure of Chris Bosh to the Heat in 2010, the Raptors have been in a state of transition, unable to find another dependable, front-line player the team could build around. Bargnani was expected to be that man after he was drafted first overall in 2006 -- and he showed flashes of brilliance last season -- but he has played only 97 games the last two seasons. DeRozan looked to be ready to take the next step after his second year, but regressed across the board last year. The arrival of Lowry gives the team another potential player who has the opportunity to claim the team as his own. Unlike Bargnani and DeRozan, he is a vocal player who looks to set a tone with energy and defence. After four straight seasons of missing the playoffs, the different look he provides may be a welcome change that both players and fans will look to get behind.
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3. Getting Over The Hump - While the Raptors off-season additions will almost assuredly make them a better team in 2012-13, they may have a hard time making a jump up the standings due to the fact that a number of other Eastern Conference contenders also made significant improvements. Teams that are likely playoff locks include the Heat, Celtics, Pacers, Nets, Bulls and 76ers. The Hawks lost Joe Johnson, but should still be competitive, the Knicks have one of the most talented teams in the conference, while the Wizards and Bucks are intriguing teams with upside. To be in the playoff mix, Toronto will have to improve their win percentage by about 200 points, which equates to about 15 more wins. The competition will be stiffer, so the Raptors will have to avoid the injuries that have sidelined their top talent in recent years in order to make a playoff push.
X Factor: Andrea Bargnani
The talented Italian made impressive strides in his defensive game under Casey after taking an offensive leap to the tune of over 21 points per game the previous season. The Raptors were 13-18 with him in the lineup last season, so if he can put everything together and stay healthy, he has the potential to find himself on his first all-star team and Toronto will be in the thick of the playoff hunt.
What to Expect
The Raptors should be better this season, but the question is: will they improve enough to get into the playoffs? With the top six spots in the East likely being spoken for, Toronto should find itself in a battle with the likes of New York, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Washington and possibly Detroit for one of the final two playoff spots.
Tim Chisholm's Offseason Grade
The Raptors re-wrote their DNA last season by catapulting themselves from dead-last to 12th in the league in defensive efficiency.
Bringing in solid defenders like Kyle Lowry, Landry Fields and Jonas Valanciunas should only help reinforce that defensive identity.
The club struck out twice this summer, though, first in trying to turn their lottery draft pick into an All-Star small forward and then later in their failed bid to bring Steve Nash to Toronto.
The club is better today than it was last season, but there is no denying that the organization had hoped to make an even bigger jump in '12-'13.