Back from Extinction: A Toronto Raptors Season Preview

August 29, 2009

by Sean Bafaro…2008/2009 Statistics:

Record: 33-49, Fourth in Atlantic Division, 13th in Eastern Conference.

Scored 99 points per game and gave up 101.9 points per game.

Additions:

Hedo Turkoglu (via sign and trade), DeMar DeRozan (via draft), Marco Belinelli (via trade), Antoine Wright (via trade), Reggie Evans (via trade), Rasho Nesterovic (via free agency), Jarrett Jack (via free agency), Amir Johnson (via trade), Sonny Weems (via trade)

Losses:

Shawn Marion (via sign and trade), Anthony Parker (via free agency), Roko Ukic (via trade), Carlos Delfino (via trade), Pops Mensah-Bonsu (via free agency),  Kris Humphries (via trade), Nathan Jawai (via trade), Jason Kapono (via trade), Joey Graham (not re-signed)

Projected Lineup:

PG: Jose Calderon/Jarrett Jack/Quincy Douby

SG: DeMar DeRozan/Marco Belinelli/Antoine Wright

SF: Hedo Turkoglu/Antoine Wright/DeMar DeRozan

PF: Chris Bosh/Reggie Evans/Amir Johnson

C: Andrea Bargnani/Rasho Nesterovic/Patrick O’Bryant

After the Raptors missed the playoffs and plummeted down the Eastern Conference standings during the 2008-09 NBA season, Bryan Colangelo promised that there would be changes made to the rosterbut nobody expected the complete overhaul that occurred.

Colangelo brought in nine new players through the NBA draft, trades, and free agency,  and he said goodbye to nine familiar faces. The Raptors have been the busiest team this offseason and are hoping that the moves made will catapult them back into the upper-echelon of the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors will once again turn to All-Star power forward Chris Bosh to lead the team.

Bosh has experienced his fair share of ups and downs as the franchise player for the Toronto Raptors. He led them to their first Atlantic Division title just three seasons ago, but the Raptors have regressed each season since then.

However, this season is different for Bosh and the Raptors.

Bosh’s contract is up at the end of the season and he will look to prove to everybody around the league that he is worthy of a max contract and is capable of leading his team to the playoffs. Look for Bosh to step up his game this season on both ends of the floor.

No longer will Bosh have to put the Raptors on his back night in and night out as he now has legitimate help on the offensive end of the floor to lighten the load on him.

This will enable Bosh to play more aggressively on the offensive end, and more importantly, defensively as well. No longer will he have to be passive defensively because of the fear of getting into foul trouble. With the help that he now has at the offensive end of the floor, we just may see Bosh play with the tenacity on the defensive end of the floor that we saw him play with during the Olympics.

One of the biggest problems for the Raptors last season was their lack of a creative offensive wing player, and they added one of the best in the league during the offseason in Hedo Turkoglu.

Turkoglu gives the Raptors another offensive option, playmaker, and perhaps most importantly of all, a reliable option in the clutch, which is something that the Raptors severely lacked last season.

Having Turkoglu on the roster gives them a lot of options offensively as he is a very capable ball handler, perhaps one of the best point-forwards in the league today, and as a 6’10″ small forward, he creates plenty of mismatch opportunities.

At times last season the Raptors became very predictable on the offensive end of the floor due to their lack of creative ball handlers, but with Turkoglu in the lineup, that is no longer the case.

Turkoglu was a crucial piece in the Orlando Magic’s run to the NBA Finals last season and the Raptors are counting on Turkoglu to help take them to the next level, in the same way he helped the Magic.

The ninth overall draft pick from USC, DeMar DeRozan, along with Marco Belinelli and Antoine Wright, give the Raptors a deep shooting guard rotation, which is something that they have not had the luxury of over the past couple of seasons. The best thing about this trio of shooting guards is that they all bring something different to the table.

