Whether you're hardcore, casual or simply a first-time fan, there are certain things you need be clear about concerning the Toronto Raptors heading into the 2013-14 regular season.
New faces, both in the front office and on the roster, have created a sense of optimism around this franchise. The winds of change have swept through the core of this team.
Out with the old and in with the new.
Even though the makeup of the Raptors is far different from what it's been in recent memory, the end game is still the same: NBA playoffs or bust.
Five years is a long enough time to be away from postseason basketball. You have to be in it to win it.
Brace yourselves. As always, the Raptors will find new and exciting ways to keep their fans tense and on edge throughout the year.
Perhaps looking over the following will help put their minds at ease. At the very least, it can provide some insight on what they should be expecting over the next seven months.
*All statistics courtesy of ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com
It's not time to be throwing in the white towel on three-year pro Landry Fields just yet.
2012-13 was beyond miserable for the Stanford alum. The 25-year-old only competed in 51 games, missing a majority of the season due to issues with his right elbow and hand.
Even when he was healthy, nerve damage in his arm made life very difficult for him on the court. Fields was never able to find a groove offensively, making it increasingly frustrating to watch for both fans and coaches alike.
His three-year, $19 million deal didn't help his cause either.
In 2011, Fields was named a member of the NBA All-Rookie First Team, having averaged 9.7 points and 6.4 rebounds for the New York Knicks. He's never going to be a star in this league, but he can be a serviceable role player off the bench who can play defense and shoot from mid-range.
Does Fields deserve a second chance to prove his worth? Well, he really didn't burn through his first chance.
Once he's 100 percent, then we will see just how much Fields is capable of doing.
All people care about is what you've done for them lately. 2012-13 will be a thing of the past if Fields can rebound and bolster the Raptors second-unit with strong play.
It's not going to be easy living up to the standards set by his contract, but that was never his fault.
It's better to just ease up, allow Fields to get healthy and show what he's really made of next season.
The Raptors three-point shooting in 2012-13 was anything but consistent. The team finished tied with the Denver Nuggets for 25th in the league, shooting just 34.6 percent.
DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay, both key offensive focal points in the starting lineup, shot just 28.3 and 32.3 percent respectively. By the end of the season, only three players on the roster—Kyle Lowry, Sebastian Telfair and John Lucas III—had shot 35.0 percent or better.
Steve Novak, acquired in a package from the New York Knicks for Andrea Bargnani, is just what the doctor ordered.
Novak shot 42.5 percent from behind the arc last season, which was 10th in the NBA. His career 43.3 three-point shooting percentage is also good enough for sixth all-time.
Nothing helps cure a team's shooting woes more than dealing for a guy who's made a living off of only shooting the basketball. That's all he really does, but there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
He's what the Raptors need. He can stretch the defense and allow for some of the other wings on the roster to have more breathing room driving in the lane. It also allows for kick outs to the corner for someone who can hit three-pointers at a high rate.
The coaching staff won't be pulling their hair out when he's shooting because that's the biggest asset he brings to the team.
Having a specialist like Novak become a key member of the rotation will pay dividends in more ways than one.
Perhaps he'll bust out the "Discount Double Check" championship belt pose if he starts making it rain for the Raptors next season.
He's gone. He's finally gone. It's as if a huge weight has been lifted off of the shoulders of the Toronto Raptors organization.
For the past several seasons, Andrea "Il Mago" Bargnani was becoming a burden on this franchise. He could do no right in the eyes of a majority of fans, but most of that negativity was brought on by his play on the court and his overall attitude.
His numbers were slowly dropping across the board every year since 2010. Injuries played a factor in his free fall, but all it really did was give fans more of a reason to despise him.
As a 7-footer, one would think that grabbing rebounds and defending the post would come naturally to a man of that stature. That wasn't the case with Bargnani. In fact, last season, Bargnani became the first 7-footer in NBA history to average more than 28.0 minutes, yet fewer than 4.0 rebounds—he averaged just 3.7—per game.
Enough was enough. The arrival of new general manager Masai Ujiri signalled the end of the Bargnani era in Toronto.
On July 10th, Bargnani was dealt to the New York Knicks for Steve Novak, Marcus Camby, Quentin Richardson, a 2014 second round draft pick, a 2016 first round draft pick and a 2017 second round draft pick.
It was once assumed that Bargnani had little to no value on the open market. For a former No. 1 overall pick with a history of injuries who was already starting to show signs of declining, getting three players and numerous picks back in return would seem next to impossible to pull off.
Well, it happened. It was highway robbery. Yes, two of the players acquired in the trade—Camby and Richardson—are no longer with the team, but that's fine.
Now, the healing begins. Andrea Bargnani has left the building and there is no looking back. Onward and upward, as they say.
Prescription goggles or contact lenses didn't seem like the way to go, so instead, Rudy Gay opted for laser eye surgery to correct his vision problems. (via The Star):
It was some kind of crazy operation that took a lot more time to heal than I thought. It sucked. They had to patch it up (after), and I had to take eye drops, all stuff that I hated. But I had to do it.
For several years, Gay has been dealing with Astigmatism in his eyes, which is an optical defect that blurs one's eyesight.
Since his 2010-11 season with the Memphis Grizzlies, Gay has seen his shooting percentage drop from 47.1 to 41.6 percent over the course of three years. There's no way of knowing just how much of an impact the Astigmatism had, but even so, it must be extremely difficult to shoot a basketball effectively with poor vision.
