A year after Bryan Colangelo preached patience with a young, building team that was all about gaining experience, the Raptors made several key moves in the off-season that — on paper at least — have Toronto looking significantly better.
Colangelo added three potential starters to the roster in bulldog point guard Kyle Lowry, Lithuanian centre Jonas Valanciunas, who's proven to be a quick learner, and athletic swingman Landry Fields — and lost little in the departure of Jerryd Bayless and James Johnson.
"There's that feeling there could be something special abut this group, but time will tell," Colangelo said in a recent interview.
The Raptors, who raise the curtain on the regular-season Wednesday when they host the Indiana Pacers, finished 23-43 in the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season of few expectations. But Colangelo is done talking just about development, saying this is a season to start winning some games.
And there's some cautious optimism around the Air Canada Centre about the potential for Toronto's playoff appearance since 2008.
Basketball's experts, for the most part, disagree. Most predictions pick Canada's lone NBA franchise to win somewhere between 30 and 40 games. An ESPN report last week had the Raptors winning 33 games.
Coach Dwane Casey, in his second season with Toronto, said the criticism can work in his young squad's favour.
"With that lack of respect, that should get us motivated to come into this gym each and every day to bust our tails." Casey said. "That right there tells us how much lack of respect the league has for us, and how much we have to continue to work to perform every day we walk on the court."
Casey is a big reason for Toronto's optimism. The former Dallas Mavericks assistant took a team that was at the bottom of the league in defence to finish in the top half last season.
They remained in the bottom third in offensive stats, however — something Casey focused on with a benefit of a full training camp this season.
"The numbers are staggering what happened last year (defensively)," Colangelo said. "But with respect to the pace, the offence, offensive efficiency, offensive production, we talked a lot this off-season about how we're going to improve that."
There hasn't been a clear face of the franchise since Chris Bosh patrolled the ACC floor, and Vince Carter before him, and this season is no different.
The team will look to centre Andrea Bargnani to provide a good chunk of its scoring. Bargnani was having a breakout season last year — and showed an uncharacteristic enthusiasm for defence — before a calf injury cost the team's leading scorer 35 games. The Raptors' season unravelled right along with him.
Bargnani, the No. 1 pick from the 2006 draft, and Valanciunas could team up for a formidable front court. The Raptors selected Valanciunas with their No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft before leaving him in Lithuania for a year of development. The 20-year-old, touted as the future of the franchise, definitely gives Raptors fans something to be excited about — rare athleticism for a big man coupled with a puppy dog enthusiasm for the game.
The 20-year-old topped the league's annual general manager's poll as the international player most likely to have a breakout season, garnering 17.2 per cent of votes.
Lowry received a vote in the same poll as the "most under-rated player acquisition in off-season," and didn't take long to show why that might be true. Acquired from the Houston Rockets after a failed bid to land Canadian star Steve Nash, Lowry is expected to add heart and hustle to a Toronto team that hasn't enough of either in recent seasons.
The 26-year-old, a vocal leader who will push his teammates, is expected to start ahead of veteran Jose Calderon, who will lead the second unit as one of the better backup point guards in the league.
Fields, who signed a three-year deal worth about US$20 million reportedly as part of the failed Nash bid, has been touted as Toronto's so-called "glue guy." He's an intelligent player with speed and vision on the wing.
Out of Toronto's returning players, athletic swingman DeMar DeRozan has polished his post-up game and along with Bargnani, will be a focal point of Toronto's offence. The 23-year-old remains among the weaker starters on the defensive end however.
"DeMar's one of the most talented wings in the league and he's learning every day to be efficient," Casey said. "He understands that, he's getting to the foul line, doing what we ask him to do, going in the low post."
Toronto's three new starters have bumped players onto the bench, which gives the Raptors' more depth than they've seen in a while.
Calderon, Alan Anderson, Linas Kleiza, Amir Johnson and Ed Davis averaged 24 starts last year.
They're joined by hard-working guard John Lucas III, athletic rookie Terrence Ross and Dominic McGuire, a strong defensive player who was given the Raptors' final spot on their 15-man roster.