Bar raised this year for Raptors

Sports Sports | Lifestyle

At the quarter-mark of last season, the Toronto Raptors looked like a team going nowhere. They sat six games under .500 and had just traded away Rudy Gay, their best and highest paid player. The Raptors had every appearance of a team willing to tank the entire season in an effort to improve their chances of landing highly touted Canadian Andrew Wiggins in the draft. Instead, to the surprise of many in the league, they started winning games. In fact, the Raptors finished their season with 41 wins in their final 62 games and won their division for just the second time in franchise history.

Their dream season ended with a one-point, Game 7 loss to a vastly more experienced Brooklyn Nets team in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. In the offseason, GM Masai Ujiri focused on maintaining continuity in the roster. Ujiri re-signed Kyle Lowry—who is coming off of one of the best season in his career—as well as fan-favourites Patrick Patterson and Grievis Vasquez who will once again be relied on to provide scoring off the bench.

With essentially the same personnel as last season, the Raptors face much higher expectations this year. While the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls have made headlines by adding big pieces to their teams through trades and free agency, the Raptors are relying on the consistent development of several young players.

23-year-old Terrence Ross will be getting starter’s minutes at shooting guard and should be able to build upon a season in which he tied the team record by scoring 51 points in a game.

Up front, DeMar DeRozan—himself only 25 years old—should produce another All-Star year. DeRozan spent the summer training with some of the league’s best and winning a gold medal for the United States at the Basketball World Cup. This international experience should prove invaluable to a talented young player looking to further develop at the professional level.

At centre, third-year pro Jonas Valanciunas will carry much of the load. His own experience playing for Lithuania at the World Cup and practice sessions with Hakeem Olajuwon should ensure that his points and rebounds-per-game will increase for the third time in as many years.

Joining Valanciunas in the frontcourt is nine-year veteran Amir Johnson. Despite his long career, Johnson is only 27 years old; he adds energy and a much needed physicality to the Raptors, but this style puts him at greater risk for injury. If he can stay healthy, he should continue to contribute offensive rebounds and blocked shots to a team that requires production from his position.

Rounding out the starting lineup is the aforementioned point guard Kyle Lowry who should get consideration for the All-Star game after being snubbed last year despite putting up excellent numbers. While the Raptors may not be able to move past the Bulls or the Cavaliers in the East, they should expect to win the relatively weak Atlantic Division and have home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

If they can avoid injuries to key players and improve through another year of playing together as a group, expect the Raptors to make at least the second round. This team is not quite ready to be a contender just yet, but with another year of experience and some more playoff games under their belt, that label may change by this time next year.