Two Atlantic Division foes that underwent massive offseason change in very different ways open preseason play Monday when the Raptors visit the Celtics at TD Garden in Boston (7:30 PM ET).
The Raptors are coming off a fifth straight season without a playoff appearance and after some significant off-court transformation, there’s still little to suggest exactly which direction the team is heading long-term.
Fresh off winning an Executive of the Year award with the Denver Nuggets, Masai Ujiri returned to the Raptors this summer to replace Bryan Colangelo as president of basketball operations and general manager. Ujiri proceeded to make changes to his front office personnel, scouting staff and assistant coaches and yet the Raptors will start the preseason with an element of continuity with their roster.
Dwane Casey survived the turnover and enters his third year as head coach. Casey has expressed his intent to get back to the tough defence the Raptors played back in 2011-12, where they posted a defensive rating in the top half of the league after two straight seasons at or near the bottom.
Casey will have the core components of the roster that went 30-29 final 59 games of 2012-13 — including the starting five of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas.
But it was a dreadful 4-19 start to the regular season that effectively torpedoed the Raptors’ payoff hopes early last season, which came on the heels of a 6-1 exhibition record.
Casey suggested at Sunday’s practice in Boston that the approach to preseason play this season is likely to change with a fully healthy roster and new faces to integrate such as forward Steve Novak (acquired in a package for Andrea Bargnani) along with forwards Tyler Hansbrough and Austin Daye plus guards D.J. Augustin and Dwight Buycks (signed as free agents).
“We ended up playing our veterans a lot of minutes [last season] and this year is more seeing who can play, looking at different rotations and different positions. We still want to win every time we step on the floor, but more growing, more experimenting than anything else.”
Change has also been the major theme for the Celtics, as core elements of their recent championship DNA in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and head coach Doc Rivers are all gone.
Former Butler University head coach Brad Stevens has taken over for Rivers and inherits a roster clearly in a transition phase in his first NBA stint.
Factor in the absence of electric point guard Rajon Rondo (torn right ACL) and roles, rotations and even starters are up in the air on the eve of their first preseason game.
“I just told the guys, and I told you guys this yesterday, we’re going to be tinkering with lineups quite a bit,” Stevens told Celtics.com on Sunday. “I don’t know what we’ll do in games 2, 3 and 4, but I’m guessing we will not start the same lineup. I’m guessing we’ll really shift things around.”