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Toronto Raptors 2014-15 Preview: Great expectations

The Raptors are coming off of the highest win total in franchise history. With Kyle Lowry and head coach Dwane Casey locked into new long-term deals, can the Raptors make some more noise in the playoffs in 2015?

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Raptors 2014-15 Preview: Prepare for High Expectations - Raptors HQ

Where does the team go from here? It sounds greedy to ask for more, and foolhardy to jump too far ahead, but it's hard not to think on where the Raptors can go next. On the one hand, much of the team's young nucleus is signed to reasonable contracts for the next few years. On the other hand, how much farther can this Lowry/DeRozan-led team go? Still, the Raptors (and their fans) are past the "just happy to be here" stage.

2013-14 IN REVIEW
48-34
1st in Atlantic Division - 3rd in Eastern Conference
Lost to Brooklyn (4-3) in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

The Toronto Raptors were one of the most improved teams in the league last season and after five years out of the playoffs, the 2013-14 season gave birth to a new energy in the Air Canada Centre.

Dwane Casey entered his third year as head coach of the Raptors last season, and his squad continued its steady annual improvement. The most captivating aspect of the team was without a doubt the backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who both had career years and have established themselves as some of the best players at their respective positions.

DeMar DeRozan accepted the responsibility as the team's go-to option and played outstanding basketball all year long. The fifth-year veteran had his best season to date, averaging 22.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game on his way to his first All-Star selection of his young career. DeRozan improved his handle and mid-range game, and really made it a point to play more aggressive basketball. He even finished sixth in the NBA in free throw attempts as he got to the line for eight free throws per contest.

Kyle Lowry didn't join DeRozan on the All-Star squad, but a lot of people made the case that he was the biggest Eastern Conference snub. In his most consistent year as a pro, Lowry posted career highs in scoring (17.9 PPG), assists (7.4 APG) and rebounding (4.7 RPG) while he really became a much more confident outside shooter. Lowry attempted and made more triples than ever, shooting a steady 38% for the season. Don't be surprised to see Lowry on an All-Star squad in the future; he is right on the cusp.

Highflying youngster Terrence Ross played well in an increased role, as well, scoring a career high 10.9 points per game and shooting 40% from long distance. In January, Ross came out of nowhere to drop a heavy 51 points in a loss to the Clippers, which tied Vince Carter's franchise record for points in a single game. Ross is an excellent player, don't get me wrong, but 51? That reminds you of when a guy like Tony Delk dropped 50.

However, the Raptors didn't exactly get off to the most perfect start. After winning just seven of their first 19 games, new general manager Masai Ujiri decided to shake things up with a December trade that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento in a deal with Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray in return for Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, Chuck Hayes and John Salmons.

Following the trade, which worked out well for both sides, the Raptors played a much more cohesive brand of basketball and surprisingly went 41-22 the rest of the way. Especially after that start and trading a player as productive as Rudy Gay, not many people thought Toronto would end up in the playoffs, but they stunned everyone to become one of the top teams in the east.

The Raptors finished with the best regular season record in franchise history at 48-34, earning them the third seed in the Eastern Conference and their first trip to the playoffs since 2008. In the first round, they met up with the reloaded Brooklyn Nets, who started off slow but rallied to finish the season on a 34-17 run.

Toronto had home court advantage to start the series, but Brooklyn took care of business on the road in Game 1 to make things interesting. DeMar DeRozan came back to drop 30 points in Game 2 to help Toronto split the series before it shifted to Brooklyn, but the Raptors had extra pressure to win on the road to avoid a 3-1 series deficit. After Brooklyn took the series lead in Game 3, Toronto won the next two games in a row to jump out to a 3-2 lead. Kyle Lowry was especially impressive in Game 5, where he scored 36 points to help Toronto survive a 44-point fourth quarter from Brooklyn.

The series ended up going seven games and came down to the wire, as the final possession of Game 7 would decide the series. The Raptors were down by one with six seconds left in the game but Paul Pierce made a series-saving block on Kyle Lowry in the closing seconds, sending them home early.

The only time the Raptors have ever advanced beyond the first round was in 2001, but this scrappy young core has a chance to build something that can take them to new heights.

SUMMER OF 2014

Key Additions - Louis Williams, Jordan Hamilton, James Johnson, Lucas Nogueira
Key Losses - John Salmons, Steve Novak

With their cap space tied up, the Raptors didn't have a whole lot of flexibility to make many moves this summer, but they didn't regress either.