Belinelli is the most offensively gifted of the three and he will give the Raptors another option whenever he is on the floor. He is a very good shooter and is also able to create his own shot off of the dribble, which will be a welcome attribute to the lineup.

Defensively, he isn’t great, but he is not a complete liability either.

Wright is a physical, hard-nosed defender that will certainly be given the task of guarding the opposing teams best perimeter player ever game. The Raptors have struggled guarding players at the point of attack, and having a defensive-minded player like Wright will go a long way to help fix this problem.

DeRozan is a very good athlete and possess a lot of raw talent. It will take him time to adjust to the much quicker, stronger, and more athletic NBA game. He will have his fair share of ups and downs during the course of the season, but having depth at the 2-guard gives the Raptors the luxury of bringing him along slowly.

This year when the Raptors are struggling at the wing positions, they have the option of going to their bench and inserting a new face into the game. They also won’t have to ask players to play outside of their games and do things that they really aren’t capable of doing. Toronto did not have the luxury of either of these things last season because of its limited depth at the wing positions.

Former first overall pick Andrea Bargnani was given a five-year, $50 million contract extension this offseason as a result of his solid play down the stretch of last season. He is undoubtedly going to look to prove that he was worth the long-term investment that the Raptors put in him was worth it and improve on his play from last season.

Jarrett Jack gives the Raptors a reliable backup point guard behind Jose Calderon. Calderon was hampered by a hamstring injury for the majority of last season and when he was not on the floor, the Raptors struggled mightily without a reliable backup point guard.

Jack is a physical player that isn’t a pure point guard in the sense that he will look for his own shot quite a bit, but that change of pace and contrast in styles proved to be incredibly successful for the Raptors when T.J. Ford was with the team. One thing that Jack gives the team that they will be very pleased with is his physical defense on opposing guards.

The Raptors got bullied around inside last season and in order to help bring some interior defense, toughness and rebounding, the Raptors added Reggie Evans and Rasho Nesterovic through a trade and free agency respectively.

Evans is a rugged rebounder that has a knack for getting under opposing players’ skin. He is a very good agitator and is a great energy big man. He does not back down from anybody and is not afraid to get physical.

Nesterovic is a veteran that has been around the block. He has a very good understanding of the game, plays good positional defense and is a very good veteran presence. He is back for his second tour of duty with the Raptors and will be an excellent backup center.

Rounding out the Raptors roster is power forward Amir Johnson, swingman Sonny Weems, center Patrick O’Bryant, and guards Marcus Banks and Quincy Douby.

Toronto is going to be one of the most offensively gifted teams in the entire NBA next season and will look to push the pace. They have gifted offensive players at every position and will have absolutely no problems scoring the ball.

However, the key for the Raptors next season is not going to be how many points they score, but rather how many points they allow their opposition to score. The Raptors are certainly not going to turn any heads with stellar, lockdown defensive play next season.

With the talent that this team has on the offensive end of the floor, as long as they are able to play average defense throughout the course of the game, they will put themselves in position to win the basketball game.

After a very disappointing season last year, the Raptors look to bounce back and once again be a playoff basketball team. They have made the necessary moves in order to surround Chris Bosh with talent, they have addressed plenty of team needs through trades and free agency and have generated an excitement among Raptors nation.

On paper the Toronto Raptors are a playoff team, but will that translate onto the court?

We will have our answer soon enough.

Toronto Raptors: Is The Power Shifting To The Eastern Conference?

August 12, 2009

by Sean Bafaro… Over the past decade, the NBA’s Western Conference has been the dominant Conference in the NBA. From the Los Angeles Lakers 3-peat at the beginning of the decade, to the San Antonio Spurs consistently being among the leagues elite and basically winning a title every second year, to the Lakers winning their fourth NBA Championship of the decade this past season, the Western Conference has been the cream of the crop in the NBA this past decade.