Gay is worried that if his numbers improve from here on out, he will get none of the credit for simply improving on a facet of his game that needed fine-tuning. (via The Star)
It’s crazy because as much work as I’m putting in working on my shot, if I come back shooting (a better) per cent from the three-point line, everybody’s gonna say it’s ’cause of my vision, not the hard work I’m putting in.
That's the harsh reality of the situation. He's absolutely right. If Gay can get his percentages back up to a respectable mark in 2013-14, many fans will likely heave praise on the surgery, rather than applaud the man himself.
In all likelihood, the surgery will prove to be a success and Gay will become even more of an offensive force for the Raptors.
If averaging 19.5 points a night is what he can deliver on second-rate eyesight, just imagine what he can accomplish now.
Even with the full backing and support of general manager Masai Ujiri, head coach Dwane Casey's time with the Toronto Raptors may be over before you know it.
On June 19th, the Raptors announced that Casey would be returning to coach the team for the 2013-14 regular season. During his first two years on the bench, Casey would compile a record of 57-91, which isn't anything to write home about.
With a new boss calling the shots in Ujiri, the future of Casey was very much in doubt. His contract extension—which he signed at the end of the 2012 season—lasts through the end of the 2013-14 season.
No one would blame Ujiri if he decided that he wanted to bring in a head coach of his own hire. That's usually how things work when new management takes over.
At the very least, Ujiri is giving coach Casey an opportunity to continue his work with this roster and seize a chance for redemption. However, if there aren't significant signs of improvement early in the season, that may be the straw that broke the camels back.
It's an easy move to make considering how much longer Casey is under contract. Would anyone blame him if he went in that direction?
He's a good coach who relates well with his players, but sometimes, that's just not enough.
Change may be in order. But hey, at least he's getting one last crack at it.
For anyone who paid attention to the Raptors during the Las Vegas Summer League, it was clear as day just how much Jonas Valanciunas had been hitting the weights.
He's definitely added muscle. Just how much remains to be seen.
This is huge, no pun intended. Valanciunas didn't need to cut weight, nor did he need to get bulkier. He's still very lean, but there's a difference between being skinny and being toned.
This new-found strength was on full display for the Raptors Summer League squad. In four games, Valanciunas averaged 18.8 points and 10.0 rebounds on 56.1 percent from the field on route to winning MVP.
He was a man against boys in the paint. He overpowered the opposition, backing down defenders and finding space around the basket.
His confidence appeared to be at an all-time high. One can only hope that it translates over to the regular season when the competition is far greater and more important.
The Eastern Conference hosts some of the most dominant big men in the game today, including Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls, Brook Lopez of the Brooklyn Nets and Roy Hibbert of the Indiana Pacers. These are just some of the guys Valanciunas will be dealing with personally over the course of the season.
Improving his physique this much so early in his career just goes to show how committed he is to getting better and helping this Raptors team achieve its goals.
There isn't much depth behind him at center in the rotation, so staying healthy will be key. Valanciunas will have all the playing time he can muster, so expect the 21-year-old to avoid a sophomore slump and have a phenomenal 2013-14 season.
In Ujiri we trust.
In fairness, former general manager Bryan Colangelo had similar hype and credentials when he first arrived in Toronto. Colangelo was going to be the savior of the franchise, but we all know how that story ended up.
Cue Masai Ujiri.
He spent the last three seasons in charge of the Denver Nuggets, helping keep the ship afloat in a post-Carmelo Anthony era.
On February 22nd, 2011, as part of a three-team trade, Ujiri dealt Anthony, along with Renaldo Balkman, Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter and Sheldon Williams to the New York Knicks for a package that included Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov and a number of draft picks.
Losing a player with the star power of Anthony would usually be enough to severely damage a basketball team. Not the Denver Nuggets. This blockbuster deal gave the franchise enough pieces to continue being a factor in the Western Conference.
In 2012-13, Ujiri would win the NBA Executive of the Year award, as the Nuggets finished third in the conference with a record of 57-25. The roster didn't feature a single player that was named to the NBA All-Star team, which makes that final standing all the more impressive.
Now, Ujiri takes his superb track record with him back to the Raptors organization, where he was once the Director of Global Scouting and eventual assistant general manager with Colangelo.
He's not going to turn this team around overnight. Rome wasn't built in a day, so it's probably going to take a season or two before fans can fully grasp the direction Ujiri wants to take this franchise in.
Be patient, stay calm and have faith.
After a five-year absence, the Toronto Raptors will once again be competing in meaningful playoff basketball come next season.
It's a gutsy prediction, but a well thought out one at that.
There are essentially five teams—the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers—who can automatically be penciled in for those top seeds in the Eastern Conference. As far as slots No. 6 through 8 are concerned, they're fair game.
That's where the Raptors come in.
With the offseason acquisitions of Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack, No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett and Earl Clark, as well as the return of a healthy Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers are likely candidates for a return to the playoffs.
The Wizards are a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Can they take that next step with all of their young talent and end their postseason hiatus as well?
Even with Josh Smith signing with Detroit, the Hawks still have enough pieces to compete in the conference, so they can't be forgotten either.
With all of that being said, I still believe—personal bias' and fandom aside—that the Raptors will find a way to leap over a couple of those teams and bring playoff basketball back to the Air Canada Centre.
Kyle Lowry will be motivated in a contract year, Jonas Valanciunas' star will continue to rise and Rudy Gay's first full season with the Raptors will be productive and successful.
It's all going to come together.