TORONTO - It's been a long time coming for Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri.
On the eve of the 2013-14 NBA season, he can finally take a step back and allow his team to do the talking.
"The NBA, it doesn't matter how good you are or how bad you are, that first day is exciting," he said Tuesday afternoon in anticipation of Wednesday's season opener at home to the Celtics. "You wait all summer. We talked the good talk and hyped the good hype and now it's time to play. So we'll see how it goes."
Not unlike the offseason, the preseason was long, bizarre at times but most importantly for those that aim to evaluate this team, it's over. Now the real test begins.
"I'm not a big fan of trying to evaluate the preseason," Ujiri admitted, following a 6-1 exhibition season. "It's tough to evaluate there. You can win every single game and what does it mean? You can lose every game and what does it mean? [Wednesday] is when it starts to count."
For Ujiri and the Raptors, the massage hasn't changed. As the franchise gets set to tip off its 19th campaign, those steering the ship continue to keep their intentions to themselves. As for the team's immediate goal, the expectations are still being tempered.
"I think for us to play hard and play tough out there and compete is what we expect at a minimum from this team," Ujiri said. "In terms of expectations, we're all evaluating and we're going to see how it goes."
Head coach Dwane Casey, asked again about his playoff aspirations, went a step further.
"If we do what we're supposed to do, play the game the right way, improve the way we should improve, we should be in the [playoff] conversation," Casey said. "Whether we're going to make it or not, I can't sit here and say that."
"We're going to be scrapping and fighting, that's our goal but to sit here and say that we're a playoff team, I can't honestly say that. But right now, I like where we are."
Whether it's a spoken expectation or not, the postseason is a realistic goal for a team flirting with the luxury tax, even one that has failed to qualify in each of the last five seasons. There's little room for error. In order to reach the playoffs they'll need good health, a big season out of the returning starting five, continued improvement from the young players and a little bit of luck for good measure.
Listen here as Josh Lewenberg and Duane Watson preview the season in this week's edition of TSN 1050's Raptors Report podcast.
The following are burning questions that will be instrumental as the Raptors season gets underway this week. The answers to these questions should determine how successful they will be in 2013-14 and whether or not a return to the playoffs is in the cards.
1. Can Casey and co. recreate the defensive renaissance of 2011-12?
It should come as no surprise that Coach Casey has committed to re-emphasizing defence in his third and most crucial season with the Raptors. Defence, as we know, has been Casey's bread and butter throughout his 18-year career as an NBA coach. After helping lead the Mavericks and their resurgent defensive unit to a championship in 2011, he was tasked with changing the culture in Toronto, with which he had immediate success.
In his first year with the team, during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, the Casey-led Raptors began to shed the perception that had been haunting them. They were, up until that point, a perennial doormat, a soft team. In 66 mostly hard-fought games, Casey changed all that. He took a team that ranked at the bottom of the league in nearly every defensive category the year prior and made them competitive. The Raptors finished that season as the NBA's most improved team in opponent field goal percentage (from .482, 29th in the NBA to .435, 8th) and opponent scoring (from 105.3 point allowed per game, 26th to 94.0, 9th). Despite a 23-43 record and an 11th place finish, there was legitimate reason for optimism.
Then, just as quickly as the defensive renaissance came to be the year prior, that progress was undone during a turbulent 2012-13 season. In the interest of correcting their offensive shortcomings, coupled with directives from the front office, Casey shifted his focus to playing up-tempo early in camp. With the addition of inexperienced players (Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross) and some risk-taking defenders (Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry), the team's once fundamentally sound defence took an immediate hit. Despite a strong finish, the Raptors were a below-average defensive team, something Casey simply won't tolerate.
"We've got to be a defensive team first," he reiterated on Tuesday. "We've got to be a team that competes, that scraps, that fights. We're not going to out-talent anyone, we're not going to just jack up threes over anyone, we've got to out-scrap and out-fight everyone we go against."
