TORONTO - The ending may not have been what Bryan Colangelo would have written, but a brilliant turnaround was the story of the Toronto Raptors' season.

The morning after Toronto's campaign came to an end with a heartbreaking 98-97 loss Friday night at New Jersey, the Raptors packed up their lockers and headed into the off-season full of optimism, buoyed by the belief that things can only get better for this young squad.

With nine new faces after Colangelo's dramatic Raptors rebuild last summer, Toronto recorded a league-best 20-win turnaround, bringing credibility back to Canada's lone NBA franchise and a level of excitement to the Air Canada Centre that hadn't been felt in years.

The one question that looms large now is who will lead them into the future - coach Sam Mitchell's contract expires after June 30.

Colangelo, the front-runner to win executive of the year, smiled when he talked about the team's success since he arrived in Toronto 14 months ago and the promise the next few years hold.

"What this organization did this year was nothing short of remarkable considering where it was a year ago today," the GM said. "If I told you there wasn't dysfunction and strife and miserable people, it would be a lie. That's what we came into, and I think today it's a 180-degree turn. It's completely opposite."

The Raptors captured the Atlantic Division title, and finished third in the Eastern Conference - up from 12th the previous season - to earn homecourt advantage in their first post-season appearance since 2002.

"This was supposed to be a rebuilding year and it was, but we found a way to win and rebuild at the same time," all-star forward Chris Bosh said.

Along the way, the Raptors garnered a reputation as an unselfish bunch who all get along, and who pride themselves in working hard and being resilient.

There were no egos, no drama, everybody got along - rare indeed in professional sports.

"The best thing of this team, if you asked every one of these 15 guys, I think everybody feels like he's important on this team," point guard Jose Calderon said. "That's very difficult on one team to have everybody happy. Everybody was with everybody, always together. That's why I think I'm going on vacation and I'll be happy because it was a very nice year."

The players credit Mitchell with bringing the team together and their support for the coach is unwavering. The 43-year-old was able to instil a team-first atmosphere out of a locker-room of new faces, with a tough-love approach they respected and a free-flowing style they loved to play.

"I think it's really rare for this kind of situation in the NBA, and that's why it was just an unbelievable year and so much fun to be a part of," said swingman Anthony Parker.

Mitchell is sure to be hotly pursued now the Raptors' season is over. Charlotte and Indiana are rumoured to be interested, while Sacramento, Memphis and Seattle are also looking for new coaches.

"It's safe to say that we have every intention to try to get Sam back as coach," Colangelo said. "That's what he deserves, that's what this franchise deserves. He's the right coach for this team. That determination has been made. Whether we're the right franchise for Sam is something I can't answer."

Whether or not Mitchell returns, Toronto's future looks bright.

Italian bigman Andrea Bargnani showed tantalizing hints of the star he's bound to become before being sidelined for a month by appendicitis. The rookie with the steely nerves rebounded to have strong performances in the final two games of the playoffs.

Coupled with Bosh, who carried the Raptors to countless wins this season and earned a starting spot in the Eastern Conference all-star team, the frontcourt tandem could prove frighteningly difficult to stop.

"The more (Bargnani) asserts himself, the more he gets better and the more I do the same, it's going to be scary," Bosh said.

Bosh, meanwhile, continued to improve in his role as the franchise player, prompting chants of "M-V-P!" during games at the ACC. The hard-working team captain struggled at times in his playoff debut against a fierce Nets defence bent on shutting him down. But he battled through it, and it showed in his Game 6 performance.

Other positives this season will be remembered for: T.J. Ford and Calderon. The two formed one of the most potent point guard duos in the league, spelling each other off seamlessly throughout the season. They're both young and should only get better - and both are happy with the arrangement in Toronto.

The rest of the roster: Parker and Jorge Garbajosa were two of Colangelo's most fruitful off-season acquisitions. Parker quickly took on a leadership role on and off the court, a "glue player" whose contributions were many. He was also one of the strongest players throughout the playoffs, faced with a tough task in guarding Nets star Vince Carter.

Garbajosa also brought an all-around game, but it was his scrappiness on the defensive end that the Raptors sorely could have used in the playoffs (an ankle injury had already ended his season).

The negatives: Inconsistency on the part of Joey Graham and Morris Peterson. Graham had a better season, but disappeared in the playoffs. Peterson had a disappointing season, but finally stepped it up in his final two games.

The injury bug also bit Toronto hard. Bosh missed 12 games with foot and knee problems, Bargnani missed 14 after his appendectomy, while Ford missed seven with various injuries.

Still, the Raptors developed remarkable resiliency, and nowhere was this more clear than in Friday's Game 6. Calderon and Ford were both questionable for the game, and warming up beforehand Calderon was barely able to run on his sprained ankle, hoisting jump shots off one foot, and Ford wasn't using his left hand at all because of a badly sprained thumb.

Yet, both played, and played well.

The Raptors performance in Game 6 was a fitting ending to an unlikely season. After going 2-8 out of the gate, the Raptors continued to improve over the course of the season, and the playoffs was the same story.

Lacking any significant playoff experience, post-season jitters got the best of them as they lost the first game, edged the Nets in Game 2 at home, and then were humiliated by the Nets in Jersey in Games 3 and 4.

They rebounded with a Game 5 win back at the ACC, and then pulled out their best performance of the series in their loss Friday night in the Nets' home arena.

Now, Colangelo turns his attention to contract talks with Mitchell. Peterson, Darrick Martin, Pape Sow and Uros Slokar become unrestricted free agents in the off-season. But with no draft pick and not a ton of financial flexibility with which to work, the summer won't be nearly as busy as last year.

Peterson, the longest-tenured Raptor, should command interest on the open market despite seeing a significant drop in minutes this season. While the 29-year-old said he would like to stay in Toronto, Colangelo said a change of scenery may be best for him.

"If he's going to be here and be frustrated, and want to play more, one season biting his tongue is one thing," said Colangelo. "I can't see him wanting to do that two seasons in a row.

"He's got a lot of basketball left, and maybe there's a deal there, a sign-and-trade. Maybe there's something that lands him in a better situation."

Calderon (Spain), Bosh (U.S.), Bargnani (Italy), Rasho Nesterovic, Slokar (Slovenia) and Sow (Senegal) will all head to their national team programs in the coming weeks to prepare for Olympic qualifying.

The next time the Raptors will gather will be next fall in Italy. The Raptors will hold training camp in Treviso, Italy and play exhibition games in Italy and Spain as part of the NBA's European campaign.

And as the players packed their belongings Saturday and headed to various points abroad for the off-season, Colangelo told them not to be too content in the season they had. There are bigger and better things to come.

"Taste bitterness, don't taste sweetness from the success of a 47-win season," Colangelo said. "That's not good enough. It's never good enough."