Tonight, the Toronto Raptors will hit the court against the Detroit Pistons to begin their new NBA season. (The season actually started last night, but this will be the first game for Canada's basketball team.) Last season was an incredible one for the Raps. They had 56 wins and 26 losses in the regular season, which was their best-ever record. They made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final (also their best-ever playoff performance), where they lost in six games to the eventual NBA champs, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Meanwhile, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were both selected as All Stars, giving the Raptors one of the best guard pairs in the entire league. (Guards are the two players who handle the ball the most — they tend to be shorter than the rest of the team.)
But having a great season usually only means one thing... everyone expects you to do even better next time! So before these dribbling dinos walk out on to the floor, let's take a look at what their chances are this year.
Healthy Carroll, injured Sullinger
Last season, DeMarre Carroll was one of the Raptors two big signings over the summer (the other was Canadian guard Cory Joseph). Carroll is a defensive specialist who was brought in to make the Raptors a much tougher team to score against. And he helped out just as everyone hoped... until he got a knee injury, that is. In the end, Carroll played only 26 of the 82 games in the regular season. Now that he is healthy again, the Raptors are hoping for better luck with a player that can be one of the league's top defenders.
Unfortunately, this season's big summer signing, Jared Sullinger, already suffered a foot injury in the preseason. No way! The Raptors will have to do without their new guy for the first 20 games or so of the season.
Bye bye, Bismack
A few players left the Raptors over the summer, but no player made a bigger impact than centre Bismack Biyombo. (Centres are the tallest players on a team — they play near the basket a lot.) Biyombo was loved by fans and teammates alike for his big smile and big blocks. Now that he is gone, the Raptors will be hoping that Jonas Valanciunas is ready to become a top centre in the NBA. Can he do it? At his best last season, Valanciunas was an awesome force, for sure. But he also ran into injury troubles here and there. Many people think that a big part of the Raptors success will be about whether or not Carroll and Valanciunas can stay healthy. If they can, this will once again be a very good team.
Of course, every team relies most on its best players to be successful. In Toronto's case, that's Lowry and DeRozan. There's a lot to like about these two. For one, they're best friends off the court. They won a gold medal together in Rio on the US men's Olympic basketball team. Also, DeRozan signed a big contract over the summer to make it clear that his heart is in Toronto—that will be extra motivation for Lowry to stay, too (and that's important because he'll be looking for a new contract next summer). But above all, they're terrific basketball players who have great chemistry. When they're on fire, there aren't many teams that know how to stop them. And together, they have led Toronto further than ever before.
So, will the Raptors be even better this year? It's very possible that they could do even better than their record of 56–26 this season. As for the playoffs? Let's face it, the two best teams in the NBA are still LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers and Stephen Curry's Golden State Warriors (who shocked the basketball world when they added superstar Kevin Durant in the offseason). In other words, getting past Cleveland in an Eastern Conference Final will not be any easier this year. The Raptors will need to learn from their experience last season and show up healthy, hungry, and wise.
But this much is for sure. The Air Canada Centre will once again be one of the noisiest, wildest, most fun places to play basketball in the whole league. Toronto is ready for basketball again... Let's go, Raptors!