04/26/2012 03:57 EDT | Updated 06/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Andrea Bargnani's injury a big part of the Toronto Raptors' disappointing season

TORONTO - Andrea Bargnani was talking about his own season unravelling, but he may as well have been talking about how the entire Toronto Raptors' campaign went down the drain.

The Raptors were in Utah in January en route to a victory over the Jazz when the big Italian forward suffered a calf injury that would sideline him for 35 games, a huge blow to a Toronto team that had begun this season with plenty of optimism.

The few minutes before his injury, he said, were about the best he's felt in Toronto.

"That was the best part of the season for me because we won in Phoenix the day before and we were winning. I was really excited," Bargnani said.

"Things change fast."

The Raptors (23-43) managed just 10 wins without their leading scorer. They easily handled the New Jersey Nets on Thursday night with a 98-67 win to wrap up their fourth consecutive disappointing season without a playoff appearance.

The mood at the Air Canada Centre, however, was surprisingly upbeat as the players prepared to be post-season spectators yet again.

"Of course we can't be enthusiastic about not making the playoffs," Bargnani said. "But on the other side, we've started something really good. Coach (Dwane) Casey has changed the culture and we're building something really good.

"That's the right path to take in order to be a winning team. I'm really convinced that his principles worked."

Meeting with the media following Thursday morning's shootaround, they talked about the improvement in defence under Casey, who was hired as head coach last June with just that aim in mind.

The team went from being one of the worst defensive teams in the league to the middle of the standings. Bargnani was playing the best defence of his career when he went down to injury.

"I'm very happy about how I played in the few games that I played," he said. "It was a level that I never performed at before. I've got to keep that level next year.

"I proved that I can play at that level. So that's what I expect to do next year."

The players lamented the fact the season was shortened to 66 games due to the lockout. There was virtually no training game, and they played just two pre-season games. They had to learn on the job with a new coach at the helm.

"I don't want to make this an excuse but with this young team, with a new staff, a new coach, a new philosophy, we (would) have had more practice time," said veteran point guard Jose Calderon.

Raptors president and GM Bryan Colangelo called this a season of building before the season tipped off and didn't deviate, sticking to his plan of player development and creating financial flexibility. Colangelo will have money to spend come free agency, the team will have a high draft pick, plus they've got Jonas Valanciunas waiting in the wings.

The Raptors took the Lithuanian centre fifth in last year's draft, but left him in Europe this season to continue to develop.

The players were set to pack up Friday and head to their various homes abroad. Calderon and his wife are expecting a baby in three weeks. He'll then turn his focus to the London Olympics, where he'll make his third Games appearance with the Spanish national team.

Bargnani will continue rehabilitation on his calf muscle, while DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis have been given instruction to bulk up in the off-season.

They all said watching yet another season of playoff drama unfold without them in it will surely sting.

"I'm definitely hungry," DeRozan said. "I've got a lot of close friends that I'll be watching in a few days playing in the playoffs, it will definitely be tough for me just watching, because I want to be in the same position as well.

"But I know next year, I definitely feel it, that we're definitely going to be in the playoffs next year. I can't wait."