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2014-15 Toronto Raptors Preview

(SportsNetwork.com) - As the Toronto Raptors celebrate their 20-year anniversary, they will do so as reigning Atlantic Division champions for only the second time.

The Raptors prevailed in the division last season thanks to an All-Star effort from DeMar DeRozan and a near All-Star performance from point guard Kyle Lowry.

The biggest offseason priority for general manager Masai Ujiri was re-signing Lowry. The sometimes challenging point guard agreed to a four-year, $48 million contract and the team would basically stay intact.

"I'm happy to be back," Lowry said. "Knowing from the jump, it's a lot of pressure on me, which is what you expect, what you want, which I want."

Lowry was clearly the focal point of the offseason plan, but the Raptors secured some other veterans who helped this team win the Atlantic for the first time since the 2006-07 season.

Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson, both acquired during the 2013-14 season in the Rudy Gay trade, were retained. They both had big roles on this Toronto team with Vasquez playing big minutes in fourth quarters.

The only substantial outside addition the Raptors made this summer was trading for bench stud, Lou Williams. He is a proven commodity as a bench scorer, but also a big-time performer late in games. (Toronto also received big-man project Lucas Nogueira in the deal with the Atlanta Hawks.)

When it came to this summer, Lowry wasn't the only big story for the Raptors.

DeRozan represented Team USA in the FIBA World Cup and won a gold medal. He didn't get a ton of playing time for Team USA, but that experience should help DeRozan become a better leader, a role he grew into following the Gay trade.

"It helped me understand how to be a better player," DeRozan said of his experience in Spain. "It helped me understand how to make my teammates better."

Jonas Valanciunas also competed in the FIBA World Cup for Lithuania. The team didn't perform up to expectations, but this is a big season for the center. He will be expected to continue his growth and will be counted on for more scoring on the interior.

Perhaps the biggest question facing the Raptors is, can this group excel under the pressure of expectations? Toronto is the prohibitive favorite to repeat in the Atlantic Division and perhaps reach as high as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

With those lofty goals and expectations, the Raptors will need to succeed in the postseason. Toronto lost a heartbreaking Game 7 in its own building to the Brooklyn Nets in last season's first round.

The Raptors, in front of a rabid crowd at the Air Canada Centre, nearly overcame an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit. They cut a seven-point hole to one in the last two minutes, then Lowry had his six-footer for the win blocked by Paul Pierce.

"I think about it all the time because we're going to need that to feed off, that feeling of how bad it hurt," admitted DeRozan. "We've got to carry that in ... have that hunger and that edge to do the same thing all over again this year."

And the Raptors should be just fine. They have almost the same exact roster that won the division crown a year ago, they have an All-Star backcourt, an emerging young big man, solid depth and good coaching.

It helps that the Atlantic Division is down. The Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics are both re-tooling. The Nets lost Pierce and head coach Jason Kidd. The New York Knicks are sort of rebuilding, but still have Carmelo Anthony.

The division should be theirs ... if this relatively young group can handle it.

2013-14 Results: 48-34, 1st in Atlantic; Lost in East quarterfinals to Brooklyn

ADDITIONS: G Lou Williams, C Chuck Hayes, C Lucas Nogueira, F James Johnson, F Bruno Caboclo

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:

PG- Kyle Lowry SG- DeMar DeRozan SF- Terrence Ross PF- Amir Johnson C - Jonas Valanciunas

KEY RESERVES: G Greivis Vasquez, G Lou Williams, F Tyler Hansbrough, F Patrick Patterson, C Chuck Hayes, F/G Landry Fields, F James Johnson

FRONTCOURT: Valanciunas made strides in his second season with improved averages of 11.3 ppg and 8.8 rpg. His field-goal percentage dipped a bit, but was still a respectable 53 percent. He's a good free-throw shooter, but the Raps are looking for even more from Valanciunas.

Valanciunas spent part of the summer training at the University of Oregon under head strength and conditioning coach, Jeff Radcliffe. The aim was to get Valanciunas to run more efficiently. He'll never be a speed demon, but improving his athleticism in any way will be effective.

Valanciunas gained good experience playing for Lithuania. They underachieved, but the center was effective, scoring 15 points against the Americans. He could be a good candidate for the Most Improved Player Award if his upward career swing continues.

