You hear it from every team, in every league, at the start of every year. Management and players alike spew unbridled optimism as training camp is about to get started. This is going to be "the year" that things change for their squad. Toronto Raptors fans, with the exception of last season, have been hearing that sort of chatter in varying degrees for years now. This time though, it might just be more accurate than it has been in the past. Yes I know, everything looks good on paper.
But in truth, there is some cause for optimism as the Raptors have made upgrades in the talent department and what’s more important is, they now have players that fit their system. Under head coach Dwane Casey last season, Toronto actually did something they haven’t done in a long time. They established an identity, a style of play that defines them.
According to President and General Manager, Bryan Colangelo, Casey received a few extra dollars last year for meeting benchmarks set out in his contact as they related to the team’s defensive performance. Toronto is hoping that defence stays consistent and if the offense picks up this season the result will be a better finish than last season.
While he downplayed expectations last season, in a recent interview on Sportsnet 590 – The FAN in Toronto, Colangelo said this season had the feel of his first full season in Toronto. Raptors fans will remember that season well as Toronto posted a 20-win improvement from the previous campaign to win the Atlantic Division. An improvement of that magnitude may not be in the cards for this season but it’s not unfair to expect a jump in the win total and meaningful games late in the season.
So why is there such optimism? Initially, the backcourt will be stronger with the trade that acquired Kyle Lowry from Houston. He’s a tough, defensive-minded player and Casey should be an appropriate coach for his personality. John Lucas III is back in Toronto for a second go-round. Some may forget he was part of the Raptors summer league squad in 2007 and holdover Jose Calderon is still held in high regard by Casey.
There has also been an improvement on the perimeter with the addition of Landry Fields who was signed as a free agent. Rookies Terrance Ross, Quincy Acy and the Jonas Valnciunas are also names Raptor fans will be looking to for contributions.
The one concern amongst the new Raptors is the calf injury to Valaciunas on Monday. You’ll have to excuse the fanbase if they hold their collective breath slightly when they hear the term "strained calf". Remember, it was the injury that halted the offence in its tracks last season when Andrea Bargnani was diagnosed with the same injury following a double overtime win in Utah last season.
While not everyone goes through the preseason without a few bumps and bruises and sitting out a game or a practice here or there, it’s important for Valanciunas to avoid the circumstances that plagued Ed Davis. After knee surgery curtailed Davis’ first training camp and a lockout nixed the second one, Davis will finally get his first full NBA training camp this season as he begins his third campaign. The learning curve is steep for a big man and Valanciunas needs all the reps he can get. His fellow rookie Ross is off to a nice start with an NBA summer league under his belt.
So yes, it’s a time to be optimistic for Raptors fans. One NBA agent remarked last June when we spoke at the Finals "Don’t sleep on Toronto. I look for big things from them next season and I won’t be surprised to see them have the biggest turnaround in the east next season."
With training camp about to begin, Raptors fans are allowed to be hopeful.