Getting ready for NBA action

As the 2013/14 NBA season nears and fills fans with anticipation, off-season shakeups have created many new contenders and crumbled former dynasties to make for another interesting season of basketball. The season opener on October 29 will see LeBron James and defending NBA champions Miami Heat take on the Chicago Bulls, who will have returning MVP-calibre player Derrick Rose in the lineup for the first time since his injury in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.

Our Toronto Raptors will take to the Air Canada Centre for their home opener on October 30 against the Boston Celtics. Though an opener against the Celtics would usually look to be a sure loss, this game against a team that’s traded away the offensive forces of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry looks to be winnable for the Raptors. The Raptors are coming off a 2012/13 season in which they saw high chances of making the playoffs before falling into a slump with a morale-deflating losing streak and a number of injuries to key players on the roster, which led to the departure of Jose Calderon and Ed Davis and the acquisition of Rudy Gay, with a final season record of 34–48.

The off-season built up promise and hype for the Raptors, as the team was able to steal the reigning Executive of the Year, Masai Ujiri, from the Denver Nuggets. The Raptors also got rid of Andrea Bargnani, who, despite his talent to stretch the floor and drive to the post, eventually became dead weight on a team that was ready to move on. Unfortunately, the team moved on a bit too late and traded Bargnani to the New York Knicks for Steve Novak, Marcus Camby, and Quentin Richardson, as well as a first-round draft pick in 2016 and second-round draft picks in 2014 and 2017.

The notable new additions to the squad include Tyler Hansbrough, a gritty player who brings toughness to the team, Novak, a three-point specialist, and Dwight Buycks, a 24-year-old Italian league MVP.

In addition to the loss of one-time fan-favourite Bargnani, the Raptors also said goodbye to Linas Kleiza, John Lucas III, Mickael Pietrus, and the Raptors’ mascot, who is out for the year with an injury.

The team looks significantly better on paper than before, sporting a talented starting five for the season with Kyle Lowry at point guard, Demar DeRozan at shooting guard, Rudy Gay at small forward, Amir Johnson at power forward, and Jonas Valanciunas at centre.

“The team does look fairly intriguing compared to recent teams in the past; the roster has a lot of youth and upside that could equal a lot of wins this year,” says Paulo Sanchez, a second-year political science major. “Or, of course, the new roster could equal a lot of wins in the future after they’re done tanking the season and drafting Andrew Wiggins.”

This is essentially the risk of retooling a roster with new talent: you can look great in terms of upside, but before you know it, half the team has been traded by the all-star break and fans are booing teams off the court. Though everything may look fine at the moment, Lakers fans know how quickly the anticipation can turn into disappointment. The point is, no specific statistics, individual achievements, or upside can determine how a team will play—only the team can do that once they step onto the court. So let’s not jump out of our chairs just yet (though as a long-time Raptors fan, I’m personally shaking with excitement for the upcoming season). Some fans have much lower expectations for the team. “I don’t expect the Raptors to make any big noise this year; the team often puts together a decent roster and nothing goes their way,” says Timothy Lawrence, a third-year criminology major. “If halfway through the season they are in the run for the playoffs, I’ll get excited.”

The Eastern Conference is fairly locked up when it comes to the first through fifth seeds with the likes of the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, and Chicago Bulls, but the sixth through eighth are still up for grabs.

Don’t be surprised if there’s another big trade this season involving Gay or DeRozan. DeRozan is younger and will get a better return due to the contract differences. Gay is signed to a $17-million contract and has never really lived up to the hype: he’s a great clutch and defensive player, but doesn’t bring a consistent and efficient effort on the offensive end. The 2013/14 season will require Gay to become the Raptors’ leader and if he’s unable to bring the team to the playoffs, he will likely not be re-signed, so fans could see another rebuild in Toronto. Ujiri will have his work cut out for him if this team doesn’t have a successful year, but he’s more than capable of turning this ship around—more than any other general manager in the league. Of course, with Canadian superstar Andrew Wiggins as the frontrunner for the 2014 draft, no team would mind losing all 82 games for a chance to add him to their roster. If the Raptors don’t do well, expect a massive shakeup next off-season that will probably include a coaching change and a roster overhaul.

The off-season was highlighted by massive moves around the league that will change the landscape. The big move of the summer was an expected one—Dwight Howard signing with the Houston Rockets. The Rockets’ style of basketball should benefit everyone on the team, and the addition of Howard should free up the floor for James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Chandler Parsons, who should all see their numbers rise, since Howard not only brings a stellar offensive game but has a huge defensive presence.

Another team to look out for is the Cleveland Cavaliers, who acquired arguably the second-best centre in the league in Andrew Bynum along with their first overall pick—and the first ever Canadian to be chosen first overall—Brampton native Anthony Bennett. If Bynum can clean up his act and stay injury-free, Cleveland can put themselves into discussion for the top-five seed in the East. Finally, the Brooklyn Nets made the biggest splash in the offseason by acquiring Pierce, Garnett, and Terry from the Celtics.

Though many teams were able to improve substantially, some teams are going into the new season in rough shape. The Celtics not only lost three of their best players but also Doc Rivers, one of the best head coaches in the league. The Lakers also seem to be at the end of an era and the beginning of a rebuild process unless they can snatch a franchise player such as Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James. The Denver Nuggets are one of the biggest losers in the league after losing franchise player Andre Iguodala, current Executive of the Year Ujiriand, and current Coach of the Year George Karl.

As Raptors fans gear up in excitement for another NBA season, they can look forward toToronto being the centre of the basketball universe: it was recently announced the 2016 NBA All-Star game will be played here. To emphasize the importance of the all-star game, the Raptors are looking into rebranding over the next two years. Initially, there were talks of a complete rebrand that included changing the team name, but those talks were dismissed during the all-star game press conference. The team will be rebranding its logo and colours, and has enlisted the help of Toronto rapper Drake as its ambassador. A bright future lies ahead for the Toronto Raptors’ organization, a once-struggling sports team that now seems to be in line for success and league-wide recognition. The loyal Raptors fan base has grown with each season, and though just as many remain sceptical about post-season triumph, there’s no denying this season will be the start of something new.