After the 2012-13 season, the Toronto Raptors were at a crossroads. Despite a 34-48 finish and a failed effort at making the playoffs, the promise was there. DeMar DeRozan enjoyed a breakout season, Terrence Ross showed the occasional flash and the long-awaited Jonas Valanciunas finally arrived.
Still, they were stuck with pieces that did not have the proper fit. Rudy Gay and his massive contract took shots and minutes away from the younger wings, all of whom held a more certain future in Toronto. Also, former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani barely hit 30 percent from deep, which didn't stop him from taking nearly four 3-point attempts per game.
At the time, promise was overshadowed by players that, while useful in some circumstances, did not fit with the young core the Raptors' front office had put together. That same team, with the exception of Bargnani and GM Brian Colangelo, came back the following year.
Now controlled by and under the microscope of new GM Masai Ujiri, it took a 6-12 start to the new season for the Raptors to make a big move. A December 2013 trade that sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings brought back a slew of productive role players, including Chuck Hayes, Grevis Vazquez and Patrick Patterson.
This, more than anything, is what head coach Dwane Casey attributed to what came next.
"The four veterans we obtained in early December from Sacramento played a major role in the turnaround. They brought leadership to the locker room and upgraded the production from our bench," he told Sporting News. "The others fed off them, and then the winning became contagious."
The trade sparked a run in December, which triggered confidence in January and so-on. They finished the 2013-14 campaign 48-34, good enough for 3rd in the Eastern Conference and first in the Atlantic division.
Past the bump in bench production, the Raptors also had new star power. They went from playing without an All-Star to suiting up two of that caliber: DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. With Rudy Gay and Andrea Bargnani gone, there were suddenly shots available and both DeRozan and Lowry quickly took advantage. While DeRozan was the only member of the pair to earn a spot on last year's All-Star roster, many saw Lowry as deserving, even the most deserving left off the team.
The combination of star power and a solid bench quickly took the Raptors from a team stuck in mediocrity and limbo into a worst-to-first story within the Atlantic. Despite the recent accolades and success, the goal is still to get better. Still, it shouldn't be surprising to hear that players are enjoying the winning atmosphere.
“We just have to take advantage of every moment, starting now,” DeRozan said at Toronto's media day. “Just come out and be recognized for our hard work, and not just being known as the only team in Canada.”
The Raptors are favorites to win the Atlantic division for a second straight year, and some have pegged them as the third-best team in the Eastern Conference. Their next goal is one that would have seemed lofty a year ago: try to make their way to the Eastern Conference finals. From there, who knows? To get there, the progression of the young guys will have to continue in a positive trajectory.
Take DeRozan, for example. Yes, he has made great strides in a very short period of time, but his production could go up if a certain Gay-esque habit is broken.
DeRozan has always been able to slash and finish at the rim, but nearly half his total shots come from mid-range and beyond the arc. He has slowly improved from the outside and developed some consistency from the corner 3, but most of those outside shots still come from mid-range, where he hardly hovers at 40 percent.
This was especially bad during the Rudy Gay era. A cluster of low-percentage shots from a pair of the team's highest shot-takers will result in bad offense. Add on Barnani's shooting struggles and the recipe that led to Toronto's rough 2012-13 campaign starts to make more sense.
DeRozan is still young enough to fix this problem. His shooting has improved significantly since he first came into the league, and the hope and is that he'll start to figure out his best spots on the floor and stick to them. It seems as though that process may already be underway.
It'll take more than just a smarter DeRozan to get the Raptors to take that next step, though. Amir Johnson will need to mold out his niche as a paint protector, Jonas Valanciunas will need to become a premiere starting center and Patrick Patterson will need to prove he's worthy of consideration for Johnson's spot in the starting lineup.
It won't be an easy feat, but nothing the Raptors have done over the past year has been easy. They still got it done.