The Toronto Raptors enter the 2013-2014 as a story in search of an ending.
They have an intriguing list of characters and plenty of impending plot twists all of which will result in what?
The team’s first post-season appearance after a five-year hiatus built on the maturation of DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas as well as an uptick from Rudy Gay?
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An exciting playoff race entices new general manager Masai Ujiri to stand pat?
A stumble from the gate that prompts Ujiri to dismantle the roster?
A season of short-term pain made bearable by the prospect of landing a member of the stellar draft class of 2014?
The Eastern Conference has two dominant franchises, the champion Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers and another, the Chicago Bulls, who advanced to the second round of the playoffs last season and now return 2011 MVP Derrick Rose. Retooled with the addition of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the Brooklyn Nets and talent-laden New York Knicks seem good bets to finish somewhere within shouting distance of the top half of the Eastern Conference.
After that the line forms on the left. The Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Boston Celtics, Charlotte Bobcats, Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers are either in some form of rebuild, coming out of an overhaul or destined for one.
Not to worry. Raptors.com aims to answer more questions than it asks. Here are five absolutely certain facts that will determine the Raptors’ season.
Fact number 1. The Raptors are not built to survive another catastrophic start such as the 4-19 beginning that tomahawked them last season before most people had bought their Christmas gifts. Then again, who is? The Raptors went 30-29 the rest of the way but could never overcome the early deficit.
“We can’t kind of ease into the season where an older team would,” said forward Amir Johnson. “We have to start our engines now and get those early wins. Everyone has to be ready and that’s how we’ve been playing and practicing every day.”
The good news is the Raptors have flashed plenty of solid elements in rolling to a preseason record of 6-1. The bad news? They went 5-1 against NBA competition in last year’s preseason yet stumbled from the start.
The Raptors will undertake a potentially difficult early season, beginning Wednesday, October 30th against the Boston Celtics. They will then play home openers for Atlanta and Milwaukee, before facing the NBA champs from Miami and then head out for road games in Charlotte and Indiana.
Fact number 2. Even as he enters his fifth NBA season, there remains plenty of upside with 24-year-old DeMar DeRozan. The USC product has been the talk of the Raptors preseason and signaled his heightened commitment to excelling through the summer and the tail end of last season. DeRozan delivered 18.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season. He believes he can contribute much more than before.
“I’ve been in the league long enough to understand when it’s time to tighten up, when a rebound counts, when an assist or a turnover can cause a win or loss,” DeRozan said. “It all comes with experience. It plays a big part in my development and in me being a leader.”
“DeMar is becoming a leader defensively,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “He’s reading situations defensively. He’s containing the ball, sliding his feet, reading rotations. You can just see the light bulb come on over this past summer and toward the end of last year.”
Fact number 3. Given a full training camp, Rudy Gay will be fully integrated into the Raptors’ game plan. And vice versa. At 27, entering his ninth NBA season, Gay is looking at his peak years of production and has a player option for the 2014-2015 season.
Gay produced 19.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in 33 Raptor games but feels he has much more to give.
“I just think with the system we have here it benefits the kind of game I have,” Gay said. “We’re up and down and everybody who has watched me play knows that suits my game.”
“Rudy’s given us everything he has right now,” Casey said, “but he and DeMar and Kyle (point guard Kyle Lowry) are going to be the engines for our team.”
Fact number 4. Raptor fans are going to love Tyler Hansbrough. A roughneck who is more Charles Oakley than Jerome Williams, Hansbrough brings a level of defensive toughness and malevolence that hasn’t been in evidence in years. Hansborough contributed seven points and 4.6 rebounds a game with a strong Indiana team last season and when paired with Amir Johnson can toughen the Raptors’ interior defence.
Fact number 5. The Raptors’ latest identity will be built on defensive play. In his first year, Casey trimmed the club’s points allowed per game by a whopping 11 points from 105.4 to 94. Last year’s experiment to incorporate more offence saw the club’s surrender 4.8 more points per game than the previous season. Unlike his predecessor, Bryan Colangelo, Ujiri is a proponent of fire and brimstone basketball and that will translate into a renewed emphasis on defence.
“We’ve added Tyler but we’re basically the same team,” Casey said. “We just have to get better knowing our system. We need to have the mindset, ‘I have to stop my man, I have to contain the ball.’ I think we’re going to have a better recognition of our defensive concepts.”