Johnson enjoyed yet another good season in Toronto. He became entrenched as the starting power forward, hearing his name introduced with the others 72 times pregame. He averaged 10.4 ppg and 6.6 rpg, which was down from the previous season. Johnson is a solid leader and interior presence. He has never shot lower than 54 percent from the field in his career. Teams need players like Johnson to win.

Ross also emerged last season after a significant boost in playing time. He started 62 games and averaged almost 27 minutes per game. Ross, who is a freak athlete, averaged 10.9 ppg without doing much else. Ross shot almost 40 percent from beyond the arc, but dinged up his knee in the preseason. He should be fine.

BACKCOURT: At the start of training camp, Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards stated that he and John Wall were the best backcourt in the entire NBA.

The Raptors may disagree.

DeRozan and Lowry were the highest-scoring backcourt combination in the Eastern Conference last season with an average of 40.6 ppg.

DeRozan made the All-Star team for the first time with averages of 22.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 4.0 apg, which were all career highs. He finished fourth in the NBA in minutes per game and attempted the fourth-most free throws in the league.

DeRozan really seems to embrace his new role with both the Raptors and in the league. Head coach Dwane Casey noted how DeRozan expanded his leadership role once Gay was sent to Sacramento and DeRozan himself noted how he appreciated bench players in a new light after being one for Team USA.

Another interesting aspect of DeRozan's desire to lead and improve is that he trained himself better with his left hand in the offseason. He noted he ate left-handed and even wrote with his left hand. DeRozan is doing everything humanly possible to make himself, and thus, the Toronto Raptors, better.

Lowry probably should have made the Eastern Conference All-Star team last season in place of Joe Johnson. Lowry's impact on the Raptors was gigantic considering his first full season north of the border netted the team a division crown.

Lowry played in, and started, 79 games for Toronto last season. He averaged 17.9 ppg, 7.4 apg, 1.5 spg and shot 38 percent from the 3-point arc. Those are very big numbers and Lowry's defense even improved.

The knock on Lowry throughout his career was immaturity, not a lack of talent. That flaw seemed to disappear last season as he felt comfortable with Casey and the Raptors.

Lowry was a coveted free agent with rumors that the Miami Heat would be interested, especially to play with LeBron James. Lowry was basically the first big-name free agent to sign, so it speaks volumes about his commitment to this team.

BENCH: Williams is still a great bench scorer. His scoring average dipped to 10.4 ppg for the Hawks last season, but he was coming off major knee surgery the year before. Williams is not afraid of the moment, so he will probably get some quality fourth-quarter minutes.

Vasquez stayed in Toronto and he was vital to the success last season. He can knock down open threes to the tune of 39 percent and rarely turns the ball over. He might not see as much crunch-time action as last season with Williams in town, but he's still valuable.

Patterson also elected to stay with the Raptors as a free agent. His numbers improved once he came to the Raps from the Kings, except for rebounding. Patterson has range. He's a nice guy to have on the bench.

Hansbrough is what he always was - a high-motor banger with the second unit who will get under the skin of the opposition. He's another guy a team likes having around.

Hayes came from Sacramento and is a serviceable big man.

Fields came with a lot of fanfare from the New York Knicks, but has been bad in Toronto. He's battled injuries, which aren't his fault, but the production hasn't been there. Fields can play both wing positions, however, he can't shoot from the perimeter. He might not get a ton of minutes behind DeRozan.

The most intriguing name in the lot might be Johnson. He's been a decent scorer in this league and Casey envisions him playing both forward spots, including the newly important "stretch four."

"He's going to be a tremendous asset to us," Casey said of Johnson.

Nogueira and Caboclo are both long-term projects.

COACHING: Casey was on something of a hot seat last season, and now, he's the coach of a division winner. He's experienced and this group responds to him.

He's preached defense in Toronto and he's got a loaded roster to play with now. Casey was even doing a great coaching job after getting eliminated from the playoffs in the summer. Casey looks like a man who knows this team is good, but won't ever let them think that way.

OUTLOOK: The Raptors are the best in the Atlantic Division. They should host a playoff series again, but this time, there's a bigger division between them and their probable first-round opponent.

Lowry should be alright, despite his long-term contract. DeRozan looks like an example every young player should study in his approach and constant need for improvement.

Valanciunas should get better. He's a huge part of this team and they'll need his scoring.

The Raptors should make the second round and could be a viable candidate for an upset in the semifinals. Toronto isn't a championship contender, but will be a tough out.