In fact, the NBA Champions have come out of the Western Conference seven times this decade. Over the past ten seasons, the Western Conference playoff teams have a winning percentage of 0.643 which is significantly superior to the Eastern Conference’s winning percentage of 0.574 during the same ten years.

Make no mistake about it, the West has been home to the best of the best for the last ten years and just may have been the toughest conference in NBA history, but is that still the case?

The Eastern Conference has begun to pick it up over the past two seasons and last season was the first time this decade that the collective winning percentage of the playoff teams in the Eastern Conference was above 60%. Three of the top 4 teams in the NBA were apart of the Eastern Conference last season in the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers.

The biggest knock on the East this past season was that aside from these three team, they had little to no depth in the rest of the conference, but with some of the moves that have been made during this offseason, I don’t know if that is the case anymore.

The second tier teams of the Eastern Conference have definitely improved by a great deal this offseason.

The Washington Wizards made a trade just prior to the draft and in the process added some much needed depth to the lineup by acquiring Mike Miller and Randy Foye from the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Combine that deal with the fact that it seems like Gilbert Arenas is going to be healthy for the first time in two seasons and that they have their starting center in Brendan Haywood back healthy as well, the Wizards are certainly looking much better than the abysmal 19-63 team that they were last season and are more than capable of competing for a middle of the pack playoff seed assuming that everybody stays healthy.

The Atlanta Hawks didn’t make too many moves during the offseason, but they did make one trade with the Golden State Warriors which say them acquire explosive scorer Jamal Crawford who looks poised to give the Hawks a potent scoring threat off of the bench.

They also added another dangerous scorer by the name of Jeff Teague, their first round pick in this years NBA Draft. Most important of all perhaps, they managed to resign veteran point guard Mike Bibby who may be the most important player on the Hawks roster.

The thing about the Hawks though is that this is a team that didn’t need to make a bunch of moves this past offseason as they are coming off of a 47-35 season and a fourth place finish in the Eastern Conference despite being a relatively young team.

They are counting on a lot of internal growth from the likes of Josh Smith, Al Horford and Marvin Williams, and if the past few seasons is any indication, their is a good chance that they will get that growth. Even if their young three are basically the same players as last season, they will still be a team to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference and capable of knocking anybody off on any given night.

The Chicago Bulls lost their leading scorer from the past season in Ben Gordon, but there is absolutely no reason to write them off because of that. Fresh off of his Rookie Of The Year season, look for Derrick Rose to take the next step in his game and become the undisputed leader of this upstart Bulls team. Rose has a tremendous amount of potential and it would not surprise me one bit to see him become one of the top 5 point guards in the entire NBA next season.

The Bulls are also going to get promising young small forward Luol Deng back and he is more than capable of making up for some of the scoring that they will miss with Gordon leaving. The Bulls are another young team and are counting on young big men Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah to become better players, and having an entire training camp to completely implement John Salmons and Brad Miller into the mix is only going to help the Bulls as well.

Last season we say that Bulls give the defending NBA Champion Boston Celtics all that they could handle and more in their epic first round matchup, and the young Bulls are looking to take the next step as a team, which they are more than capable of doing.

The Toronto Raptors underwent a complete roster overhaul this past season and are looking much better off as a result. They added the very versatile Hedo Turkoglu to their roster.

Having Turkoglu on the floor addresses one of the Raptors biggest needs which is a talented, perimeter playmaker. Last season the Raptors had arguably the worst perimeter rotation in the entire league, and adding Turkoglu, a guy who is very adapt at creating for others, scoring himself and is a dependable late game performer, is going to help out the Raptors tremendously.

Another one of the Raptors biggest problems last season was that they had nobody to turn to with the clock winding down as all of their perimeter players are not good at creating for theirselves, which is just another thing that Hedo is going to add to the team as he is one of the best late game performers in the entire NBA.

The Raptors also added some toughness down low by trading Jason Kapono to the Philadelphia 76′ers for rugged Reggie Evans as well as signing former Raptor, Rasho Nesterovic.

