ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Toronto Raptors

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Last season: The Raptors had one of the most satisfying regular seasons in the league. Their 48-34 record was a franchise best, and fans really embraced the team after it traded Rudy Gay. The deal with the Kings cleared the way for the Raptors to elevate young and likable players, assembling a starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas.

DeRozan became an All-Star. Lowry was even better. Valanciunas grew into a larger role, and Ross is following right behind him. Johnson was the glue that held everything together.

It really worked.

But Toronto ran into the experienced Nets in the first round of the playoffs, and Brooklyn upset the third-seeded Raptors in seven games.

Signature highlight from last season: The Raptors established an identity after the Gay trade – feisty and confident. Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri showcased that when he addressed fans before Game 1 against the Nets, shouting “F— Brooklyn:”

If you want something on the court, Lowry made an awesome buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the Raptors’ Game 5 win over the Nets. That series really was something.

Key player changes:

Keys to the Raptors season:

Kyle Lowry (and everyone) staying hungry: Lowry got into better shape last season. He stopped frequently fighting with coaches, and he became a better teammate. That led to the best season of his career.

Oh, by the way, he was in a contract year.

Has Lowry really turned a corner, or did the prospect of a big paycheck just temporarily convince Lowry to change his act?

The answer to that question will determine the Raptors’ fate, not only this season but in coming years. They gave Lowry a four-year, $48 million contract this offseason.

Based on last year’s team success, they also generously re-signed Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez for north of $6 million per season each.

Will everyone remain as motivated as they were last year? Lowry will set the tone.

The value of continuity: On the flip side of the motivational question, the Raptors return their six most-used players from a season ago – DeRozan, Lowry, Valanciunas, Johnson, Ross and Vasquez. They can really settle into Dwane Casey’s system.

Really, the Raptors were two different teams last season – the one before the Gay trade and the one after. That second team had a limited amount of time to grow together, making up for it with a noticeable excitement for playing together. A little more seasoning could really pay dividends, especially in the postseason.

An improved bench: Lou Williams adds scoring punch, and James Johnson brings quality defense with some all-around offensive skills. Plus, Patterson returns to stretch the floor, and Vasquez is back to play behind and with Lowry.

Toronto’s bench is deeper and more complete, giving Casey potential to find some intriguing lineups and rest his starters.

Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross continuing to develop: Valanciunas looked like a future All-Star, and Ross had a 51-point game. Toronto couldn’t have asked for much more from those players in their second years.

But as Valanciunas and Ross step into their third seasons, expectations get higher. Both players must show the skills they flashed last season in more consistent doses.

Lowry and DeRozan are closer to their peaks, so the for the Raptors to reach the next level, the onus is on Valanciunas and Ross.

Why you should watch: If the Raptors merely copy what they do last season, they’re a lot of fun. They play physically and energetically, really forcing opponents to play their best. This is a team on the rise.

Prediction: 48-34, No. 3 seed in the East and a playoff-series victory. Matching their record and seed from last season might seem like a failure for the Raptors, but the East is deeper. A repeat would be a success – as long as the playoff outcome changes. Toronto is more experienced and more talented this season, and I think that gets them over the hump. The Raptors might not be in the same class as the Cavaliers and Bulls, but they’re my pick – over the Wizards, Bobcats, Heat, Nets, Hawks and whomever else – to rise to the top of that crowded next tier.