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Raptors look to build off last season's success

POSTED: Oct 14, 2014 10:40 AM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann

NBA.com

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2014-15 Raptors Team Preview

Sekou Smith takes a look at the Raptors upcoming season.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

The Toronto Raptors were one of the most remarkable stories in the NBA last season. In December, they traded their highest-paid player, almost traded their most important player, and then started winning.

At the beginning of the season, the local media asked if the Raptors should tank for Andrew Wiggins. At the end of the season, the local fans made the Air Canada Centre ridiculously loud and filled Maple Leaf Square for every playoff game.

To be a true title contender, you need to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Raptors were one of only four teams -- the only one in the Eastern Conference -- to do so, ranking ninth on both ends. That helped earn them the second division title in franchise history.

After that kind of success, the Raptors kept their rotation intact by re-signing free agents Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez. Lowry's breakout, All-Star-caliber season had all of Toronto happy he wasn't traded to New York. And the Raptors were at their best when reserves Patterson and Vasquez -- who combined to shoot 40 percent from 3-point range after arriving in the Rudy Gay trade -- were on the floor.

That next step is a huge step.To get where you're consistently expected to be there, where that's part of your conversation every year, that's what we're striving for. That's what we're still working for.

– Dwane Casey

Now, they're expected to again finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference and prove that last season wasn't just a result of some contract-year performance bumps and a weak Atlantic Division, in which the Nets got off to a 10-21 start, the Knicks were consistently confused defensively, and the Celtics and Sixers purposely played for Lottery combinations.

"That next step is a huge step," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said as training camp opened. "To get where you're consistently expected to be there, where that's part of your conversation every year, that's what we're striving for. That's what we're still working for."

With the Eastern Conference looking stronger, the question is how the Raptors continue to get better on one end of the floor or the other after last season's jumps into the top 10.

There is room for improvement in the margins. The Raptors were a middling 28-26 in games within five points in the last five minutes, 14th among playoff teams. And in the playoffs, their defense regressed as they failed to find a way to defend Brooklyn's Joe Johnson and continued to send their opponent to the free-throw line too often.

Raptors Season Preview: Culture Change

Mike Fratello and Grant Hill look at the backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and what Dwane Casey has done to change the culture in Toronto.

"That's the next step for us," DeMar DeRozan said, "really understanding how to close out games, like the great teams in the league do, understanding how to execute in the last two minutes, protecting the ball, getting a stop when we need to. Little things like that we struggled with last year and we got to clean up this time around."

"We'll tweak some things defensively and offensively to be better in certain situations," Casey added. "We still have growing to do as a team."

There are individuals on the roster who have some growing to do themselves. The Raptors have two starters -- Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas -- who are under the age of 24, with plenty of untapped potential. And DeRozan, still just 25 as he enters his sixth season, can get a lot better from 3-point range.

So the opportunity is there to build on last season, learn from experience, and find ways to execute better in big moments. Finally having some roster continuity should only help.

"Last season is done," general manager Masai Ujiri said. "We don't want to live on last season. We want to build a winning culture here."

ICYMI ...

The day after the Raptors were eliminated in the playoffs, they gave Dwane Casey a three-year contract extension. ... With the 20th pick in the Draft, they went for long-term project Bruno Caboclo. ... They added to their already-strong bench by trading for Lou Williams. ... In free agency, re-signing Kyle Lowry was priority No. 1, and the Raps got it done early with a four-year, $48-million deal. ... They also re-signed key bench pieces Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson, and added James Johnson to defend bigger wings.

THREE POINTS

1. Last season, the Raptors attempted only 27.6 percent of their shots from the restricted area, the lowest rate in the league. Making Valanciunas a bigger and more consistent part of the offense could help, but so could a stronger commitment to running when the opportunity is there. The Raps have ranked in the bottom five in fast-break points each of Casey's three seasons.

2. More important than Valanciunas' touches on offense is his development as a defensive anchor. The Raptors were much better defensively, both in the regular season and the playoffs, with Valanciunas on the bench than they were with him on the floor.

3. The Raptors were lucky in the health department last season. DeRozan, Johnson, Lowry, Ross, Valanciunas and Vasquez missed a total of just 16 games.

MAN ON THE SPOT

Casey stuck with Terrence Ross in the Raptors' first round playoff loss, even though the second-year wing shot 14-for-47 (30 percent), including 4-for-24 (17 percent) from 3-point range, in the series. The decision to keep playing Ross when he was struggling could have been a smart investment for the future, and it also could have cost Toronto a trip to the conference semifinals. So the pressure is on Ross now to learn from that experience, play more consistently, and take some of the offensive weight off Lowry and DeRozan.

Raptors Season Preview: Who Will Step Up

Grant Hill and Mike Fratello examine Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, and detail what improvements they will need to make for Toronto to be successful.

STARTING FIVE

20141015_season_preview_tor_roster_00001120

Kyle Lowry | 17.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 7.4 apg
Break-out season rewarded with a four-year, $48 million contract.

DeMar DeRozan | 22.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 4.0 apg
Improved as a passer. Still needs to improve as a 3-point shooter.

Terrence Ross | 10.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.0 apg
Scored 51 points in a game. Could be the key to a better transition game.

Amir Johnson | 10.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.5 apg
Glue guy on both ends of the floor. Dealt with ankle issues in the playoffs.

Jonas Valanciunas | 11.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 0.7 apg
22 years old with plenty of room to grow, especially defensively.

KEY RESERVES

Patrick Patterson | 8.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.2 apg
Effective floor-spacing option at power forward.

Greivis Vasquez | 9.6 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 4.1 apg
Improved 3-point shooter. Can play alongside Lowry.

Louis Williams | 10.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 3.5 apg
Now 20 months removed from ACL surgery.