The 2014-15 regular season for the Toronto Raptors will be used as a means to not only build on their incredible success from a year prior, but to also silence any doubters who believe their rags-to-riches turnaround was merely an apparition.
Coming within one Kyle Lowry layup of the second round of the NBA playoffs has given the players a taste of the trials and tribulations that come with postseason basketball. Since it was only a small sample, the Raptors will take that experience as a motivating factor to not only qualify for the playoffs once again, but to advance even further and really make some noise.
Forty-eight victories and the second Atlantic Division crown in franchise history were a pleasant surprise during a period where the team was set on a path of rebuilding and retooling. Trading Rudy Gay in a seven-player deal to the Sacramento Kings before the end of 2013 was a blessing in disguise as a 6-12 start miraculously turned into a 42-22 finish.
Opportunities opened up in Dwane Casey's rotation for players to take on more responsibility and come into their own. DeMar DeRozan was named to his first NBA All-Star team, Lowry shed unflattering labels of being hard to work with to ultimately become team leader, while sophomores Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas earned extended minutes and more touches on the floor.
ESPN.com doesn't believe Toronto is a one-hit wonder, projecting the Raptors to finish with the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference (47-35) and the fifth-best odds to win the conference championship.
That's a fair and safe prediction considering the cataclysmic makeover the East endured in just a few short months.
LeBron James is back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Pau Gasol ditched the Staples Center to sign with the Chicago Bulls and Luol Deng joined Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in South Beach. The Indiana Pacers, the No. 1 seed in 2014, lost both Lance Stephenson (signed with the Charlotte Hornets) and Paul George (expected to miss entire 2014-15 season with lower right leg injury), creating space at the top for a new team to establish dominance.
Will that team be the Raptors? Are they ready to plant their flag at the top of the mountain?
If it's not broke, don't fix it.
In the case of general manager Masai Ujiri, his offseason was more about making sure the existing wheels didn't roll off into the distance.
Bringing back Lowry, Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez was a direct message to those who came out in the thousands at Jurassic Park during the Raptors' playoff run that their favorites weren't going anywhere.
Lowry gave credit to the fans in being a huge reason behind why he's dedicating the next four years of his basketball life to the city of Toronto, per Sean Fitz-Gerald of the National Post:
I knew the fans — during the regular season — how passionate they were. But when it came to the playoffs and they kicked it up an extra notch, it definitely helped in that decision. The fan base here is unbelievable. We need that every game.
The Raptors' starting lineup remains untouched with Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Amir Johnson and Valanciunas maintaining their respective roles. Joining them will be a slew of old friends, familiar faces and some upstart prospects.
|Point Guard||Shooting Guard||Small Forward||Power Forward||Center|
|Kyle Lowry||DeMar DeRozan||Terrence Ross||Amir Johnson||Jonas Valanciunas|
|Greivis Vasquez||Lou Williams||James Johnson||Patrick Patterson||Chuck Hayes|
|Will Cherry||Landry Fields||Tyler Hansbrough||Lucas Nogueira|
Lou Williams and Lucas Nogueira were acquired from the Atlanta Hawks in a deal for John Salmons.
What Williams provides is instant scoring off the bench and the ability to play either guard position. He's more adept at putting the ball in the basket than being a distributor (career average of 3.1 assists), so it's almost safe to assume that Vasquez will remain the facilitator for the second unit while Williams gets the green light to shoot from the sidelines.
Nogeuira is a project and will have a difficult time earning playing time over his larger and more skilled teammates. Just be sure to avoid sitting behind him with courtside seats, though. That hair isn't going anywhere.
Speaking of projects, Bruno Caboclo will have just as many chances to learn through watching from the end of the bench with his fellow Brazilian.
Taken with the No. 20 pick, Caboclo was hailed as the "Brazilian Kevin Durant" by ESPN's Fran Fraschilla on draft night. He was also discussed as being "two years away from being two years away," so there's that.
Averaging 11.8 points and 2.0 rebounds in four games at NBA Las Vegas Summer League, the 18-year-old swingman showed glimpses of being ready to contribute a lot sooner. The only problem is that minutes will be hard to come by at both small and power forward. There's no need to be thrown to the wolves just yet.
One player who won't need an adjustment period is James Johnson, a 6'9" beast of a defender who's ready to embark on his second stint with the team.
Johnson is well aware of how problematic his earlier years were, so this is his big chance to start fresh with an organization where his best basketball was played, per the Canadian Press (via CBC.ca):
It never was bad, we had our bumps, but that's war. It's a war out there when we're playing a game and sometimes you say stuff that you regret or you say stuff that you don't really mean.
Dwane Casey is a great guy and I feel like he realizes that and we've moved forward from where we were at. We had a great conversation and I'm just ready to win and I know he is.
It was a crazy road for me, but you learn a lot throughout your mistakes. I felt like Masai [Ujiri] and the rest of the Toronto Raptors they felt the same way about the situation and feel the same way about my play and what I could bring to the team.
I still have a lot to prove, but [the Raptors] signing me for two years gives me a boost of confidence and I'm going to work my hardest to help us go further than we did last year.
