TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors ended a 2014-15 season that held so much promise in perhaps the worst possible way.
Then they headed into the off-season vowing to do better.
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A year after taking Brooklyn to seven games in the playoffs, the Raptors had hoped to do one better and win just their second playoff series in franchise history. Instead the Raptors were swept in embarrassing fashion by the Washington Wizards in the first round last spring, a bleak and bitter end to a season that saw them set a franchise record with 49 wins and claim their second consecutive Atlantic Division title.
The Raptors had dropped to a woeful 25th in the league in defence, so GM Masai Ujiri went to work, retooling his roster with an eye on that end of the floor. He signed Atlanta forward DeMarre Carroll, considered one of the top players available at his position. He acquired Toronto’s own Cory Joseph to run the second unit in place of Greivis Vasquez, and signed rim-protecting big man Bismack Biyombo.
Carroll, who signed a US$58-million contract with Toronto, averaged 12.6 points and 5.3 rebounds in 70 games with Atlanta last season, helping the Hawks to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. He’s both a solid defender and outside shooting threat.
“I think the biggest thing I’m going to have to bring is that grit and grind,” Carroll said. “You know, that grit when it gets kinda hard you’ve got to keep grinding.”
Last season saw point guard Kyle Lowry get off to a red-hot start, earning his first all-star honours. But he disappeared down the stretch, when the Raptors needed him most.
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The 29-year-old transformed his body over a summer of eating smart and running hills in Las Vegas, and turned heads when he showed up at Raptors’ media day. For Lowry, the disappointment went beyond just the abrupt ending to the post-season, and he replayed the season often in his head.
“You’re going to think about it. It happened. For me it wasn’t just the way it ended, it was (his drop in performance) since February. . . I’ve been thinking about it a long time,” Lowry said. “But it’s a new day, a new year. Now we’ve got to do something with it.”
Lowry, who’s been the Raptors’ top performer through the pre-season, was on the receiving end of some scathing criticism down the stretch last spring. Asked his reaction, the guard said: “It’s true, I know how bad I played. I want them to say those things because they’re going to change their minds early in the year.”
Ujiri had talked about adding a Canadian to the squad, but only if the player was the perfect fit. He found that in Joseph, who was brought in to be a solid two-way backup to Lowry, and was impressive in the pre-season.
“He’s been great,” coach Dwane Casey said.
The 24-year-old takes pride in his defence.
“Most definitely that’s where I’m most comfortable at. Defence I feel is my game, so I feel like I’m pretty good on that end,” Joseph said. “I’m just trying to come here and contribute as much as I can. I’m just trying to hop on that wagon, and keep building what they have.”
Ujiri also signed the beleaguered Canadian Anthony Bennett, who hopes to reboot his basketball career in Toronto after two seasons of injury struggles in Cleveland and Minnesota.
Biyombo, meanwhile, gives the Raptors a strong presence around the rim, and impressed staff with his raw athleticism in the pre-season. Biyombo, who’s been one of the most vocal Raptors since his move to Toronto, averaged 6.4 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in just 19.4 minutes a night with Charlotte last season.
The Raptors open the regular season on Wednesday at the Air Canada Centre against the Indiana Pacers, and Canada’s lone franchise will be in the spotlight more than usual this year.
Toronto hosts February’s NBA all-star game, marking the first time the basketball showcase has been played outside the United States.
The team also has a new look – a new logo and new uniforms, including a black-and-gold alternate inspired by Toronto rapper Drake, the Raptors’ global ambassador.