With Casey's contract set to expire after this season, the Raptors' head coach has wisely gone back to the basics on the defensive end. The preseason yielded mixed results. Apart from a 36-point drubbing of the Grizzlies, with the starters on both sides getting the bulk of the playing time in the first three quarters, Toronto's defence was ordinary at best. Ironically the Raptors churned out the NBA's third most efficient offence in the exhibition season. The defensive results during the real games will likely determine Casey's future with the team.
"Every year is big for every coach in the league," Casey said. "I take my job seriously, every possession seriously, every game seriously, every practice seriously. So I wouldn't say that this [year] is anymore important than it was last year, my first year or my last year in Dallas. I want to win and whatever it takes to win I'm going to do it. Nothing changes for me."
2. Will Rudy Gay finally take the next step and become an All-Star?
Gay has led his team in scoring in four of the last six seasons. Last season he led two teams in scoring, the first player to do so in nine years. He is due to make just under $18 million this year and will collect over $19 million next season should he pick up his player option. He has never been an All-Star.
Like most of this roster Gay is coming off an emotionally and physically exhausting campaign. He battled injuries and brushed off ongoing trade speculation as a Grizzly, eventually giving way to a midseason shakeup that took him from the only NBA home he's ever known - a winning team in Memphis - to a city over 900 miles away, one that hasn't seen playoff basketball in five years. Unlike most of the players on this roster, he's accustomed to winning.
His busy offseason is indicative of the high standards he's set for himself. Gay worked tirelessly to expand his game, even training with NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon, which could come in handy when Casey goes to a small lineup and the forward is asked to quarterback out of the post. Gay also added muscle and underwent a procedure to correct blurred vision in his left eye. Both his added strength and the improved vision will be imperative if Gay is going to become a more efficient scorer - he shot a career low 42 per cent from the field last year, coupled with declining success from three-point range. The initial results have been positive as Gay shot 48 per cent from the floor and 40 per cent from three in the exhibition season.
"This puts him on a good platform to play this season here," Ujiri said of Gay. "I think with Rudy, he's worked hard in the summer, he's got great athletic ability and now he just has to show it on the court. I think he's very prepared to do that now."
Is he ready to take the next step? That's what he's put in the work for.
3. How much will Jonas Valanciunas evolve in his second season?
Valanciunas is another Raptor coming off a busy summer. After taking home Summer League MVP in Las Vegas, where he averaged 18.8 points and 10.0 rebounds, he helped lead the Lithuanian National Team to a second-place finish in the FIBA Eurobasket tournament and a birth in next year's World Cup of Basketball.
The Raptors' sophomore centre drew rave reviews in Vegas, not entirely for his dominance against less skilled players but for his improved arsenal in the post and the added strength he's put on since last season came to an end.
Valanciunas came on towards the end of his rookie year, winning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honours in March and scoring in double figures in 17 of his final 19 games. Still just 21 years old, Valanciunas' rapid growth in stature and on the court is a reason for optimism and Ujiri believes the sky is the limit for the young centre.
"He's making progress," the Raptors' GM said. "He's a big kid and loves to play. He's 21 years old so there's a lot of basketball in front of him."
4. Will Kyle Lowry hold up and can he bounce back in a contract year?
To his own admission, Lowry failed to live up to exceptions in his first year as a member of the Raptors. Acquired from the Rockets for a first-round pick last summer, the 27-year-old point guard got off to a hot start before suffering the first in a series of injuries during the fourth game of the season. Lowry would go on to miss 14 contests, the bulk of them early in the season as he battled inconsistency on both ends of the floor the rest of the way. Plagued by foot, ankle and back ailments while also missing time with an injury to his triceps muscle, he was never fully healthy.
No longer forced to look over his shoulder following the midseason trade of Jose Calderon, Lowry was given more freedom to run the offence and continued to flash glimpses of what could be. One of the premier rebounders at his position, Lowry possesses a rare combination of speed and strength for a guard but his health and attitude have held him back throughout his seven-year career.
Heading into his eighth season, and second with the Raptors, Lowry does not lack motivation. Facing unrestricted free agency this coming summer, he has 82 games to prove himself to Ujiri and the rest of the league, prove that he's worth investing in as a starter, rather than the journeyman point guard he resembled last year.
