Thursday, October 4, 2012

Team Preview: Toronto Raptors

The powers above haven't been kind to the Toronto Raptors in their brief existence, first Vince Carter skips town, then Bargnani completely fails to live up to the hype of being 1st overall, and then Bosh leaves to boot. Of course, that's all old news, but the most recent kick in the crotch for the only international NBA team was Steve Nash passing up the opportunity to guide this young core to the next level and go out in a blaze of patriotic glory to chase a ring with the Lakers.

However, under new coach Dwane Casey they jumped from a terrible defensive team to a respectable one, and made some off-season moves which add intrigue to a team that is largely (and wrongfully) ignored by most people state-side. Instead of the Guards/Small Forwards/Bigs format I've used on the first two teams, I'll be rolling with Point Guards/Wings/Bigs for the Raptors as they have an abundance of players who can play the 2 and 3, so it only seemed right. So let's break it down...

Point Guards:
In one off-season the point guard position became a murky grey area to arguably the deepest position for the Raptors, with Kyle Lowry, Jose Calderon and John Lucas III forming a great three-man rotation. Although I feel like recently departed Jerryd Bayless was a very similar player to Lowry and they gave up on him too soon, Lowry gives them a guy who is ready to perform right now, and for a team which has languished in the lottery for too long, they needed a bold move. Lowry brings a fearless attitude, a versatile skill-set and a respectable outside shot to the table, he also defends like a maniac and isn't afraid of the big moment. It was this relentless competitiveness which caught the eye of coach Dwane Casey when Lowry torched his Raptors last season, and Casey's hands are all over this acquisition. Although Lowry won't stand out amongst the multitude of great point guards in the Eastern Conference - Rose, Rondo, Williams and Irving to name just a few - he is dangerous and tenacious enough to give them pause and match them when he gets hot. First point off the bench is Jose Calderon, who brings a completely different skill-set to the table with his pass-first mentality, turnstile defensive ability and lacklustre athleticism. Although his days as a quality starter are gone, Calderon will be arguably the second best point guard off the bench this season, behind an ageing Jason Kidd. Like Kidd, he'll be brought in to steady the tempo for this largely inexperienced team and be a role player, a task which he is more than capable of carrying out. John Lucas III was unknown to the casual fan until he stepped in for the Bulls when Rose and Watson went down with injury and had a few brilliant performances, including 24 points in a win over the Heat in March, and a fourth quarter outburst against the Raptors team he now plays for. He's unlikely to see a lot of run unless Calderon or Lowry go down, but both of these guys have missed significant playing time over the course of their careers, so he's excellent insurance to have as a third-string PG.

If there's one thing the Raptors have, it's wings as far as the eye can see. Incumbents DeMar DeRozan, Alan Anderson and Linas Kleiza are joined by new signee Landry Fields and rookie Terrence Ross. DeMar DeRozan was supposed to be the hope of the future after Bosh left. He'd made promising strides between his first and second year, fixing some holes in his game and showing a scoring mentality befitting a potential franchise player - not to mention all-world athleticism. However, in the lockout-shortened season just past he failed to improve and his numbers actually dropped, scoring less points on the worst field goal percentage of his young career. However, a number of factors can explain this lack of progression; a coaching change, no training camp, limited practice time, injuries to other key players. The coaching change meant that DeRozan had to learn to play in a different manner and this can be a difficult adjustment for any young player, but when you consider he had to do this without the benefit of a full training camp and was unable to practice much during the season with the busy schedule, the lack of progress is understandable. In addition, DeMar had to deal with being the first option most nights before he was ready with Andrea Bargnani missing much of the season with injury. While DeMar's shaky handle, poor long-range shooting and questionable defensive ability are all serious question marks, it's far too soon to give up on him and I fully believe with more attention from the coaching staff this off-season, a full training camp, and help in the form of Lowry and a healthy Bargnani that DeMar will prove he can be a key contributor on a team expecting to push for the 8th seed in the East. Alan Anderson is simply a prototypical shooting guard, he's the right size, can play off the ball and shoot it from range, but you'd expect those things from a 29 year old who only recently broke into the pros, and he'll provide veteran leadership and guidance to the young wings on the team in addition to contributing on the court as a role player. Linas Kleiza is likely the odd man out in this five-man wing unit, he's slow, unathletic and has questionable shot selection. He earned his contract after tearing it up for Lithuania in the 2010 World Championships, but that form didn't carry on to the NBA, and his showing at the Olympics doesn't breed much hope for his place on the team this upcoming season. Former Knick and certified second-round steal Landry Fields was a good, but not great pick-up for the Raptors. He's a very polished player who, while lacking upside, can be relied upon to do what he does best; run the floor, defend at the 2/3 and play his role without complaining. While he's not going to wow anybody, he'll add solidity to a SF position that has been shaky in recent years. Rookie Terrence Ross is going to be a player to keep an eye on; he's 6'7, has a great mid-range game, can shoot the long ball and oozes athleticism. Beyond that, he's a decisive player who doesn't hesitate mid-way through a shot or second-guess himself, but also shows reasonable shot-selection. Like DeRozan his handle could use some work, but he makes up for it with his smooth shooting stroke. Although he'll likely come off the bench behind DeRozan and Fields this season, this kid could be a much better player than the shooting guards taken ahead of him in Waiters and Beal, as he possesses a more prototypical game, has better size and length, and is more athletic across the board. Whether he forces DeRozan to the SF position or simply off the team altogether, the Raptors have another great pick-up in the draft after taking C Jonas Valanciunas last year.

