If the Toronto Raptors are going to vault themselves into the NBA Playoffs this season, it's going to be on the back of one defining characteristic: top-tier defence.
Despite the fact that the Toronto Raptors spent much of their summer shopping for offensive help, and the fact that their two most visible players - Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan - are known as sub-par defenders, these new-model Raptors are expected to be a defence-first outfit. And they know that will be their ticket to whatever success they can attain this season.
When Bryan Colangelo went out and hired Dwane Casey to be his head coach in the spring of 2011, he did so almost exclusively to reap the rewards of Casey's defensive bona fides.
The Raptors had finished at the bottom of the NBA in defensive efficiency in back-to-back seasons and had become something of a laughing-stock over their utter lack of NBA-calibre stopping power. Casey was brought in to radically alter the defensive culture of the organization and the team's one-year leap from 30th to 12th in defensive efficiency - with virtually no roster alterations - is a testament to his abilities in that arena.
This season, though, the club hopes to take yet another step forward at that end of the court.
The Raptors brought in noteworthy defensive linchpins over the summer in Kyle Lowry, Landry Fields and rookie Jonas Valanciunas. All three are expected to start and provide the backbone of the club's defensive system.
They have already begun laying the groundwork in preseason that will come to define their defensive approach to the game. As they continue to integrate themselves with the rest of the roster, the stronger the team's defensive stopping power should get.
The results have been encouraging so far in preseason play. The team is holding opponents to .434 shooting through five games. This is exactly what they were able to hold opponents to during the regular season last year, which shows little year-over-year slippage.
Toronto is also top-ten in blocks and steals per game, which is important because both were areas of want last season, significantly impacting the club's ability to create easy opportunities in transition.
Also, for the first time in eons, the Raptors have playable defensive options at all five positions, which will give Casey considerable defensive options when constructing his rotations throughout the regular season.
To that end, the Raptors are aided in a big way by the fact that so many of their rotation players are committed defensively. In the past, the Raptors have tried to get away with having a single defensive option of limited overall talent (think Julian Wright) act as the cure to their soft defensive nature.
Now, the Raptors have Lowry, Fields, Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and Alan Anderson as sure-fire defensive contributors, with Ed Davis, Terrence Ross and John Lucas also bringing reasons for defensive optimism with them into this season.
These are guys that may not all be standout, lockdown individual defenders, but in team defence scenarios, they can contribute meaningfully and give Casey hope that his club can climb on their backs and vault into the top-ten or even top-five in defensive efficiency this year.
Of course, if you want to make your mark on the league with your defence, you really need your best players committing to that end of the floor, and that's where Toronto's big-ticket item, Andrea Bargnani, comes in.
He shocked everyone in Raptor-land out of the gates last year with his commitment to Casey's defensive schemes, and for the first time ever the team allowed fewer points per 100 possessions with Bargnani on the court than off of it.
So far in this preseason he looks just as committed to keeping up his defensive production. He and Valanciunas have teamed up to use their length and mobility to really choke-off the basket area from their opponents, and both are doing a solid job covering on pick-and-rolls and protecting the weak side.
There are still blown assignments here and there, but for the most part the focus and precision of Bargnani's defence gives plenty of hope that he can continue to play like this well into the season.
Considering that he'll no doubt lead the team in minutes played, that's a very important factor in Toronto's bid to become and elite defensive outfit.
Now, that isn't to say there aren't still stragglers.
DeMar DeRozan remains the defensive weak-link in Toronto's starting five, and this preseason he's continued to blow rotational assignments. Meanwhile, Jose Calderon still has trouble staying in front of even the most antiquated opponents (like Pablo Prigioni on Friday in Montreal) given his lack of lateral quickness.
While the rest of the team can probably make up for their shortcomings, it will be worth keeping an eye on their minutes if their play begins to impact the team's ability to string together stops when they are on the court.
Also, one should not expect them to see much, if any, court time together because of their defensive inadequacies.
All in all, though, the Raptors have a real chance this season to crack the upper crust of defensive-oriented clubs.
If the team can maintain a high level of defensive stopping power for the duration of the season, which is something Casey is going to demand, the Raptors have a real shot of making it to the Playoffs for the first time since 2008.
However, if they stay in the middle-of-the-pack defensively, despite their roster additions, this season will have to be seen as a step-back, and any shot at a post-season berth will disappear.
This team simply isn't strong enough offensively to carry an average defence into the Playoffs, so if that's their goal they are going to have to do it by stopping others. They have the tools to make that happen. They just have to do it for a full 82-game schedule.
The test begins on October 31st.