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