Lowry, DeRozan and Valanciunas ready to go again for the Raptors…
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After their third seed finish in the Eastern Conference last year, the Toronto Raptors are riding the crest of a wave and expect to challenge again this season.
The Raptors finished the regular season with a 48-34 record which was enough to top the Atlantic Division and claim the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Despite their first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets, the franchise certainly laid the foundations for future success as the city got behind them.
Kyle Lowry signed a new deal after months of trade speculation, and his ability to link up with DeMar DeRozan produced one of the best backcourts in the NBA. Coupled with Jonas Valanciunas’ improved play, and the Raptors have a core to their roster to build around.
Few expected them to claim the third spot last year, and while some are still writing them off as their rivals improved over the summer, Toronto is ready for another push this season.
Progress key for Raptors as they eye an immediate return to the playoffs
Despite suggestions that the Raptors lack star quality, they averaged 101.3 points per game last season as one of just five teams in the East to break the 100-point mark.
Lowry was a key part of that offense as he averaged 17.9 points and 7.4 assists per game which were well above his career averages. Similarly, DeRozan made significant improvement with averages of 22.7 points and 4.0 assists per game, while Valanciunas showed signs of developing into an elite center.
As a result, coach Dwane Casey has a lot to work with again this year, with Amir Johnson and Terrence Ross forming a strong starting line-up. Greivis Vasquez provides a spark off the bench along with Lou Williams while Tyler Hansbrough can add some steel and presence in rotation.
The Raptors will look to improve defensively this year as despite a respectable 98.0 points against average in the regular season, they can still tighten up especially when it comes to the playoffs.
Nevertheless, perhaps one of the key reasons why they failed to make it beyond the first round was a lack of experience. Lowry saw his potential series-winning shot blocked by Paul Pierce in Game 7 last season, and the franchise can learn a lot from that moment alone moving forward.
Casey as well as his players will take a great deal from that series in terms of how to manage the playoff atmosphere better and what it requires on the defensive end as well as making the right decisions offensively. Therefore, they will be better prepared this time round and the disappointment and pain of missing out in such cruel fashion last year will be another motivating factor for the organisation.
Provided the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers live up to expectations and battle it out for top spot in the Eastern Conference, the race thereafter is wide open. Expect the Wizards, Heat, Nets, Hornets, Hawks, Knicks and Pacers to be involved, but the Raptors seem to be settled and have the same fundamental pieces as last year.
As a result, you can expect them to be pushing for third spot again, and depending on the way the bracket works out, with a bit of luck they will be confident of emerging as a second-round team at the very least.
If Lowry and DeRozan continue on their current trajectory along with Valanciunas and Casey can get decent production from the likes of Vasquez, Ross, Williams, Johnson and Fields, then Toronto will continue to build momentum and get the city behind them for another crack at the post-season.
PG: Kyle Lowry
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Terrence Ross
PF: Amir Johnson
C: Jonas Valanciunas
Sixth Man: Greivis Vasquez