The last game of a painful and somewhat meaningless (from a win/loss perspective) 2011-2012 season is a distant memory, with Ben Uzoh’s triple-double lifting the Raptors over the Nets now nearly half a year in the rear view mirror. The highly anticipated and much more meaningful 2012-2013 season unofficially gets underway on Monday with a pre-season opener against Spain’s Real Madrid.

Okay, so the opening game of a supposedly more meaningful season is actually meaningless. But you get the point.

We’re all pretty stoked to get this 18th season in Raptors history tipped off, but before we do, let’s look back on the 2012 off-season, and how we got to this present moment of excitement.

Gains

- Without a doubt, the gain of the off-season for Toronto was acquiring Kyle Lowry in a deal I believe will go down as a steal for the Raptors. If Lowry continues to play at the level he’s been playing at for the last couple of years, and if the Raptors take a step forward this season and end up in the playoff hunt (where I expect they’ll fall just short, though I’ll make an official prediction later in October), then the Raps will have acquired an arguably top-10 point guard in his prime for Gary Forbes and a late lottery pick.

I get why it will be tough to swallow for fans if the Raptors end up forfeiting a top-five pick in this deal, but I see a grinding point guard who literally does everything well – including rebounding and defending, where he’s at the front of the pack for his position – who can be a legitimate leader for this team. Scott and I already fawned over Lowry just a few days ago, so I won’t go on any longer, other than to say that barring an injury or unforeseen events, this was a major win for the Raptors.

- It’s minor compared to the acquisitions that occurred this summer or the actual drafting of Jonas Valanciunas last summer, but getting the buyout officially worked out and getting Valanciunas to Toronto was meaningful in its own right. The big Lithuanian presents a reason for tortured fans of this franchise to get excited, an opportunity for the Raptors to sell hope and an opportunity for us here at RaptorBlog to have some fun and establish a cult following in Lithuania.

- The Draft. Terrence Ross may not have been the biggest name left of the board when the Raptors selected him eighth overall in June, but I’m not convinced any of those “bigger names” on the board are better basketball players right now or will be in the future. There were obviously guys in the top-seven that I’d take over Ross any day of the week, but at No. 8, I think the Raps got a player people are seriously underestimating. I find it funny that a lot of us probably overestimated how good DeMar DeRozan, a No. 9 pick, could be when he was drafted, all because of freakish athleticism. And now just three years later, a lot of those same people are underestimating how good Ross, a No. 8 pick, can be with virtually the same athleticism and better fundamentals.

In addition, while I wanted the team to take Quincy Miller in the second round of the Draft, Acy is an intense workhorse who can quickly become a fan-favourite in Toronto and push more experienced players for minutes. By no means do I believe that the Raptors acquired a franchise changing talent in the 2012 NBA Draft, but considering they had picks at eight, 37 and 56 (don’t forget about Tomislav Zubcic!), they did well for themselves.

- This one’s not really an off-season gain, but Dwane Casey getting to orchestrate a full training camp with a vastly improved and deeper roster after doing a fine job with the shitshow that was the lockout pre-season last year has to count for something…right?

Setbacks

- The failed Steve Nash pursuit. I’m more than happy with the acquisition of Lowry, and hell, he might turn out to be the better long term answer at the point than an aging Nash anyway, but let’s be real, losing out on Steve Nash really hurt. I don’t usually let rumours and speculation get my hopes up, because as a sports fan in Toronto, I’m all too familiar with broken dreams and crushed hopes, but I ate up the Nash to Toronto reports, marveled at the Raptors’ attempts to woo Nash and really started to believe that Kid Canada was coming to save the day. For the love of God, I had a RaptorBlog post written up and ready, needing only a simple click of the “publish” button once Nash inevitably signed.

We all know the rest of the story, and while being rejected by Nash hurt from a basketball perspective and maybe from a PR perspective (until the quick trade for Lowry), the worst part in hindsight was the ammunition it gave the clueless morons who actually believe stars, even Canadian ones, just don’t want to play for Toronto because the city is some sort of NBA backwater.

No, Nash and others don’t want to play for the Raptors because for the majority of the team’s 17-year existence, they’ve earned a reputation as losers, and as he’s nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career, he desperately wants an NBA championship.

Plus, while a lot of people brushed it off, the whole wanting to be close to his kids thing is a major factor for the average human, so I wasn’t exactly offended as a Torontonian. If anything, the result just reinforced that the Raptors need to stay the course, continue to develop their young talent and hope to build a successful program organically. If they succeed in building a team that’s even capable of second or third tier status with coach Casey at the helm and some nice young pieces, then I still believe one of the best markets in the NBA can be an attractive destination for big name players. As I’ve mentioned before, the younger generation of NBA stars seems be a lot more receptive towards Toronto than previous generations.

- Letting Jerryd Bayless walk. Scott and I were pretty big Bayless supporters, and when given the opportunity to start or log major minutes, the guy put up some pretty impressive and eyebrow raising numbers. Injuries, inconsistency and inconsistent playing time all held him back from reaching his full potential in Toronto, and maybe he won’t ever end up putting it all together in the NBA, but I’ll always have the feeling that the Raptors and Bayless could have gotten a lot more out of each other.

- An improved Atlantic Division. The Raptors unquestionably improved their situation this off-season, for the present and the future, and they can legitimately compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference this year. But with the 76ers’ addition of Bynum, the Celtics’ potential rejuventation and the Nets’ quick fix rebuild, the Atlantic Division is the class of the East, and might just be the most competitive division in basketball this year. I think at least one of the other four Atlantic teams is probably overrated, but the Raptors will still be hard pressed to finish outside of the division’s basement.

Toss Ups

- The Landry Fields signing. While I maintain that a cap hit of a little over $6 million for the next three seasons isn’t as bad as others are making it out to be for a glue-guy type player who does a little bit of everything, especially on the defensive end, I’ll also admit that Fields is going to have to continue to improve and evolve as a player or get back to his rookie shooting to justify a somewhat sizeable contract that was initially designed to hinder the Knicks’ pursuit of Steve Nash.

I think he’s up to the task, but because of his performance last season and the weight bearing contract, I can’t call this addition a “gain” until Landry proves he is, just like doubters can’t call the contract a setback until Fields falters on the court.

- Trading James Johnson. When Bryan Colangelo acquired Johnson for a late first round pick in 2011, it seemed like a nice under the radar move that could reap rewards in the future for a rebuilding team. While James had his fair share of impressive moments, games and stretches in his brief stint as a Raptor, and while on the surface, the defensive-minded forward seemed like a typical Dwane Casey player, Johnson never fully cemented his role in the future of the franchise, and of course, had that hush hush incident with Casey that left him benched for a few games.

James was too useful for me to say that his departure for a conditional second round pick was a gain, but he also wasn’t enough of a standout for me to rue what could have been. How JJ performs in Sacramento this season and how his replacements (namely Landry Fields) fare in Toronto will determine which of the above categories Johnson’s departure falls under.

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With that, we can put the 2012 off-season behind us, enjoy our Thanksgiving weekends, and get set for Monday night’s pre-season opener against Madrid.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’m sure we all have plenty of things to be thankful for that are much more important than basketball or sports in general. But as a diehard Raptors fan, Toronto sports fan and co-editor of a Raptors blog, I’m also pretty goddamn thankful that for the first time in a few years, this team is about to embark on a season that means something to a lot of us outside of just tanking for a draft pick.

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I’m not sure how much useful Raptors news or information will emerge over Sunday and Monday, so unless there’s anything relevant to discuss before then, we’ll catch up after Monday’s game.

Enjoy.