5 Reasons To Watch The 2013-14 Toronto Raptors

With the start of the 2013-14 NBA season rapidly approaching, we thought it only fair to share what makes each team so exciting. Ontologically speaking, all 30 teams deserve our eyeballs this season. Even disastrous lineups still present oodles of plays, personalities, highlights and headaches. Here are five things to keep in mind for each team before flipping the channel.

Next up, a Toronto Raptors team with a new GM and a starting five that’s a lot more talented than people realize.

[5 Reasons To Watch: Kings, Lakers, Knicks, 76ers, Bobcats, Cavs, Magic, Warriors, Timberwolves, Nuggets, Clippers, Clippers, Rockets, Bulls, Pistons, Bucks, Nets, Pacers, Wizards, Thunder, Heat, Mavericks, Celtics, Raptors Hawks, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Suns, Jazz]

“Started from the bottom now we here…” This is a new Raptors team. Okay, maybe the roster is essentially the same as last year (they swapped a terrible defensive player who never met a 3-pointer he wouldn’t launch in Andrea Bargnani for another three-point shooting big man who doesn’t play defense, in Steve Novak), and they didn’t pick up anyone in the draft. But just like new Raptors global ambassador Drake rap/sings, the Raptors started in the NBA cellar and are slowly climbing out.

This year’s team has a new GM, an improved big man, and three of the most athletic wing players in the NBA. So there is reason to be hopeful in Canada! Questions looming this season: Will they put it together enough to eek out a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, or will the new regime look to rebrand and remake this team and start a fire sale on incumbents like Rudy Gay (owner of a big, possibly expiring contract) and DeMar DeRozan (young, athletic wing with boatloads of potential)? We’ll find out as the season progresses, but either way the Raptors should put together an exciting style of basketball for fans this year.

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The Ujiri Regime Begins
Masai Ujiri, the former Executive of the Year for the Denver Nuggets, signed a lucrative deal this offseason to become the new general manager of the Raptors. In Denver he quickly put together a flexible roster full of a great combination of young players with potential, and veterans playing for new contracts. The key point: he always maintained cap flexibility (something the Raptors’ prior regime under Bryan Colangelo was incapable of doing). He wasted no time in Toronto, getting rid of the terrible Bargnani deal at the start of the offseason (all the while somehow managing to receive a first rounder and two second round picks from the Knicks). If things start out slow, expect Ujiri to blow it up and officially start the rebuilding process in Toronto. With Ujiri on board, Toronto officially has a staff dedicated to winning, and the teams’ future got a whole lot brighter with his addition.

Jonas Valanciunas Develops Down Low
The No. 5 pick in the 2011 Draft made his American debut last season, and went through the typical growing pains. Jonas Valanciunas slowly adjusted to the physicality and speed of the American style and finished the year as an NBA All-Rookie Second team selection with averages of 8.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in just under 24 MPG.

Valanciunas looked notably bigger this offseason, so much so that the Lithuanian National Team coach said he has actually gained TOO much weight (According to forward Amir Johnson, all Jonas eats is bison meat…so there’s that to love). If his being named the Summer League MVP this offseason is any indication, Jonas is primed for a breakout season with a year under his belt. He is a bruiser down low, in the mold of fellow European Nikola Pekovic, and this year he’ll look to emulate the rugged style Pekovic plays for the ‘Wolves. Valanciunas’ development is crucial if the Raptors plan to make the playoffs this season, but even if they fail to crack the top 8 in the East, he’s very much a part of Ujiri’s future plans; he just needs to continue to get better.

Click page 2 for more reasons to watch…

Will Kyle Lowry Ever Become Elite?
In the summer of 2012, the Raptors traded Gary Forbes and a first round pick to the Houston Rockets for Kyle Lowry, thinking they had found their point guard of the future. After averaging 14.3 PPG, 6.6 APG, 4.5 RBG, and 1.4 SPG in 47 outings during his last season in Houston, Lowry looked ready to join the elite group of point guards. But that never happened in Toronto, where Lowry’s numbers dipped (11.6 PPG, 6.4 APG, 4.7 RBG) as injuries plagued him throughout the year and Jose Calderon kept control of the starting role until his departure this summer. Lowry also butt heads with Head Coach Dwane Casey, though their relationship is on better terms (for now).

A free agent at the end of the year, Lowry is facing a make-or-break season. He’s a quick guard who can get into the paint with ease, and is now the owner of an improved jumper, meaning opposing guards can no longer player him exclusively for the drive. He’s also a tough defender who uses his strength and tenacity to bully opposing point guards. Lowry’s play is another key to the Raptors’ success this season. If he can put together a year similar to his last one in Houston, the Raptors will push for a low playoff position and Lowry will be in the market for a pay raise. If he struggles, the Raptors front office may look to flip him or sign him for a lot less money.

DeMar DeRozan & Terrence Ross are More Athletic Than You
The Raptors offense will feature heavy doses of 2K-inspired dunks, and alley-oops courtesy of DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. Both players have crucial roles for the Raptors going forward, and their continued improvement could be the difference between a complete rebuild or a playoff run in Toronto.

Double D is entering his fifth season after boasting a career high in points and assists per game (18.1 and 2.5) last season while shooting a better percentage from the field, though still not where he needs to be – especially from long-range with shooting splits of 45/28/83. Maybe those numbers don’t scream accuracy at you, but they do show the steady improvement from DeRozan, who’s attacked the basket more this preseason (upping his paltry field goal number to 54.3 percent). Derozan says his confidence is sky high right now:

“I just feel like nobody can guard me. On the offensive end, I know I can score when I want to. I know I can break down a defender whenever I want to and get to the free-throw line whenever I want to. That’s just due to my work ethic and the work I put in every day.”

Ross, last season’s Slam Dunk Champ, is entering his second season for the Raptors. While he’s still finding his game, one thing nobody doubts is his athleticism. Ross is capable of breaking out the highlight reel-level dunk any time he steps on the court. With a full season under his belt, Ross should now feel more comfortable on the court as well as the air and could be due for a breakout season as the Raptors first man off the bench.

Tumultuous Times For Rudy Gay
Rudy Gay can opt out of his contract and become a free agent at the end of the season. The question is, would you turn down a $19.3 million for one year of play? Gay will likely forgo said option in the hopes of locking down a lucrative long-term deal, and so he’s at pivotal moment in his career. Sure the numbers say he’s been a near All-Star level: 18.0 PPG, 5.8 RBG for his career. But so far his career has felt a tad bit disappointing.

That tends to be the case when you’re a superb athletic wing who can score from anywhere on the floor. Everyone is down on Gay right now, but he actually performed well, statistically, while in Toronto, upping his averages to 19.5 PPG and 6.4 RBG after his trade from Memphis last season. He also showed the ability to play a little time as a small-ball four, which makes him even more valuable when teams choose to run. Sure his shooting percentages were low last year (41.6 and 32.3 from 3) but according to him, he couldn’t see! After having offseason eye surgery, Gay should be able to see the hoop clearly this season. Whether or not you believe he dealt with eye problems or simply had an off year, Gay is auditioning for a new contract this season and has every reason to play well.

But what will Toronto do? If Gay is performing above expectations, will Ujiri look to flip him for a pick/young player, or is he a part of their long-term plans? Either way, Gay’s explosive finishes at the rim should be a staple of the Raptors offense this season.

What do you think?

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