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Raptors hold pieces to put winning culture together

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
POSTED: Oct 22, 2013 12:22 AM ET

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Fresh off eye surgery, Rudy Gay looks to garner his first All-Star nod this season.

New Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri was hired this summer to wipe away the Bryan Colangelo era and get the franchise on a path to relevance.

Raptors Preview Rudy Gay's Time

But there's a clear "Let's see what we got first" theme in Raptors camp this fall. Upon further review, the core that Colangelo put together in his final season at the helm wasn't all that bad and has the potential to take a step forward this year.

After trading for Rudy Gay in January, the Raptors went 18-18 to close the season and had a starting lineup that was ridiculously good defensively. This wasn't a Kevin Garnett or Chris Paul trade that changed the culture of an entire franchise, but the way the team performed over the final 2 ½ months of the season was something to build on.

The development of second-year center Jonas Valanciunas offers even more promise. After a year of learning the league and a summer of building his body, the 6-11 Lithuanian should be much better on both ends of the floor.

The changing Eastern Conference landscape, meanwhile, presents the Raptors with an opportunity to return to the playoffs for the first time in six years. Just gaining some postseason experience could play a big role in both the growth and psyche of the young players on the roster.

"I don't know how you teach winning by losing," Ujiri said in response to silly questions about the idea of tanking for a shot at Toronto native Andrew Wiggins in next year's Draft. "We have to build a culture of winning in some kind of way."

Speaking of No. 1 picks, Ujiri did manage to unload franchise albatross Andrea Bargnani this summer. And he reshuffled the Raptors' bench without affecting the long-term financial outlook.

Raptors Preview: New Faces

But those were relatively minor moves and we now wait for the big one. At some point, Ujiri is going to make his imprint on the franchise, because the current ceiling still isn't all that high.

Ujiri traded Carmelo Anthony only six months after being hired in Denver. His hand was forced in that case, but he made the most of the opportunity, reshaped the roster, and kept the Nuggets near the top of the Western Conference without any huge contracts on the books.

Gay is owed more than $37 million over the next two seasons, though he has the option to become a free agent next summer. While the Raptors played well with him on the floor, they can find a better way to spend that money. If you think of the Nuggets of the last two years as a Masai Ujiri team, then you probably don't think of Gay, especially at $19 million a year, as a Masai Ujiri player.

That isn't to say that Ujiri doesn't want a star. It's just that a good player making star money isn't the same thing. Gay's future will eventually need to be resolved for the Raptors to really know what direction they're going. Ujiri, of course, is holding his cards close to his chest.

"We'll let some things come to us," he said in very evasive and Ujiri-esque fashion, "and some things we'll be aggressive with."

For now, Gay will be a part of the Raptors' re-emphasis on defense. After significant improvement on that end in Dwane Casey's first season as head coach, they dropped back into the bottom 10 of defensive efficiency last season, even with improved numbers after the trade. That's a mark against Casey, whose own future is on the line this season, the final year of a contract signed by the last GM.

Raptors Preview: Coach's Corner

"Last year, I don't think it was a mistake, but we had to get better offensively," Casey said. "But we tilted the pendulum a little bit too far to the offensive side. This year, it's going to be back to the defensive side."

It's unclear how much time Casey and his players have to show Ujiri that they're moving in the right direction at a fast-enough pace. Valanciunas might be the only player or coach who knows he's not going anywhere.

Ujiri said his evaluations aren't based on wins and losses, but rather "the growth of our basketball team." Still, with talent and continuity, as well as only five for-sure playoff teams in the East, the Raptors won't have any excuses for not putting themselves in the postseason picture.

"We're going to find out very quickly if we have enough to be a playoff team," Casey said. "If we make the continuous growth, we should be going in that direction. But we're not going to talk about it, because talk is cheap."

Three points

1. While the focus is on defense, Casey believes his team can get better offensively by taking better shots. That means less mid-range jumpers and more threes from the corner. "We're going to emphasize shooting the three," he said, "but we're going to try to dictate what type of three."

Raptors Preview: Film Study

2. After the Gay trade, the Raptors starting lineup -- Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Gay, Amir Johnson and Valanciunas -- outscored its opponents by 12.9 points per 100 possessions (in 343 minutes). All other Toronto lineups were outscored by 5.6 points per 100 possessions. So the play of bench additions D.J. Augustin, Austin Daye, Tyler Hansbrough and Steve Novak will be critical. Augustin and Hansbrough were available because Indiana was looking to upgrade its own bench.

3. After sharing time with Jose Calderon early last season, Lowry should be more comfortable as the only starting-caliber point guard from the get-go. "More important than his play and his numbers is his positive leadership," Casey said. "I don't want to lose the Kyle personality. I want the tough, ornery point guard that he is, which makes him the player that he is."

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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