The biggest news of the summer came in July when Toronto signed Kyle Lowry to a four-year, $48 million extension to lock up their electric backcourt of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Lowry is coming off of his best year in the NBA and is climbing up the list as one of the top guards in the Eastern Conference.

As soon as last season ended, the Raptors signed head coach Dwane Casey to a three-year extension worth over $11 million. Through his first three years coaching in Toronto, Casey has accumulated a losing 105-125 record but is coming off a very successful season in which he was able to get a lot out of a roster with relatively average overall talent. Casey has drastically improved Toronto's defense as of late and he has gotten great individual progression out of multiple guys, pointing to strong teaching skills.

Toronto is in the process of solidifying a tough-minded culture, and Casey seems like he is the man for the job.

On draft night, the Raptors owned the 20th overall pick in the first round and went with Brazilian prospect Bruno Cabolco, who is a long-armed 6'9" athlete with intriguing long-term potential. At 19 years old, Cabolco will likely take some time to come into his own, but the pick may pay off down the road once he gets a chance to play extended minutes.

Shortly after the draft, Toronto traded the expiring contract of John Salmons to Atlanta in return for combo guard Louis Williams and seven-foot Brazilian prospect Lucas Nogueria, who was selected 16th overall in last year's draft. Williams will give Toronto a much-needed scoring punch off the bench, and you can expect him to play with something to prove as he works to get back to the level he played at prior to his 2013 ACL tear.

To fill out the rotation, the Raptors signed 6'7" swingman Jordan Hamilton to a one-year deal worth under $1 million, along with Grizzlies free agent combo forward James Johnson for two years at $5 million total. Hamilton will bring Toronto's second unit a physically built offensive option that can score out of the triple threat and knock down an open jumper, and he is hungry to find a home as this will be the fourth team he has played for in his first four years in the NBA.

James Johnson is a well put together 6'9" forward that can play the three or four spot and is coming off of a nice year as a Memphis Grizzlies reserve last season. When Johnson played at least 20 minutes throughout 28 games last season, he put up 10.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists per outing. Johnson is athletic and extremely active with a good basketball IQ, and he should have an opportunity to win some minutes in Toronto.

Finally, in a move that brought Toronto some depth up front, former Celtic Greg Stiemsma was signed to a one-year deal worth $981,000. Whether he gets a chance to play on a regular basis remains to be seen, but we all know that he is going to block some shots and bring some toughness when his number is called.

PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
C - Jonas Valanciunas / Tyler Hansbrough / Chuck Hayes / Greg Stiemsma
PF - Amir Johnson / Patrick Patterson
SF - Terrence Ross / Jordan Hamilton / James Johnson / Bruno Caboclo
SG - DeMar DeRozan / Louis Williams / Landry Fields
PG - Kyle Lowry / Greivis Vasquez

X-FACTOR - Jonas Valanciunas
Jonas Valanciunas is a quality young center that is coming off of a productive sophomore season, where he flirted with a double-double on a regular basis and showed signs of improvement on both ends of the floor. However, as the team's only viable low-post scoring option, it's time he starts getting more aggressive. Better yet, it's time he starts getting more opportunities to finish plays.

Valanciunas is unique in the sense that he is extremely efficient around the rim and is also a seven-footer that shoots between 75-80% from the free throw line. The more opportunities he gets to make something happen on the block, the more easy buckets the Raptors will get and he can put some pressure on the opposition by getting to the free throw line more often.

In April last season, Valanciunas was fed more often and he took more shots and free throws than any other period during the season. As a result, he averaged 16.8 points and 11 rebounds in the final month of the regular season an in the last two months combined, he shot right around 60% from the field. For some reason, they went away from that in the first round of the playoffs, where he shot over 63% for the series but only took seven shots per game.

In his third year, he needs to get more touches and bring a new dynamic to Toronto's offense. The Raptors love to attack, but Valanciunas is the team's best bet at establishing a better inside-out game in the halfcourt. Let the big fella eat!

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2014-15
The Raptors are the favorite to win the Atlantic Division and earn a seed in the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket. You can expect a lot of what we saw last year - a tough, hard-nosed young team that respects the fundamentals and gets after it every night.

Depending on health and who they draw as a postseason opponent, the Raptors might have a chance to make a little more noise and potentially advance to the second round.

PREDICTED STANDINGS
1st - Atlantic Division
4th - Eastern Conference

Keep your eyes peeled for the Sacramento Kings preview, coming later today.

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