by Stephen Brotherston
The Toronto Raptors have been getting noticed this off season and with good reason. This team has gotten better. The only thing standing in the way of a guaranteed playoff spot next April may be that Boston, Brooklyn, New York, and Philadelphia have also made big-time additions to their rosters, but improving division rivals do not preclude a dramatic rise from last season’s 23-43 record.

The Raptors have continuity with the return of eight rotation players and they made significant upgrades with their additions. The impact of incoming point guards Kyle Lowry and John Lucas III cannot be overstated as they replace the oft-injured Jerryd Bayless and a parade of sub-par fill-ins that included Anthony Carter, Gary Forbes, Justin Dentmon, and Ben Uzoh. The former Knick Landry Fields provides a more mature small forward in place of James Johnson. Rookie Terrence Ross should become a reasonable offensive replacement for Leandro Barbosa and surpass Barbosa at the defensive end of the floor and rookie Jonas Valanciunas may be the Raptors’ best center from day one.

Last season, the Raptors were rarely out of a game, even against the league’s best teams, and with the roster upgrades, head coach Dwane Casey will be able to build on last year’s program. Here are six core reasons why the Raptors will make the 2012-13 NBA playoffs.

1. Defense

In 2010-11, Toronto gave up 105.4 points per game and was the second-easiest team to score on in the NBA. The Raptors couldn’t stop anyone. Since last summer, Coach Casey has changed the team’s culture and in a lockout shortened season, the Raptors surrendered the ninth-fewest points allowed at 94, while holding teams to the league’s eighth-lowest field goal percentage. With a full training camp and preseason schedule, there is a realistic expectation the Raptors’ defense would have been even better this time without any roster upgrades, but this roster is better.

As much as Coach Casey appreciated last season’s defensive effort, he hasn’t been able to resist explaining how Lowry and Fields will give him defenders on the perimeter who can defend their own man without help. Lowry represents a significant upgrade over Jose Calderon defensively and as impressive as James Johnson’s defensive statistics were last season, when Casey replaced him with D-League call-up Alan Anderson, the Raptors’ defense didn’t miss a beat. Anderson is back and Fields will be an upgrade defensively at small forward. Even as a rookie, Valanciunas will improve the Raptors defense at center and all the team’s key big men are back to help hold down the fort.

2. Rebounding

In the past, the Raptors have been known as a poor rebounding team that gave extra shots to their opponents. Under Coach Casey, those days are gone.

Last season was the first time in a decade that the Raptors averaged more boards than their opponents and they did it without a dominate rebounder on the team. Rebounding by committee, Ed Davis led the Raptors at 6.6 rebounds per game and Toronto finished the season with the league’s tenth best rebounding differential.

Next season should be even better as Lowry is a very good rebounding guard and Valanciunas adds another rebounding big man to the roster.

3. Scoring

The Raptors were the third-lowest scoring team in the NBA at 90.7 points per game last season and Casey made obtaining more shooters a priority, but it wasn’t all bad offensively in Toronto. With the team’s improved defense, the Raptors averaged more shots per game than their opposition and shot for a higher percentage. Unfortunately, losing Andrea Bargnani’s scoring for over half the season wasn’t something Toronto could overcome.

A healthy Bargnani could get back to the 23.5 points per game he was averaging before his injury last season and Lowry averaged 3.8 more points per game than Calderon. While no one expects Casey to suddenly be coaching an offensive juggernaut, the Raptors should have enough scoring to creep back into the middle of the pack.

4. Free Throw Attempts

Toronto gave up a league worst 27.2 free throw attempts per game last season and averaged 5.8 fewer attempts than their opposition. The 3.8 points scored by their opponents from these extra free throws exceeded the difference between the Raptors 90.7 scoring average and the 94 points they allowed.

Another year under Casey’s system should help reduce Toronto’s tendency to give away points at the foul line, but a bigger impact will come from having Bargnani in the lineup for a full season and the addition of Lowry. Bargnani averaged 5.6 free throw attempts per game last year and could have made up half the discrepancy in attempts on his own if he had played the full season, plus Lowry averaged 2.9 more attempts per game than Calderon. Next season, the huge gap in free throw attempts between the Raptors and their opponents should be reduced.

5. Three–Point Shooting

Although the Raptors were taking more shots than their opponents, they were giving up 2.3 more three-point attempts than they were taking and it wasn’t because of Casey’s offensive schemes. Three-point threats Bargnani and Bayless each missed half the season, Kleiza missed a quarter of the season, and Calderon has always been a reluctant shooter, but Casey still made it clear he wanted to add more willing and able shooters this summer.

Lowry is not a reluctant three-point threat, firing 4.5 threes per game. Bargnani and Kleiza both averaged 3.7 three-point attempts last season and Ross, Fields and the returning Anderson are all solid long range threats who are willing shooters.

Casey got what he asked for and the Raptors will no longer be out-shot from the outside.

6. Turnovers

Toronto was in a three-way tie for the seventh-most turnovers last season at 15.2 per game, but as they only forced their opposition to turn it over 13.2 times, they had the league’s third-worst differential. Of the 18 players who played for the Raptors last season, the top-five in turnovers per 36 minutes will not be back. Notably, the turnovers from Carter, Bayless, Forbes and Barbosa will no longer be an issue.

However, creating a turnover was also a problem as the Raptors only averaged 6.5 steals per game compared to the 7.9 league median. Lowry averaged 0.7 more steals than Calderon last season and Fields will replace the steals lost with the departure of Johnson, but further improvements in this area will have to come from player development and better understanding of the team’s defense.

Much of the Raptors own turnover problems could be blamed on injures to the backup point guards and learning a new offensive system on the fly. This year, with two starting caliber point guards, a proven backup point guard and a full training camp and preseason to implement an offense, the Raptors turnover issues should be greatly reduced.

In just one lockout-shortened season, Coach Casey changed the culture in Toronto. Once one of the easiest teams to score and rebound against in the NBA, Casey’s Raptors rapidly evolved into a top-10 rebounding and defensive club. The next step is to build on last year’s efforts and create enough offensive punch to win some games and the changes to last season’s roster have gone a long way towards accomplishing those goals.

“In year three of a building process, we are hopeful to compete for a playoff spot,” said Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo. “That is our goal. That is our desired plan right now.

“It is fair to say that a whole host of things will dictate whether or not it’s a realistic goal (including) health of players, chemistry, team coming together, and a full training camp where the coach can implement not only the defensive system but the offensive side of the ball as well. We hope that everything we have done from a personnel standpoint and everything that we do from a strategic standpoint is going to put us in a position to compete for the playoffs.”

If health and chemistry don’t sabotage Colangelo’s plans, the Raptors are a playoff caliber team in the Eastern Conference this season.