Raptors Ready for a New Season... Will it Be as Soul-Crushing as Usual?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Written by Gonzalo Moreno

As the baseball season winds to an end (without a Toronto team in the playoffs) and the NHL regains full momentum (will there be a Toronto team in the playoffs?), people forget about that other Toronto team (one that won't make the playoffs either). That's right, the NBA season starts on Tuesday, with the Toronto Raptors opening their season on Wednesday against none other than Vince Carter and the New Jersey Nets.

Toronto has gone through a major roster overhaul. All the remainders of the Carter era, including the disastrous consequences of his trade, are gone, that is except for team stalwart Morris Peterson. Chris Bosh signed a contract extension over the summer that has ensured his standing as the cornerstone of this team for many seasons to come. The new management, which hardly had time to cut its teeth when it was brought in late last season, has implicitly emphasized this not just by giving Bosh his extension, but also by building a roster around him.

The Raptors used their first overall round pick to draft an Italian seven footer, and then trimmed some roster fat by sending Matt Bonner and Carter leftover Eric Williams to San Antonio in exchange for rotation center Rasho Nesterovic. They also signed Spanish power forward Jorge Garbajosa, adding yet another 250lbs to the Raptors’ rotation. All of these moves were made to ensure that Bosh, who was played to exhaustion against much larger opponents last year, had some help in the paint and a bit more rest this season.

The backcourt didn’t fare so well though. Mike James signed for Minnesota as a free agent. If I were so inclined, I could write volumes about James’s gun-for-hire-to-the-best-bidder attitude to the game, but the fact remains that he leaves a 20-point, 6-assist gaping hole in Toronto. To fill that void, the Raps chose third-year Milwaukee point guard T.J. Ford, a promising, athletic player who was sidelined for almost two seasons with a spinal condition, although doctors have said that he is now clear to play without fear of recurrence.

To get Ford, the Raps had to trade second year forward Charlie Villanueva to Milwaukee, which puts a giant question mark on the whole move. Villanueva was the only piece of good news last season, Bosh notwithstanding. GM Bryan Colangelo has chosen to give the team solid direction from point guard, something that it lacked even in the Carter years, in exchange for Villanueva’s scoring abilities and athleticism. It is a gamble, and the winner can start to be decided when the Raptors host Villanueva and the Bucks in their home opener on Friday.

In other moves, the Raptors offloaded perennial laughing stock Rafa Araujo and chronically injured veteran Alvin Williams, and signed uninteresting free agents and draft picks from previous years, such as Israeli League All-Star Anthony Parker. The exception to this rule is Fred Jones, Indiana's sixth man last season, who will bring defensive grit and a scoring touch to the Raptors starting line-up, in what was the only indisputably good move by Toronto in this off-season.

So where does this leave the Raptors? If the preseason is to give any clues, this season might just be fruitful. Toronto only lost one game, and played good basketball throughout October. Ford seems to be having the team dancing to his tune, Jones has stepped up from Indiana’s bench to a solid Toronto starter, and Garbajosa and second-year point-guard Jose Calderón have shown some of the chemistry that led Spain to win this summer's World Basketball Championship. Peterson and Bosh have also chipped in as usual. Add to this the lack of conflictive veterans, and it equates into the most productive and hope-inspiring preseason that the Raptors have had in years.

Yet carrying this into November is an entirely different matter. Bargnani’s contribution is still suspect, and certainly not resembling what should be expected from a number one draft pick. Scoring might be a problem now that Villanueva and James are gone: Ford, who should be picking up some of the slack, has a career shooting percentage in the very low .400 (even worse than Calderón's much-maligned shooting), and Nesterovic has been rather quiet in the scoring front in pre-season. Jones can manage some of it, but it will ultimately be down to unproven talent like Garbajosa, Parker and Bargnani to make a difference by helping Bosh out. And if the Raps don’t measure up in the first couple of months, coach Sam Mitchell will likely be fired, which means another season down the drain while a new coach gets his new team figured out.

I want to add a word about Garbajosa, just on the premise that he used to play in Málaga, a city where I lived for four years. I am mortally afraid that he will not find a role in this team: despite his size, sending him to battle it out with opposing power forwards in the paint (which he will do if asked) would be a huge waste. Garbajosa is an extremely smart player with a silky shooting touch from any distance and very solid fundamentals, although he lacks the athleticism and speed that most NBA forwards these days base their game on. Being cannon fodder to soften up the opposition for Bosh, while a legitimate tactic, is a task that can be performed by any player with half of Garbajosa's talent. Of course, the prospect of being Bosh’s sub is not all that appealing either, because it would mean very few minutes of playing time. Figuring out a frontcourt rotation scheme that maximizes Bosh's impact while achieving a decent mix of brawn and brains will likely be the key to the Raptor's season.

Since no one will remember this come April, I'll make a prediction. The Raptors will win 38 games, placing them close to, but not quite into, Eastern Conference playoff territory. But hey, anything’s an improvement over the last few years.

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