TORONTO (AP) — No bold predictions, no promises of reaching the playoffs. There is instead a quiet sense of optimism around the Toronto Raptors heading into the season.
A year after general manager Bryan Colangelo preached patience with a young, building team that was all about gaining experience, the Raptors made several key moves in the offseason in hopes of significantly improving the team.
Colangelo added three potential starters to the roster in point guard Kyle Lowry, Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas and athletic swingman Landry Fields, while losing Jerryd Bayless and James Johnson.
"There's that feeling there could be something special about this group, but time will tell," Colangelo said.
The Raptors, who open the season at home Wednesday against Indiana, finished 23-43 last year in a lockout-shortened season with low expectations. Few expect them to improve all that much this year — something second-year coach Dwane Casey said may work in his young squad's favor.
"With that lack of respect, that should get us motivated to come into this gym each and every day to bust our tails." Casey said. "That right there tells us how much lack of respect the league has for us, and how much we have to continue to work to perform every day we walk on the court."
Casey is a big reason for Toronto's optimism. The former Dallas Mavericks assistant took a team that was at the bottom of the league in defense to finish in the top half last season.
They remained in the bottom third in offensive stats, however — something Casey focused on with a benefit of a full training camp this season.
"The numbers are staggering what happened last year (defensively)," Colangelo said. "But with respect to the pace, the offense, offensive efficiency, offensive production, we talked a lot this offseason about how we're going to improve that."
There hasn't been a clear face of the franchise since Chris Bosh patrolled the floor, and Vince Carter before him, and this season is no different.
The team will look to center Andrea Bargnani to provide a good chunk of its scoring. Bargnani was having a breakout season last year — and showed an uncharacteristic enthusiasm for defense — before a calf injury cost the team's leading scorer 35 games. The Raptors' season unraveled right along with him.
Bargnani and Valanciunas could make a formidable front court. The Raptors selected Valanciunas with their No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft, leaving him in Lithuania for a year of development. The 20-year-old, touted as the future of the franchise, definitely gives Raptors fans something to be excited about — rare athleticism for a big man coupled with a puppy-dog enthusiasm for the game.
Acquired from the Houston Rockets after a failed bid to land Canadian star Steve Nash, Lowry is expected to add heart and hustle to a Toronto team that hasn't enough of either in recent seasons. The 26-year-old, a vocal leader who will push his teammates, is expected to start ahead of veteran Jose Calderon, who will lead the second unit as one of the better backup point guards in the league.
Fields has been touted as Toronto's so-called "glue guy." Out of Toronto's returning players, athletic swingman DeMar DeRozan, has polished his post-up game and along with Bargnani, will be a focal point of Toronto's offense. The 23-year-old remains among the weaker starters on the defensive end.
"DeMar's one of the most talented wings in the league and he's learning every day to be efficient," Casey said. "He understands that, he's getting to the foul line, doing what we ask him to do, going in the low post."
Toronto's three new starters have bumped players to the bench, which gives the Raptors' more depth than they've seen in a while. Calderon, Alan Anderson, Linas Kleiza, Amir Johnson and Ed Davis averaged 24 starts last year.
They're joined by hard-working guard John Lucas III, athletic rookie Terrence Ross and Dominic McGuire, a strong defensive player who was given the Raptors' final spot on their 15-man roster.