Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Raptors Preview

The Glass is Half Full (The Justin Thompson Perspective)

As we prepare for tip-off on the new NBA season, the 2009-10 edition of the Toronto Raptors appears to be, on paper, the deepest and most talented team in franchise history.

Legitimately two deep at every position, with the ability to throw multiple looks at opponents, and with the depth to potentially absorb injuries...the path back to the playoffs is clear for Toronto. A special thanks for that goes out to Joe Dumars and the Detroit Pistons for a self-sabotage job; the Charlotte Bobcats for allowing Michael Jordan to repeatedly screw up their roster; Donnie Walsh and the New York Knicks for foolishly continuing to believe they have a shot at luring LBJ to the Big Apple; the Milwaukee Bucks for being themselves; and the Indiana Pacers for once again trotting out the white-out line-up with a straight face.

For the Raps, the addition of bruising forward Reggie Evans and the return of Rasho Nesterovic give the team a toughness they haven't had since Charles Oakley was punching out opponents during morning shoot-arounds and chasing them off the court during games. Perhaps someone could convince Evans that Vince Carter owes him money? Just a thought.

And speaking of Vince, Toronto finally added an honest-to-goodness, proven finisher, a piece that has been missing since Carter pouted his way out of town five years ago. That piece would be Hedo Turkoglu, the 6-10 small forward who led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals last spring and will combine with Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani to create one of the biggest and best shooting frontcourts in the league.

The Italian Stallion, former first overall pick Bargnani, played solid basketball the final 30 games of last season and was rewarded with a sparkling new five year contract that has the potential to be very good (or brutally bad - but that wouldn't fit into the 'Glass is Half Full' analysis).

Factor in a motivated Bosh (he'll be playing for a new contract and potentially auditioning for other teams - but will ultimately re-sign in Toronto because this is the best fit for him...and we can pay him the most money) and a healthy and rested Jose Calderon (who finally took a summer off from the Spanish national team) and the outlook for the Raptors can easily be painted as 'rosey'.

By the way, I am convinced it was my urging Calderon (read: heckling) at the World Baseball Classic in Toronto, where he stood outside Will Call waiting for his tickets in the pouring rain with the rest of us mere mortals, that led to him kicking up his feet from June through August. Yup, all me. You're welcome.

At any rate, the Toronto sports situation is so dire that the Raptors are almost assured of being the most successful pro team in the city. The bar is set so low it might only be six inches off the ground.

The Glass is Half Empty (The Jon Scratch Perspective)

Unfortunately, six inches might still be too much for this group.

With ten new players on the roster (Marco Belinelli, DeMar DeRozan, Jarrett Jack, Amir Johnson, Antoine Wright, Sonny Weems, Quincy Douby, Nesterovic, Evans and Turkoglu), a pre-season that left more than a little doubt about team cohesiveness, and an early West coast road-trip that will surely leave the team below .500, there are several indications that this team may indeed look good on paper but might not be so good on the floor.

And I am not totally sold on Jay Triano as an NBA head coach. It's great that he's Canadian and by all accounts a terrific guy, but that and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee. His career coaching record is 25-40 and he smiled all the way through it. I want a coach who is unafraid to challenge his players, who demands they compete every single night, and calls intelligent set plays at opportune times. I haven't seen any of those qualities thus far in Triano. But hey, at least he's cheap!

As mentioned in the 'Glass is Half Full' section, with all the new faces the Raps have the ability to dramatically change their on-court look. And they better, because the dribble down the court and then fire up a bad jumper offence isn't going get it done. Let's hope Triano has some ideas for 'different looks' that include: 1) actually using cuts and backdoor passes, 2) ball movement, 3) knocking guys on their asses.

Another potential downfall is the team's three point shooting which has been abysmal in the preseason. Gone are Toronto's two best three point marksmen (Anthony Parker and Jason Kapono) and in their place are Turkoglu (a career 38% 3PT shooter who shot an underwhelming 35.6% last year), Jack (career 34% on 3 pointers), Wright (career 29%), Bellinelli (career 39%) and an untested rookie in DeRozan. In a league that is increasingly becoming one where teams live and die by the 3 point shot, this does not bode well.

Also on the negative side is the video intro that is used as a prelude to each Raptor broadcast that will undoubtedly be horrible. Unfortunately I have no inside 'sources' in the organization who can tip me off on the nature of this year's video, but if recent history is any indication, I would bet the house this thing will be tremendously awful. I'm thinking Jay-Z and Rihanna's 'Run This Town' with completely awkward dancing and uncomfortable, forced smiles. Ladies and gentlemen...your Toronto Raptors!

And on top of all that, Raptor fans will also have to deal with Year 2 of the Matt Devlin era, who my friend Jon Scratch has effectively dubbed "Dry Toast". Listening to Devlin call basketball makes me want to rip my ears off and run them over in my car.

The CSJ Final Analysis

Predictably, I am siding somewhere in the middle of the two aforementioned perspectives. I certainly believe this is a playoff team, and while I'm hopeful of a 4-5-6 seed, I could just as easily see Toronto in a dog race with 3-4 other teams for the final two playoff spots.

The final verdict: 44-38 and the sixth seed in the East.

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