30 Teams, 30 Days
Toronto Raptors Season Preview.
We conclude the Atlantic Division previews with the Toronto Raptors. You can read past previews here.
First off, I’d like to welcome you to opening day in the NBA. It’s here, we’ve finally made it. We’ve willed away the last four months, traded summer for sweaters and now it’s time to get back to normalcy. This calls for some dated mood music.
Enjoy it. If you can find a way to loop it so it’s in the background for you all day, even better. And now let’s get into the final season preview, the 30th team in 30 days, the Toronto Raptors.
I’ve been playing a lot of old-school videogames lately. In an era of memory cards, checkpoints and instant saves, I’d forgotten how infuriating it can be to play a game without a continue option. You lose an hour or more of time that you couldn’t really afford to give up in the first place, just to press the wrong button or slip off of a ledge when you’re running top speed and that’s it. Cue the black screen, a depressing tune and some sort of frowny face, signaling the end of your era. Cue up some old-school videogame rage, too.
When I got my umpteenth black fail screen on Wonderboy in Monsterland it brought flashbacks of slamming my controller into the floor when I was in the fifth grade. It was here that the realization hit me. Only one other thing in this world brings me this level of frustration and it’s the Toronto Raptors.
As they head into their 15th season in the NBA, it feels like the Raptors have taken their fans through various stages of the game, only to have it end prematurely, sending them back to level one. For the majority of those 15 years, the hope has been the same for this team: 45-50 wins and a trip to the playoffs, maybe the second round. And save for two or three seasons that you could call a success, the team has fallen short of those hopes, while going down a familiar and unfortunate path.
Everything’s rosy in late October. By Christmas, something’s not right. During All-Star weekend you’re hoping that a trade could turn things around. Come March, you’re hoping they lose to get a good spot in the lotto. At the end of April they’ve put together a win streak out of games that don’t matter and set themselves up for continued mediocrity.
So here the Raptors are again, late October with the world and 82 games in front of them. There are new reasons for optimism. Nine new faces on a gutted roster that’s eager to leave the 33-win season of a year ago behind them. The bench has been shored up and the core of Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon have a new and talented sidekick in Hedo Turkoglu. Throw in ninth-overall pick DeMar DeRozan or Marco Belinelli at the two and you’ve got a solid starting five that’s heavy on the international flavor that the Raps have been serving up for the last three years.
While the expectations/hopes/prayers of Raptors fans and the organization remain the same as most years, more of the same old this year will lead to disaster for this franchise.
With Bosh able to opt out at the end of this season, the same old will result in a trip back to square one for the franchise. Squeaking into the playoffs and losing in the first round likely won’t be enough to keep Bosh with this team a year from now. So tack that pressure onto a team that’s already facing an uphill battle in terms of chemistry, defence and rebounding (still!) and make what you will of it.
It’s not all bleak, though. Watching this group on a nightly basis should be fun this year. Bosh, Bargnani and Calderon were all a part of the 2006-07 Raps team that was able to jell and put together a 47-win campaign that saw them win the Atlantic division banner. While Boston will work to make sure that won’t happen again, Turkoglu should still fit in nicely with this group and Calderon and Jarrett Jack will work together to make sure that everyone’s strengths are catered to on offense. With a tough Eastern Conference around them, the team will need to hit the court running though.
He took his sweet time getting there, but Bargnani seems to have finally turned a corner as he enters his fourth NBA season. He ramped up his play down the stretch last year and has had a strong pre-season. Especially impressive for Bargnani is his determination to get to the hoop, rather than settling for little pop-jumpers within 10-feet of the basket. An attacking, hungry Bargnani will make a huge difference for the Raps this year. Hopefully off-season pickup Reggie Evans can get healthy ASAP, so he can rejoin Amir Johnson in toughening players up in practice.
Long in need of a two-guard, the Raps are hoping they’ve filled the order with DeRozan and Belinelli. If DeRozan can continue to build off of his strong summer-league play (17 points per game) and Belinelli can take advantage of the opportunity in front of him this year (aside: can Belinelli’s joy over being out of G-State even be measurable at this point?), the team will be much improved in a longtime sore spot.
The other Toronto sore spot, of course, comes when they don’t have the ball in their hands. They were exposed throughout their 2-6 pre-season on the perimeter and have long been an opposing rebounder’s paradise. The Raptors gave up 101.9 ppg last year, making them the 11th worst defensive team in the League. Bringing a tougher defensive-minded culture to a team is never easy, but if they can do it, it’d go a long way towards a turnaround in Toronto.
The pieces are there for the Raptors to make their way back into the Eastern playoffs this year, but with Bosh’s free agency looming, this is one season where a slight improvement isn’t going to be enough to keep him in Toronto. Whether Bosh is a top-tier player in the NBA or not, someone’s going to pay him max-money to join their team next July. And when the promise of a deep run into the playoffs holds more weight than the good intentions that his teams have carried in years past, he’ll have to jump at that chance.
The Raptors have more than the standard challenges in front of them this season. The team has to prove itself, from head coach Jay Triano to its 12th man. They have to win in the regular-season, and they need to win a lot. Landing in the No. 6 to 8 spot in the playoffs guarantees a first-round exit. They’ll need home court in the first-round to have a shot at advancing anywhere–and that’s a lot to ask of a team with this much new personnel, in an Eastern Conference that’s tougher than it’s been in years.
When the screen goes black at the end of season 15, the controller might not just get smashed on the floor. It could go through out the window, with some key furniture pieces chasing after it. Brace yourselves, Raptors fans.
Prediction: 41-41, out in the first round.