The Raptors also have an abundance of power forwards, and a decent centre rotation to boot with Andrea Bargnani, Ed Davis, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Aaron Gray and rookie Quincy Acy. I'll start with Bargnani, because I think people have given him too hard a time. Yes, in this very article I said he completely failed to live up to the hype of being a #1 pick, but what I didn't say is that it largely wasn't his fault. For starters, Bargnani was miscast as a C who could play alongside Chris Bosh, which was a disaster. Bosh and Bargnani both rely on a combination of quickness, finesse and shooting touch to score and while redundancy can be a good thing, it simply meant that everything Bargnani could do, Bosh could do better. In addition, neither Bosh nor Bargs bang in the paint or protect the rim, which meant they were abused inside on the regular. The point is, Bargnani has been playing out of position for most of his career, and it was only after Bosh left that he was finally able to play the PF position he was best suited to. Unfortunately, he had a bad run of injuries the last two seasons, but while healthy he put up better numbers than he had alongside Bosh and thrived as the first scoring option. While he's always been lacklustre defensively, he showed marked improvement in effort and intensity under Coach Casey last season, and with a full training camp and a clean bill of health, at only 26 years of age, it's far too early to give up on a player who averaged close to 20ppg the last two seasons and is only just now entering his prime. Another factor which will help Bargnani is the addition of Jonas Valanciunas, their 2011 draft pick whose skill-set is the perfect complement to Bargnani's. Where Bargs likes to shoot the mid-range shot and take bigger players off the dribble, Jonas is a true banger inside, standing at 7 feet, with a relentless motor, great athleticism and the defensive potential to anchor the defence and cover Andrea's mistakes. While he's still young, foul-prone and quite raw offensively, he's a very talented young player, and there was talk that he could have been the 2nd overall pick in 2011 if his contract situation wasn't so murky. Jonas will be given a lot of minutes for the Raptors and having a defensive mastermind like Casey in charge should help accelerate his development as a rim-protector. Ed Davis is the other young buck the Raptors fanbase loved so much as a rookie they wanted Bargnani gone to make room for his growth. However, the southpaw from UNC is entering his third season as a pro and has failed to show the sort of consistency and effort that would give the front office enough confidence to bet on him. He'll get a pass after missing training camp with the new coach last season, but this is a make or break year for Davis and his status as a building block of Toronto's future. If Davis can provide productive minutes off the bench at the PF/C position without complaint it will go a long way with the guys upstars. Amir Johnson is a dime-a-dozen jumping bean who doesn't really have a position, lacking the skill to play the PF and the girth to play the C position. The Raptors quite frankly overpaid for him, but he's a hard worker and should find a spot in the rotation as a 4/5 off the bench. Aaron Gray is a big body who has bounced around from team to team but never out of the league because he fills a niche role as a banger who will play tough inside; he'll probably ride the pine for this season unless an injury drops a couple of players ahead of him in the depth chart. Speaking of players who will ride the pine, the second-rounder from Baylor, Quincy Acy. He's almost the complete opposite of Amir Johnson, he's built like a tank, undersized and finishes with authority at the rim due to his great wingspan. Although Toronto fans had their hopes first raised, then dashed when David Stern announced which Quincy from Baylor they had selected, he's a great locker room guy, a leader and won't complain. Having a guy who works as hard as he does in training will be worth it for the galvanising effect it will have on the other players alone.

Interesting Storylines:
There are a couple of interesting storylines facing the Raptors for the 2012-13 season; can Lowry be more of a distributor with all the scoring talent he has around him? can DeRozan bounce back? can Bargnani stay healthy for 70+ games? who will be the first option offensively? The latter is probably the most interesting, as while Bargnani thrived as the first option, DeRozan really came out of his shell in the 2010-2011 season when Bargnani went down with injury, and he might struggle to find a rhythm without enough touches. Fields and Valanciunas will likely round out the starting lineup with Lowry, DeRozan and Bargnani, and the former won't be taking or needing too many shots, but Coach Casey has his work cut out for him trying to find a way to get all three of the other involved and sharing the ball. Lowry and Bargnani shouldn't be too much of a problem as they will be a formidable pick-and-roll tandem, but it's DeRozan who will keep Casey up at night; he doesn't shoot the ball well enough to space the floor, and his handle holds back his potential as an isolation scorer, especially when you consider both Lowry and Bargnani are better iso scorers than he is at this stage. How the shots are spread amongst this team bears watching.

Season Prospectus:
The Raptors made a lot of changes this off-season in a bid to get competitive, and that means nothing less than a playoff appearance will be deemed a successful season. Looking at their roster and the downfall of teams like Orlando and dependent on the health of Rose, Chicago, there's a definite possibility that Toronto will be able to squeeze into a 7th or 8th spot in an Eastern Conference which suddenly got a lot deeper, with a number of former bottom-dwellers making big acquisitions and gearing up for a run at the playoffs. If the Raptors are going to achieve their goal, they will need to continue their good form defensively, sort out their offensive structures and most of all, stay healthy. If Bargnani or Lowry go down with a long-term injury, they can kiss their season goodbye and the franchise will be stuck in another year of limbo - much like the Trail Blazers of late who kept waiting to have all their pieces healthy and it never happened. Still, this is a team deep with role-players and loaded offensively, at the very least they'll be fun to watch, and they have by no means hit the ceiling of their potential as a core group.

Next up, the San Antonio Spurs.

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