The motivation is there and so too is the opportunity. Without a clear back-up, Lowry will be asked to log big minutes as long as he's in uniform. He'll begin the season playing with a splint on his injured left ring finger but after coming to camp in pristine shape, shedding some excess weight in the offseason, the hope is that Lowry can shoulder the load at the point.
"He's done an excellent job," Ujiri said of Lowry's approach in camp. "He's come in focused [and] his body's right. He's the gear of team, he keeps everybody going [and] he's got an edge to him."
5. Can DeMar DeRozan carry over his preseason success?
At 24 years young, DeRozan has become a veteran on this team. Now the longest tenured Raptor (he and Amir Johnson have both been with the team since 2009-10), he is also under contract longer than any other Toronto player after signing an extension prior to last season's opener.
Understandably, he wore down towards the end of the campaign - he was fourth in the league in minutes played - but the fourth-year guard made some noticeable improvements in the post and as a distributor. DeRozan collected five or more assists in 12 games last season after accomplishing that feat in just five total games during his first three years. He carried over a lot of those improvements into a standout preseason.
"I think he's been phenomenal," Ujiri said of the Raptors' guard. "He seems more focused. I know he's stronger, he's attacking the rim more and he's not only doing it [but] he's also saying he's going to make a commitment to do it."
"You can see where he's growing slowly as a basketball player, a complete basketball player. What his weaknesses are, I think he works on [them] and works on [them] hard."
Still, as the Raptors' second-highest paid player there will be added pressure for DeRozan to continue and evolve this season.
BEST OF THE REST
How well will they navigate through a tricky start to the season?
Again, the league has done the Raptors no favours with their early-season schedule. After playing 15 of the first 22 games on the road last year, they'll open this season with 19 of 34 contests coming away from the Air Canada Centre. That stretch will be daunting, facing elite competition right out of the gate, including a couple of home contests against the defending champion Miami Heat.
"[It's] very challenging," Ujiri said of the schedule. "Since the first day we got it I don't think I've looked at it again. That's how tough it is. We have to play, it doesn't matter how tough it is."
"The schedule is what it is," Casey continued. "It's brutal."
With a new GM watching over their progress, Casey and his club can't afford another slow start. They'll be immediate pressure on them to overcome the early-season degree of difficulty and at least tread water until the schedule eases up.
Who will step up in Casey's second unit?
The Raptors' bench was a concern throughout the exhibition season, routinely looking disjointed on both sides of the floor and coughing up big leads that the more experienced first unit would accumulate.
With the starters already expected to log big minutes, Casey will try to rotate in one or two members of the first group whenever he does go to the bench to avoid long stretches with five reserves on the floor. Still, the team will need to get consistent production of its primary subs.
The progress of sophomore Terrence Ross could determine how successful this group is on a night-to-night basis. Casey will need Ross to provide consistent scoring off the bench while newcomer Tyler Hansbrough brings his typical brand of energy and Landry Fields bounces back, serving as a point forward with that group.
The back-up point guard position has been a precarious one in camp. Veteran D.J. Augustin was brought in to serve as Lowry's primary understudy but has been failed to stand out above rookie Dwight Buycks and the recently signed Julyan Stone. Casey has indicated that Augustin will still be given the first crack at the gig given his experience but the leash will be a short one with the two younger point guards, both better defenders, breathing down his neck.
When will Ujiri pull the trigger?
Or better yet, will Ujiri pull the trigger?
The Raptors' opportunistic GM continues to bide his time, exercising patience and evaluating this group, most of which he inherited from his predecessor.
"There's a responsibility on me and my team," Ujiri acknowledged. "We have to put the right players on the floor. We have to coach and we have to play. Enough of all the talking, basketball starts on Wednesday."
At that point the clock starts and no one knows when and how Ujiri may decide to strike. Again, the early portion of the season could go a long way in determining whether Ujiri feels obligated to put his fingerprints on the roster, and to what degree.
"We're excited about the season and we're going to go out there and do our best and do what's best for the organization. Yes, I study the past and I know the history of the team but I start now. It's now and the future for me."