A 3-0 start to the new season no doubt has many Toronto Raptor fans envisioning a run to the Eastern Conference finals.
While it's always nice to get off to a fast start and earn some recognition, it's probably wise to remember that the Raptors could very easily be 1-2. One or two plays going the other way in the game against the Bucks, or the Warriors, and the mood surrounding the team would be totally different.
But, with Jose Calderon and Chris Bosh performing at All-Star levels, and a shortened bench creating fewer opportunities for Sam Mitchell to mess up, the Raps sit atop the Atlantic division and are one of only six teams who have won their first three games.
(On the topic of Mitchell: Sam minus the glasses is going to take some getting used to. I spent most of the first two games wondering if Will Smith was secretly researching a head-coaching role and standing in for Mitchell.)
So far at least, the question as to whether Bosh and Jermaine O'Neal would complement each other and be able to co-exist seems to be answered. They appear very comfortable on the floor together, not getting in each other’s way on offence and more importantly combining to dramatically alter the entire defensive attitude.
O'Neal's presence in the paint has made it much harder for opponents to drive the lane, which will be shocking to many teams who have become accustomed to playing against a very soft Toronto squad. But Bosh also deserves plenty of credit. After earning considerable praise as the defensive anchor of the American Olympic team, CB4 has carried that intensity over to the regular season and it has rubbed off on everyone. How else can you explain Andrea Bargnani fighting for rebounds and blocking shots like he's Dikembe Mutombo? Fine, maybe it's more like Mike Dunleavy, but that's still an improvement.
The offence has been noticeably better to start the season as well. Players are swinging the ball around the perimeter the way they did two years ago, when the Raps won 47 games and captured the Atlantic division title.
The departure of Carlos Delfino has resulted in a significant improvement in shot selection. Last year Delfino would watch Bosh and T.J. shoot jumper after jumper at any time during the shot clock, and thought he could do the same. Then Jamario Moon would follow suit, and suddenly the Raps were a one-dimensional team that relied almost solely on jump shots.
Part of the blame for last year’s offensive mindset has to be attached to the deep bench that Mitchell constantly tinkered with. Guys like Delfino, Kapono, Humphries and Nesterovic never had their roles defined and were forever trying to prove they deserved more minutes.
Whether it was Mitchell deciding on his own to shorten the bench and tighten the rotation, or Bryan Colangelo doing it for him, the initial outcome has been extremely positive. I’m all for a situation where the Raps go only 9 or 10 deep, but playing Bosh and Calderon 42 minutes a night isn’t going to work over an entire season. And O’Neal needs to be kept in the 30-minute range if he’s going to be expected to hold up long-term.
Which brings us to Roko Ukic, who played 15 serviceable minutes in the season opener, but was a deer in headlights during the two weekend games. The Raps are only carrying 13 players right now, meaning they have two open roster spots, so they could conceivably sign a veteran free-agent immediately (Damon Stoudamire, Dan Dickau, Jason Williams) and not have to worry about eating a contract or trying to make a trade to fit the new guy in. However, Toronto is only $1000 shy of the luxury tax threshold so signing anyone would cost the team double whatever the contract actually is, and management has made it known they have no intention of paying into the luxury tax.
Judging by the early performance of Ukic and the training camp Will Solomon had, Raptors management may be forced to reconsider their stance at some point during the season if they want to give this team an honest shot to compete with the NBA’s best.
But just as it is too early to get overly-excited about the 3-0 start, it's also too soon to give up on the 23 year old rookie point guard.