DeRozan determined to spark turnaround in key year for Raptors
BOSTON -- The eras have changed every few seasons in Toronto, and DeMar DeRozan is the latest mainstay intent on ending it. He wants to be focusing on his playoff debut rather than worry about another sequence of rebuilding.
"It's all on us at the end of the day," he said Monday before the Raptors opened their preseason with a 97-89 victory against the Celtics. "It's all on what we do as a team. If we go out there, do what we're supposed to do, it's no complaints nowhere."
The first game of the regular season is three weeks away and the clock is already ticking. DeRozan and his teammates are looking forward to the first half of the year knowing that they can't afford to be a second-half team. Coach Dwane Casey is in the final year of his contract. So is point guard Kyle Lowry, and small forward Rudy Gay will have an option to become a free agent. A bad start may help persuade new Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri to make trades sooner than later.
Every franchise is approaching the season with optimism of some kind, but perhaps no team is faced with a more precarious view than Toronto. The Raptors have missed the playoffs the last five years, they haven't had a winning season since 2006-07, they've reached the second round only one time and they have never won 50 games in their 18 seasons as an NBA franchise.
Ujiri was hired away from Denver in May with a mandate to make changes. Apart from trading former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks, the new boss has been wary of upending the roster too soon.
"We could have done that from the beginning of the summer if we were just trying to get rid of people," said Ujiri, who was aware of the incentives created by his presence. "You challenge people and you challenge players, and then you see what you get out of it."
There is too much talent in Toronto to encourage a sell-off for future draft picks: The Raptors look more like a team headed for the playoffs than the lottery. Gay, 27, won a gold medal with the United States at the last World Cup, in 2010. Lowry is 27, power forward Amir Johnson is 26 and DeRozan is 24. Highly regarded center Jonas Valanciunas, 21, is in his second year, as is 22-year-old shooting guard Terrence Ross, the eighth pick in 2012. Tyler Hansbrough will make practices more competitive, and Steve Novak will improve the three-point shooting off the bench.
Casey is a well-respected coach who was the lead defensive assistant for the Mavericks' championship team of 2010-11. His team overcame a 4-19 start last year to go 30-29 the rest of the way while incorporating Gay after his arrival from Memphis in a Jan. 31 trade.
"It's how you bounce back from adversity -- and we did that," he said. "That's a huge lesson for us this year."
The Raptors face an early challenge in 2013-14. Six of their first nine games are on the road, and the opening-month opponents include Indiana, Houston, Memphis, Chicago, Brooklyn and two games with two-time defending champion Miami.
DeRozan knew this season was going to be pivotal to his career, which was why he put himself through his toughest summer of workouts.
"It means everything to me, especially going into my fifth year and I haven't played in the playoffs," he said. "I just really took my conditioning and skill work to another level. I really worked my butt off in every aspect. Sometimes I'd go two or three times a day, just so I can get comfortable at everything and not really feel any weakness."
DeRozan, a 6-foot-7 shooting guard, averaged career bests of 18.1 points and 2.5 assists last year. He has always been one of the league's most explosive slashers, but he understands that his team's failure to make the playoffs has led to focus on his issues as a perimeter shooter, the $9.5 million he'll be making each of the next four seasons and his ability to complement the 6-9 Gay, another wing scorer.
"He takes a hell of a lot of pressure off me and vice versa," DeRozan said of Gay. "A lot of people get into the analytic stuff -- we don't pay no attention to that because we know how much we can help this team. As long as we play on the defensive end, we don't have to worry about scoring -- nothing, none of that -- because we can score the ball at will."
The best Raptors -- Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh -- have been unwilling to commit to the franchise over the years. DeRozan has not yet proved to be of their class, but he wants to earn their reputation while remaining in Toronto.
"I want to be that guy who stuck through the tough times and made it when the sun came out," he said. "Once we get to winning, everything else in the past will be forgotten. It's easier to want to be somewhere else and play on a good team, but this is where I want to be and overcome all of that."