Under The Bleachers: Toronto Raptors Aim To Maintain Success In Year 20

Above: Toronto Raptors' point guard Kyle Lowry

Even though last season ended in heartbreak for the Toronto Raptors, the 2013-14 season was an overwhelming success overall.

In the first year of “The Masai Ujiri Era,” the Raps rebounded from a 6-12 start to post a franchise-record 48 wins in claiming the Atlantic Division title. Shooting guard DeMar DeRozan continued to blossom, making the All-Star Team for the first time, and everyone agrees that scrappy point guard Kyle Lowry should have played in the game as well. Big man Jonas Valanciunas showed flashes, second-year man Terrence Ross was steady after being inserted into the starting lineup and the package of players that arrived from Sacramento in the Rudy Gay trade – Patrick Patterson, Greivas Vasquez and Chuck Hayes – all found their respective roles and thrived.

After entering last season with many people wondering if the team would tank, Toronto shipped out Gay, solidified their rotation and showed that the future is once again bright in the Great White Basketball North.

As the 2014-15 season kicks off, the key for Dwane Casey and his charges is to keep the momentum rolling from last season. Despite the first-round playoff exit, there was a basketball-related buzz in the city for the first time in years at the close of last year and with the same core and even better supporting characters in place, expectations are high heading into the team’s 20th NBA season.

On paper, the Raptors are obvious choices to win the Atlantic Division again this year – Philadelphia are in Year 3 of GM Sam Hinkie’s tank-based rebuild, Boston is Year 2 of a similar undertaking and the New York Knicks are in Year 1 of the Phil Jackson/Derek Fisher/Triangle Offense experiment and Carmelo Anthony still has no real help. That leaves Brooklyn, the squad that sent the Raptors packing from last year’s playoffs, as the only real competition and they took a step backwards in the offseason, as Paul Pierce departed, Kevin Garnett got another year older, Deron Williams had surgery on both ankles and gasp – Brook Lopez already has a foot injury, which surprises no one.

Health is always a key factor, but it applies to every team, so the real deciding factor on where Toronto goes this season is the continued development of the young core, especially Ross and Valanciunas.

GM Masai Ujiri made the right move in locking up Lowry long-term following the season and DeRozan has already proven himself as a consistent scorer and solid all-around shooting guard, which puts the focus on the team’s two talented third-year starters.

Even without taking another step forward, Ross is already valuable – a long-armed wing that can defend his spot, knock down threes and be a solid secondary scoring option on those rare nights when Lowry and/or DeRozan struggle. And there is more upside there too.

Ross shot just over 42% from the field last year, but has the slashing ability to get to the hole more instead of settling for mid-range jumpers and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the University of Washington product increase his rebounds and steals this season as well, just from having a better feel for the NBA game and consistent playing time.

Having averaged 11 and 9 last season, a more consistent Valancuinas is crucial to Toronto’s success this season, especially on the defensive end. The young center had some terrific games last year, but also disappeared at times. Part of that is because of Coach Casey’s rotation, but the Lithuanian can earn himself more time on the floor with more sustained effort at both ends.

While tons of bigs are looking to improve their perimeter games, “JV” is an old school, blue-collar battler down low. He’s got some fire and grit to him and if he can harness that energy and use it when crashing the glass, he should be able to average a double-double this season. He’s never going to be the primary option on the offensive end, but he will get lots of second chance looks and opportunities to make hustle plays and you have to be encouraged by his willingness to stand tall against DeMarcus Cousins this summer during the FIBA Basketball World Cup. “Boogie” is one of the best and most ornery bigs in the league and Valancuinas didn’t back down an inch.

Barring a catastophe, the playoffs appear to be a certainty for the Raptors this season, which makes advancing beyond the first round for just the second time in club history the goal and one that this squad is capable of achieving. The Eastern Conference has improved since last season – LeBron went home, Derrick Rose came back, Washington got a little better and Atlanta could be sneaky good – but not to the point that the Raptors should be satisfied with just making the playoffs.

#WeTheNorth want a playoff series victory.

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