Five Reasons to Get Excited About the Toronto Raptors' Upcoming Season

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | Training camp kicks off in less than a month, and there are plenty of reasons for fans of the Toronto Raptors to be excited for the upcoming season.

1. Toronto Has A Legit Chance To Make The Playoffs

In a watered down Eastern Conference, the Raptors have a legit chance of sneaking into the playoffs this season. With a core of Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, the team has a nice mix of bigs, athletic guards and a tough point guard. Meanwhile, playoff teams from last season like Atlanta, Boston and Milwaukee have taken noticeable steps back.

For the past decade, a .500 record will secure a spot in the playoffs for teams in the East, and Toronto had that after its atrocious 4-19 to start the season as it finished the season with a respectable 30-29 record.

It will be interesting to see what the combination of roster stability and young players getting another year old results in.

2. Rudy Gay Can See!

Last season, Gay quickly won over the hearts of fans when he hit game-winning shots against Indiana, Denver and New York. This kind of clutch shooting was much-needed as the team struggled to start the season while blowing late-game leads and games in overtime.

Gay averaged 19.5 points during his time in Toronto -- despite having vision so bad that he wouldn't have passed a driving test. This summer, Gay underwent surgery to repair the issue as he wasn't confident last season playing with goggles, and he used them only during team practices.

If Gay can shoot 42% from the field without being able to see well, there's plenty of reason to be optimistic about what he can do on the court this season with good vision.

3. The Growth of Jonas Valanciunas

This summer was a coming-out of sorts for Jonas Valanciunas. He earned MVP honors in Las Vegas, and then he carried Lithuania in the European basketball championships while continuing to turn a lot of heads.

Also worth noting is that Valanciunas' growth isn't just against second-round picks, unsigned free agents and European players who can't cut it in the NBA. The talented big man averaged 14.9 points and 5.9 points during the final month of last season, impressive stuff considering he averaged only 9.0 points in December. Instead of fading when he hit the rookie wall, he burst through it and had arguably his best month of his rookie season in April.

It will be interesting to see what kind of growth fans are able to see from bulked up Valanciunas in his second season.

4. Can Kyle Lowry Step Up?

This time last year, Kyle Lowry arrived in Toronto with a ton of fanfare and was handed the starting point guard position. However, after an injury-plagued season that saw him butt heads with his head coach, Lowry's future in Toronto is very much in doubt. After being handed the keys to the car last summer, Lowry promptly crashed the car.

The good news for Lowry is that once again the starting point guard position is gift-wrapped for him. However, unlike last year when fan-favorite and savvy veteran Jose Calderon was lurking, Toronto has brought in a young point guard in DJ Augustin, with 146 career NBA starts, to be the backup point guard.

Lowry is playing out the final year of his contract and looks to be motivated to prove he's a legit starting point guard in the NBA.

5. Dwane Casey Won't Be Told How To Coach

When Casey first arrived in Toronto, the team showed flashes of warming up to him as it improved from being ranked 26th in points allowed (105.4 points per game) to 9th while holding teams to 94.0 points during his first season as head coach.

The team showed a slight dip last season to finish 16th, giving up 98.7 points per game.

The problem Casey had last year was the combination of a roster lacking defensive-minded players and injuries that cut into his rotation. Besides Amir Johnson and rookies Quincy Acy and Jonas Valanciunas, which players on the roster are defense-first guys? None. Throw into the mix that Johnson has averaged 20.8 minutes per game over his eight seasons in the NBA while Valanciunas and Acy were raw rookies adjusting to the NBA last season, and it's clear Casey didn't have many options on the defensive end.

"I'm going to coach the way that fits our team, and it's going to be defense-first," Casey told Smith. "Bryan (Colangelo) and I communicated ... we didn't agree on style of play, but that's life. That doesn't mean that's bad. I've been with a lot of general managers and head coaches who didn't agree on the way you should play. Winning cures a lot of things and Bryan had the right to say, 'Hey, we should try this."

Does that mean that Casey and Masai Ujiri will see eye-to-eye on everything? No, but it does sound like the two are at least on the same page.

It will be interesting to see what Casey is able to accomplish in a contract year of his own.

Ryan McNeill lives in Toronto and has been covering the Toronto Raptors since the 2005-06 season. You can follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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