Evans is one of the most ferocious rebounders in the entire NBA and is the consummate hustle player that gets after you every second that he is one the floor. Nesterovic gives the Raptors a good interior defender, a capable rebounder and a great veteran big man off of the bench and presence in the locker room.

The Raptors also addressed the gaping hole that was their backup point guard by signing former Indiana Pacer Jarrett Jack. Having Jack as the backup point guard will give the Raptors a very familiar change of pace point guard combo that they had so much success with when TJ Ford and Jose Calderon were playing together.

Jack was not the only backcourt player that they added as they also acquired defensive specialist Antoine Wright from the Dallas Mavericks and talented, albeit unproven, Marco Belinelli from the Golden State Warriors. These two, along with first round draft pick DeMar DeRozan, will be battling it out for shooting guard supremacy all season long, and is a significant upgrade from last seasons rotation of Anthony Parker and Jason Kapono.

The Raptors have underwent a complete makeover, gone is Shawn Marion, Jason Kapono, Anthony Parker, Joey Graham, Kris Humphries and Nathan Jawai. Coming to Toronto is Hedo Turkoglu, Reggie Evans, Marco Belinelli, Jarrett Jack, DeMar DeRozan and Rasho Nesterovic.

The Raptors had three glaring weaknesses last season and those were perimeter talent, depth and defense. Bryan Colangelo has managed to address two of those three weaknesses and the Raptors are looking like much better than the 33-49 team that we say last season and a team that is poised to make a serious push for the playoffs.

The Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76′ers didn’t make much noise this offseason, but I am never going to count out a team that has a healthy Dwyane Wade on it.

We also have to keep in mind that rookies Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley are bound to make improvements to their game and provide Wade with some more help on the floor. If Jermaine O’Neal can stay healthy he will give them a good interior defender and shot blockers well.

The Sixers lost Andre Miller which is a huge blow, but they will have a healthy Elton Brand on the team and if he is able to mesh well with the team they can be very dangerous. Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young are both young and improving, and if Louis Williams can step up to be a legit starting point guard in the NBA, the Sixers aren’t a team to mess around with either.

The Detroit Pistons are another team that is worth mentioning as they had a fairly busy offseason by signing Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Chris Wilcox. Although I am not a huge fan of the moves that the Pistons made, with a lineup of Stuckey/Hamilton/Prince/Villanueva/Wilcox with Ben Gordon off of the bench just may prove me wrong.

So all of the moves that the second tier teams in the Eastern Conference made this past offseason, combined with the fact that the Celtics, Magic and Cavaliers all made what many consider to be improvements to their roster as well as the fact that teams like the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns look like they might fall off this season, is the power shifting to the Eastern Conference?

Jurassic Spark: NBA Draft and Offseason Trades Renew Toronto Raptors Excitement

August 9, 2009

by Sean Bafaro… The Toronto Raptors have been one of the busiest teams in the NBA during this years offseason making a variety of moves. President and General Manager Bryan Colangelo has been a very busy man and given the Raptors a complete makeover thus far.

Bryan Colangelo started it all off when he dealt small forward Jason Kapono to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for power forward Reggie Evans. Kapono had begun to wear out his welcome in Toronto and he never lived up to the expectations that Colangelo had for him when Colangelo signed Kapono in 2007 and really didn’t fit on the Raptors.

In exchange for the sharp shooting Kapono, the Raptors acquired rugged power forward Reggie Evans. Evans is a terrific rebounder and a very tough, physical defender. The Raptors have been criticized for being a soft team, especially in the paint, and adding a player like Evans gives them a tough interior player.

The next move that the Raptors made came during the 2009 NBA Draft where they had the ninth overall pick. They decided to use their pick on a player by the name of DeMar DeRozan out of the University of Southern Carolina. DeRozan was considered to be one of, if not the best athletes in the entire draft and has a tremendous upside.