Should we pencil Toronto in for a second-straight Atlantic Division title now or later? Reader's choice.
Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and company presented the Raptors with their biggest challenge, finishing four games back in the standings at 44-38 and beating Canada's team in their best-of-seven series.
Former All-Star Brook Lopez will re-enter the fray at center after missing all but 17 games with a foot injury. Jason Kidd's coaching rights were sent packing to the Milwaukee Bucks, although the void he left allowed for a more experienced coach in Lionel Hollins to take over.
With Paul Pierce now wearing America's colors with the Washington Wizards and Kevin Garnett one step closer to retirement, Brooklyn's championship window may be closed. They still possess a more than credible roster with many weapons at their disposal, but with so many changes both talent and personnel wise, it's hard to imagine the Nets being any better than they were a year go.
Carmelo Anthony will be a New York Knick for the foreseeable future after re-signing for five more years, giving fans at Madison Square Garden a glimmer of hope.
Former Raptor Jose Calderon will join him in the starting lineup as his new point guard after coming over in a trade with the Dallas Mavericks. Reuniting Calderon with Andrea Bargnani, a former No. 1 overall pick for the Raptors, should create some nostalgia moments when the two teams cross paths.
The passion Knicks supporters have for their franchise is unparalleled, but in a city where winning is everything, expectations are set far too high far too often. Team president Phil Jackson will need to lay more brick and mortar (and a little pixie dust) before the Larry O'Brien trophy comes to "The Big Apple."
The 76ers have no interest in winning games, nor should they. The plan remains to continue stockpiling assets through the draft while building around a foundation of Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid.
Until the time comes where all of their young talent develops and consistently puts wins on the board, the 76ers will remain near the bottom of the food chain and pose no real threat to anyone.
It ultimately comes down to the frontcourt of Noel and Embiid keeping a clean bill of health and the front office finding supporting characters who can assist Philadelphia's stars of tomorrow. That's not going to happen overnight, though. The process shall continue for at least another season or two, if not more.
Until the future of four-time NBA All-Star Rajon Rondo is decided, it's hard to describe the Celtics' 2014-15 outlook. He's the cog that makes their machine go. Marcus Smart, a 6'4" guard out of Oklahoma State and the No. 6 pick in the NBA draft, will be handed the keys should Rondo be dealt, even with the obvious downgrade.
Entering the final year of a five-year, $55 million extension he signed in 2009, Rondo's days in Boston may be numbered. As the only star on the roster, he's going to command a hefty price. It would be the final nail in the coffin of a core that won an NBA championship in 2008.
Toronto's 32-20 record in the division was six games better than both the Knicks and Nets, with the 76ers and Celtics being the proverbial whipping boys of the bunch.
There could be some surprises along the way in terms of the occasional upset here and there, but by mid-April, the Raptors will have their heads held high as they look down on their four Atlantic adversaries.
Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Tyler Conway recently gave his impartial take on the Raptors' roster and the ceiling they may have created for themselves:
Viewed through a purely objective prism, the Raptors have a bunch of dudes in that "pretty good" strata. They're more than good enough to make the playoffs in the dumpster-dive East, but they profile as much more of a middling team than a true contender.
Then again, there's a credible counter argument to be made here. The Raptors ranked third in Eastern Conference scoring margin. Their Pythagorean wins-losses record would have been 51-31 or 52-30; Toronto was actually unlucky over the 82-game slate. Use data after the Gay trade, and this is a team that might have had 55 or so wins had Ujiri pulled the trigger earlier.
As far as DeRozan and Lowry have come and as bright as the future looks for both Ross and Valanciunas, an argument can be had over all four of those gentlemen lacking the star quality that makes great players elite and elite players larger than life. Where the true answer lies is on the players themselves.
Then again, perhaps the Raptors are fine just the way they are. They've only scratched the surface in terms of what they can accomplish, having made the playoffs once in six years. Last year was a building block and a test of the players' fortitude and desire for redemption. It was a fast-forward button icon on the blueprint to glory.
We don't know how good the Raptors can become until we see how they respond to the adversity they endured in Game 7 vs. Brooklyn. As heartbreaking a defeat as it was, that must be the last drop of fuel to the fire as they begin anew.
They don't have the sexy names or A-list stars, but what the Raptors do have is a core group of guys who will stick together and bust their tails night in and night out to achieve a common goal.
Their win total won't see a dramatic spike, but you'll take it willingly as you gaze upon the landscape shift in the East.
Prediction: 49-33, third in Eastern Conference
Best-Case Scenario: 53-29, second in Eastern Conference
Worst-Case Scenario: 40-42, eighth in Eastern Conference
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics come from Basketball-Reference.com
Christopher Walder is considered by many to be the "songbird of his generation" and the greatest center to have never played professional, collegiate, high school, house league or pickup basketball. His work has been published at Bleacher Report, SB Nation, Sports Illustrated, FanSided and several other online outlets. You may follow him on Twitter at @WalderSports.
*Video courtesy of @limsaanity_