No matter how the story of this Toronto Raptors season is written -- as a lower-half Eastern Conference playoff team or a rebuilding squad in the mix of the highest-touted NBA Draft lottery since 2003 -- one thing seems certain: They will have new uniforms a year from now.
Whether that franchise rebrand, set to coincide with their 20th season, extends to the bulk of the players on the floor probably depends on what happens between now and the end of January.
Hang between sixth and eighth place in the East, and it could, for the most part, be status quo. Start 4-19 like last year, and new general manager Masai Ujiri
asks big questions -- as the "Tank for Andrew Wiggins
" crowd starts to prematurely lick their chops.
And seeing as that is the 9,000-pound elephant in the room, let's get that out the way first.
It is a truly legitimate question whether it's in the Raptors' best interest to throw this season away.
"Unprecedented" is not a strong enough word to describe the fact that a Canadian kid who grew up 40 kilometres from the Air Canada Centre is considered the best basketball player in the world not currently in the NBA, topping a draft being described by basketball lifers as "epic" and "one of the best in history."
Yet because Ujiri hasn't gone nuclear on the Raptors' roster (yet) the way two teams in their own division -- the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers -- have, they're already behind the 8-ball in the Wiggins sweepstakes.
But is that the end of the world?
Wiggins -- who it should be clarified has a ways to go developmentally at Kansas this year -- is already on record saying he'd like to play for his hometown Raps (summer 2018 anyone?).
Beyond the Vaughan, Ont., native in next June's talent pool sit names like Kentucky power forward Julius Randle, Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart, Duke forward Jabari Parker and possibly Australian combo guard Dante Exum.
However, I digress. That's all a mélange of best-case/worst-case stuff. Timing has never been the Raptors' thing. For that matter, it's never been Toronto's thing, as the history of the city's built and un-built subways documents.
With that in mind, here are the keys to this season with what the Raps have right now:
But how will Valanciunas continue to develop to the level many expect to see him attain, that of an all-star centre? It's only a matter of time before he becomes a fantasy favourite -- towards the end of last season, he was one of the most efficient scorers in the league. He will ultimately rebound with anyone.
The question, as always, is how quickly can he become that defensive anchor. He's still learning the intricacies of the NBA, and as a result can be prone to dumb fouls as well as silly turnovers. He's also going to get shafted by refs sometimes, but that's all part of the learning curve.
His physical gifts will overcome that, and it is no surprise that league GM's voted him the international player most likely to have a breakout season.
Dwane Casey, Kyle Lowry and the bench
Despite Ujiri's vote of confidence for the head coach, some still view Casey as a lame duck. That of course depends on what the team does in the short term.
After turning around Toronto's perennially suspect defence in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Casey watched the Raptors drop to 21st from 11th in NBA defensive efficiency last year.
Behind that number were some positive spins -- as a unit, the still-intact starting lineup of Valanciunas, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Amir Johnson actually compiled an outstanding defensive rating -- allowing 92.5 points per 100 possessions.
In reconstructing the bench this season, the addition of an agitator like Tyler Hansbrough
can help that cause. Steve Novak -- who does nothing except shoot threes, and whose minutes will still be needed because nobody else on this roster really does with any true efficiency -- cannot.
"I thought they met the challenge defensively," Casey said of the team as a whole after Wednesday's 108-72 pummelling of the Memphis Grizzlies
, a rather impressive showing that should still be taken with a grain of pre-season salt. "We have to build on it, but that has to be our personality night in and night out."
That Memphis game was particularly noteworthy because Lowry left in the third quarter after injuring a tendon in his left ring finger. He'll play, but will be wearing a splint for six weeks
. The point guard has many questions to answer this season. Yet forget them or any lingering concerns regarding his relationship with Casey: That's rendered moot because behind Lowry is currently a generous helping of not much. And here is where the season could turn.
Lowry came into camp in much better shape than last season, and is the pivotal player on the Raps' roster. He is also in a contract year, so big things should be expected.
However, if he goes down (he missed 14 games last season), as it stands now Toronto will be relying on off-season addition D.J. Augustin
at the point -- who hasn't inspired any confidence since he played for the Charlotte Bobcats -- and Julyan Stone.
Where Terrence Ross and Landry Fields will fit in to the rotation are other issues. Both have had flashes of brilliance and incompetence in the pre-season, and especially with Ross it's about earning Casey's respect with consistency. The bench is thin as it is. If these two want to step up when it counts, I'm quite sure Casey wouldn't object.
DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay
DeRozan for the most part has looked excellent in the pre-season. While you can criticize him in some areas, his work ethic is sound and he's come into camp better in some way each season he's been in the NBA. Last year he arrived with an improved mid-range jumper.
Now he's stronger and is exhibiting great post play and improved footwork.
The four-year, $38 million US contract extension
that former general manager Bryan Colangelo gave him last year was strongly ridiculed at the time, but if his development continues, the bad taste begins to subside. This could be evidenced by a report from Fox Sports Wednesday that several league GMs have interest in the swingman.
"It's as high as it has ever been, by far," DeRozan said of his confidence after the Grizzlies game. "I feel like nobody can guard me ... I know I can score when I want to, can create and get to the free-throw line."
Casey has also been impressed with his defence, which along with an effective three-point shot, has always been DeRozan's weak link.
"DeMar's grown as a player," Casey said Wednesday.
How DeRozan co-exists with friend and fellow wing Gay is the topic of much debate. As Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney succinctly put it this week, it's a pairing "marked by redundant strengths and compound limitations."
DeRozan hears none of it, and sees the upside from the standpoint of Gay making him a better player.
"When Rudy got here last year, I was seeing a lot of [small forwards defending me]," he said. "Metta World Peace, Luol Deng, it could be anybody ... it gave me an advantage [in development]."
Gay meanwhile has shot well in the pre-season, albeit on lower-volume shooting. The promising news is the onetime UConn Husky comes back to Toronto somewhat physically rebuilt, undergoing laser eye surgery in the off-season and bulking up in the weight room.
The eyesight/sub-41% shooting season joke is too easy, but the muscle addition plays into DeRozan's improvements as well. Both are going to get more looks in the post.
- Best (or is it worst?) guess: 43-39, 7th in the East, first-round playoff exit
- Worst (or is it best?) guess: The 2014 NBA Draft Lottery
If the Raptors do falter and Ujiri blows it up, where does he start?
All of the players mentioned above, with the exception of Valanciunas, could be moved. Gay and Lowry's contract situations are palatable for suitors, and the market value of power forward Amir Johnson -- the team's true MVP last season -- has never been higher.
Biggest off-season addition
With all due respect to "global ambassador" Drake
or any truculence Hansbrough may bring, it is reigning NBA executive of the year Ujiri by a mile.
Biggest off-season loss
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With all due respect to Andrea Bargnani, it's the man who plays the team's beloved and creatively-named mascot, The Raptor, who tore his Achilles tendon
and will miss the season.