The Toronto Raptors were the surprise team of the 2006-07 season. They improved their record by 20 games, winning their first division title in franchise history. And while they were upset by the more experienced Nets in the First Round, things are certainly looking up in the T-Dot.
Last year's improvement came with the additions of T.J. Ford, Anthony Parker, Jorge Garbajosa and Andrea Bargnani, as well as the continued development of Chris Bosh as one of the best big men in the league. Bosh's numbers have improved every year he's been in the league and he's an All-Star until further notice. As he goes, so do the Raptors.
But you've got to like the team that Bryan Colangelo has constructed around his franchise player. They've got two quality point guards in Ford and Jose Calderon, solid defenders like Parker and Garbajosa, and shooters (Parker, Bargnani and free agent addition Jason Kapono) galore.
The shooters are critical because, like like the Spurs do with Tim Duncan, the Raptors' offense is about getting the ball to Bosh. If the defense doesn't double, then he can score inside and out. But if they do, the Raps move the ball to the open man (their assist/field goal ratio improved from .529 in '05-06 to .601 last season), and if everyone on the floor can shoot it, the defense is in trouble.
So, while you predict greatness for the Celtics and believe the Nets are still one of the better teams in the East, don't forget about the defending Atlantic Division champions, who are ready to take another step up. And according to their star, that step may come on the defensive end of the floor.
"The offense will be there all day," Bosh said this summer, "but if we take a very serious approach to defending, that will make us a lot better."
T.J. Ford is as quick as they come, but he is the one shooting liability in the starting lineup (although he did shoot it well against the Nets in the playoffs). Jose Calderon showed an improved jumper at Eurobasket, cementing his position as the best back-up point in the league.
While Anthony Parker isn't the explosive scorer that you may be used to seeing at the two in the NBA, he's a solid player on both ends of the floor with no real weaknesses, a nice complement to Bosh. Juan Dixon gave the Raptors some scoring off the bench (11.1) after coming over from Portland in the middle of last season. He's joined by Carlos Delfino, who the Raptors acquired from Detroit for a pair of second-round picks.
Andrea Bargnani moves into a permanent role as the starting five alongside Bosh. A tough matchup for other fives around the league, he will stretch the defense, but the Raptors need him to be a bettter rebounder and defender.
The addition of Kapono likely moves Jorge Garbajosa to the bench. Kapono led the league in three point percentage (.514) last season and should be another beneficiary of Bosh's work down low. Garbajosa is a utility man who can play any of the three frontcourt positions.
Rasho Nesterovic also moves to the bench and Maceo Baston comes in to try to help the Raptors on the boards, where they ranked 27th (rebounding differential) last season.
-- John Schuhmann
Raptors season tickets are available for as little as $855. The best is yet to come!
He didn't come in with the hype of a LeBron James or a Greg Oden, but Andrea Bargnani was still the No. 1 selection of the 2006 NBA Draft. He surpassed expectations in his rookie year, finishing second in ROY voting, gave us a taste of his unlimited potential, and drew comparisons to MVP Dirk Nowitzki. So, if the Raptors are going to go from First Round loser to serious Eastern Conference contender, it could be improvement from Bargnani that takes them there.
"His development is very important to us," Bosh said about last year's top pick. "He's another big guy, and if you have two big guy's who can really play, it gives teams a lot of problems."
Offensively, Bargnani mostly kept to the perimeter last year. He would hang out at the top of the key, perhaps set a screen for the ball-handler and wait for his man to sag, so he could fire it up from downtown. More than 37 percent of his field goals came from beyond the arc, and most of those came from the middle of the floor.
Bargnani wasn't nearly as effective when the defense made him put the ball on the floor, but that was more about being in a rush than a lack of ball-handling skills. He also lacks a strong back-to-the-basket game. Otherwise, the kid can do it all offensively. He just needs to take his time and take what the defense gives him.
But where Bargnani needs the most work is on the other end of the floor. For a seven-footer, he's not much of a defensive presence. And he's not much of a presence on the boards (just 7.5 rebounds per 48 minutes last season) either.
No one's asking him to put it all together right away. But the improvement that he makes in the next couple of years will go a long way in determining how far the Raptors go.
-- John Schuhmann
||The Raptors have made at least one three pointer in 696 consecutive regular season games, an NBA record.
Once, 2-4 (.333)
Coming into the final year of his contract with a 60-104 career record, saying that Sam Mitchell was on the hot seat last season is an understatement. But his team's franchise-record 47 wins earned him the Coach of the Year award and a new deal with the Raptors.
Of course, it now puts added pressure on him to keep his team near the top of the Eastern Conference and make it past the First Round the next time around. In order to do that, he'll need to get his team focused more on the defensive end of the floor, and he'll need to make adjustments when teams take Chris Bosh out of his comfort zone, like New Jersey did this past April.
-- John Schuhmann
KNOW YOUR RAPTORS
Carlos Delfino was discovered by the same European team (Reggio Calabria) that discovered Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs.
No. 1, Chris Bosh's health is huge. But each year in the league, he has gotten better and better, and that's not likely to stop.
What will help him is that he'll have more room to operate, because three of the other four starters (Parker, Kapono and Bargnani) can really shoot the ball. So, if they spread the floor and have T.J. Ford and Bosh in a pick-and-roll, you've got trouble for the defense. And if you give him the ball at the elbow like KG, it's hard for the other defenders to sag off the shooters.
A key for them is whether or not Ford can make shots consistently. That's always a question.
Delfino gives them some more athleticism. They were hurt by the athleticism and size of New Jersey's big three in the playoffs last season.
The one thing you have to keep an eye on is how Bargnani transitions into starting at the five. He will be a tough matchup for other fives, but it's just a matter of how he defends down low.
-- Eastern Conference Scout