DeRozan will most likely not be an immediate impact player due to him still being relatively raw, but he has a great deal of potential and is just a fantastic athlete, something that the Raptors have not had on the perimeter since Vince Carter called the Air Canada Center home.

After the NBA Draft was finished, Bryan Colangelo set his sights on free agency, and one particular free agent stood out from the rest in his eyes. That free agent was Hedo Turkoglu who was coming off of an NBA Finals appearance with the Orlando Magic.

It seemed as though Colangelo would not be able to get his man though as Turkoglu had agreed in principle to sign with the Portland Trail Blazers. However, at the last minute, Colangelo was able to convince Turkoglu to come to the Raptors and sign a long term deal with the team.

Rather than signing Turkoglu outright which would force the Raptors to renounce the rights to various free agents and also force them to give up the Mid Level Exception, Colangelo managed to acquire Turkoglu in a four-team sign and trade that included the Raptors, Magic, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies.

Along with acquiring Turkoglu and holding onto their Mid Level Exception, the Raptors also received Antoine Wright and Devean George from the Mavericks while giving up Shawn Marion, Kris Humphries, and Nathan Jawai.

With the blockbuster trade enabling Colangelo to use the MLE, he set his sights on another free agent. This time he was after the Indiana Pacers’ Jarrett Jack.

Colangelo set aside around $5M of the MLE for Jack and signed him to an offer sheet which the Indiana Pacers would decide not to match, and as a result the Raptors strengthened the point guard spot by adding a very solid backup to starter Jose Calderon.

The Raptors struggled last season when Calderon was bothered by a hamstring injury and felt that it was necessary to go out and get a reliable backup and Jack is a great one.

The Raptors also locked up one of their core players for the next five seasons as they gave former first overall pick and starting center Andrea Bargnani a five-year, $50 million contract extension after he showed vast improvements to his overall game during the second half of last season.

By locking Bargnani up long term, it will prevent any sort of future questions about his role to the team and it completely solidifies his role as the teams future center.

With the Raptors in need of an experienced backup center, they turned their sights to former Raptor Rasho Nesterovic and the two sides had mutual interest.

Nesterovic absolutely loves the city of Toronto and was crushed when he had to leave the Raptors last year as apart of the Jermaine O’Neal trade so when it was reported that the Raptors were bringing the veteran Slovenian center back, it came as no surprise to anybody. Nesterovic gives the Raptors a solid interior defender and rebounder, as well as a great veteran presence on and off of the floor.

Lastly, Bryan Colangelo struck another home run when he acquired 23 year old Italian shooting guard Marco Belinelli from the Golden State Warriors in exchange for Devean George. This just may have been the best move that Colangelo made all offseason long and nobody saw it coming.

George really never fit into the Raptors plans and there was talk of the two sides coming to terms on a buyout, so being able to turn that into a young 23-year-old shooting guard with a pretty good upside was just an absolutely wonderful deal on the Raptors behalf.

I admit that I have been very skeptical of Bryan Colangelo in the past, but I have to admit that he has done a magnificent job this offseason.

Out are Shawn Marion, Anthony Parker, Joey Graham, Jason Kapono, Kris Humphries and Nathan Jawai.

In are Hedo Turkoglu, DeMar DeRozan, Reggie Evans, Marco Belinelli, Jarrett Jack, and Antoine Wright.

The Raptors have had a busy offseason making plenty of deals. They have changed the complexion of the roster and brought in plenty of new faces after the disappointment that was the 2008/2009 season in an attempt to surround star power forward Chris Bosh with talent and hopefully, in the process, proving to him that it would be in his best interest to resign with the Toronto Raptors.

These moves all seem to be for the best as on paper the Raptors look to be a much improved team heading into the 2009/2010 season, but will it translate onto the floor? That is a question that Raptor fans are all dying to find out the answer to.