2013--14 RECORD: 48--34 (1ST IN ATLANTIC) COACH: DWANE CASEY (4TH SEASON WITH RAPTORS)

SPOTLIGHT

The Raptors believe that the best way for center Jonas Valanciunas to take the next step is to improve the way he takes his next steps. Over the summer they sent their Lithuanian 7-footer to University of Oregon strength-and-conditioning coach Jim Radcliffe to work on his running technique, and had him tutored by Hakeem Olajuwon on his low-post footwork. "He's not Usain Bolt yet or a great dancer," as coach Dwane Casey put it, "but you can see the improvement."

The hope is that the training will help Valanciunas, 22, not only increase his 11.3-point scoring average but also shore up his defense, which is where Toronto needs him most. Although he held opponents to just 38.1% shooting on post-up opportunities (according to Synergy Sports), he wasn't agile enough to deter penetrators. Valanciunas averaged 1.49 blocks per 48 minutes, 55th in the league, behind players such as 6'6" Danny Green and 6'7" Draymond Green. "With the work [Valanciunas] did, he should be more nimble and react to shots quicker," Casey says.

Valanciunas finished his second season with a dud—three points and five rebounds in a Game 7 loss to Brooklyn in the first round of the playoffs—but his overall performance was promising enough to give the Raptors confidence that he'll be one of the best centers in the East before long. "He's ready to make a big jump," Casey says. If that happens, Toronto will rise with him.

PROJECTED LINEUP

(2013--14 STATS)

STARTERS

PG

KYLE LOWRY

17.9 PPG; 7.4 APG; 42.3 FG%; 38.0 3FG%

SG

DEMAR DEROZAN

22.7 PPG; 4.3 RPG; 4.0 APG; 42.9 FG%

SF

TERRENCE ROSS

10.9 PPG; 3.1 RPG; 42.3 FG%; 39.5 3FG%

PF

AMIR JOHNSON

10.4 PPG; 6.6 RPG; 1.1 BPG; 56.2 FG%

C

JONAS VALANCIUNAS

11.3 PPG; 8.8 RPG; 0.9 BPG; 53.1 FG%

BENCH

PF

PATRICK PATTERSON

8.5 PPG; 5.3 RPG; 46.0 FG%; 36.4 3FG%

PG

GREIVIS VASQUEZ

9.6 PPG; 4.1 APG; 42.1 FG%; 37.7 3FG%

BEST CASE

DeRozan keeps rising, continuity pays off and the Raptors reach the East finals for the first time.

WORST CASE

Lowry ebbs after a career year, and standing pat in the improved East makes for a .500 team.

ENEMY LINES

A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP THE RAPTORS

With the same core as last season and a good mix of guards and bigs, the Raptors don't have a lot of weaknesses. But they also don't have a superstar.... DeMar DeRozan can reach that superstar level on offense if he continues to develop his three-point shot. The Rudy Gay trade [with the Kings last December] opened things up for him to be the go-to guy. DeRozan reminds me of a smaller Paul George in that both can slash, get to the line and make pull-up jumpers.... Critics will say Kyle Lowry overachieved in a contract year, but he was an elite point guard and showed maturity for a guy whose attitude and ability to run a team have been questioned. He is so strong that he can take a hit and still score, and he uses his body well on defense to prevent penetration. Lowry has hit his ceiling, though, so now it's about maintaining what he did.... They're fortunate to have another tough point guard in Greivis Vasquez, a quality backup who has become a steadier long-range shooter.... Dwane Casey is one of the league's best defensive minds. He has the players being aggressive against pick-and-rolls and crisp in their rotations. You can see they spend a lot of time working on defense.... Amir Johnson takes pride in his D. He has an impact without touching the ball. When they want more shooting at the four, they can plug in Patrick Patterson.... Jonas Valanciunas isn't a threat outside 12 feet, but he can score around the basket.... Lou Williams [acquired from the Hawks] is an intelligent scorer who strengthens their second unit.

PHOTOBRAD PENNER/USA TODAY SPORTSA DeRozan-led first unit is back intact. FOUR ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)