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Raptors Finding Their Way At Season's Midpoint

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January 18, 2010

The Raptors entered the 2009-10 NBA season as one of the league’s most unknown quantities and 41 games later it's still extremely difficult to get a read on this rebuilt squad.

In between a euphoric season-opening victory over the Cavaliers and Sunday's resounding win over the Mavericks, the Raptors were simply awful in some-early season blowouts, but awfully good as of late. The well-documented turning point occurred after a 146-115 hammering at the hands of the Hawks in Atlanta. A team meeting ensued and a different group has clearly emerged, largely on the strength of a renewed commitment to defence.

Since that infamous meeting, the Raptors have gone 14-7, culminating with perhaps their best overall performance of the season against Dallas in game 41.

In order to get a better perspective on what transpired in the first half and what might be ahead, Raptors.com spoke to our very own panel of experts to answer a few key questions.

Our illustrious panel...

1. What has been the biggest surprise of the season for the Raptors thus far?

Hamilton: My choice has to be the play of Amir Johnson and Sonny Weems. They have provided solid, consistent production off the bench for the Raptors so far this season.

Smith: I'll go with the point guard position. I'm not necessarily 'surprised' at how well Jose Calderon and Jarrett Jack have played -- they're both solid players. But what I'm pleasantly surprised with is the way Toronto didn't really skip a beat in Calderon's 10+ game absence and how seamless his return to the line up (in a reserve role now) has been. Further to that, Marcus Banks provided some solid defence and depth at the point while Calderon was out and his impact cannot be overlooked.

Devlin: Coming into the season, the least talked about addition to the Raptors was Arkansas product Sonny Weems. The second year guard/forward spent most of last year playing in the NBA D-League. In fact, Weems recorded just 12 total games in his rookie season for the Denver Nuggets. In training camp, Sonny’s objective was to become a rotation player for the Raptors. It took a while, but it happened. Sonny took advantage of the opportunity and has never looked back. After playing in just 10 of the first 23 games, Weems has played in 17 straight. He provides energy and much-needed athleticism to the Raptors. Sonny is averaging over 5 ppg and 15+ minutes. He played a career-best 30 minutes on Dec. 20 vs. the Hornets and he’s scored a career-high 12 points twice. And with his mid-range jumper falling, you get the feeling his minutes may even increase.

Armstrong: Has to be Amir Johnson. I love how hard he plays and he's a guy I didn't expect a lot out of going into this year and he's shown me that he can be a solid reserve in this league. Good attitude and team guy.

Virk: The biggest surprise to me has been the play of Amir Johnson and Sonny Weems. Neither had played many minutes in the NBA prior to this season but have filled a void for this team in the absence of Reggie Evans, as the Young Guns - energetic rebounders and hard working defensive players willing to do the dirty work and help the club in whatever way possible.

The excellent play of Jarrett Jack. When the Raptors signed Jack away from Indiana, it was thought he would be bring some toughness and act as a capable fill-in for Jose Calderon. Instead, the Raps did not miss a beat with Calderon out.

2. Aside from Chris Bosh, who has been the Raptors’ most valuable contributor so far this season?

Armstrong: Andrea Bargnani has been very steady in his effort each day. I love the improvements he's making in his game and he's really matured quite a bit. He's trying to play tough, defend and rebound. His overall awareness and reliability has improved greatly.

Ulmer: Andrea Bargnani. The big man is working towards 20 points per game but his blocks and work in the low post have impressed as well. Who would have thought him capable of a 17-rebound night?

Virk: Andrea Bargnani has been terrific for this team. His offensive game has jumped to the next level with a greater willingness to drive the lane rather than settle for outside jumpers and he’s shown a renewed commitment to working hard at the defensive end, utilizing his seven-foot frame. With greater consistency will come greater results.

Hamilton: I would say Jarrett Jack. Especially since his insertion into the starting lineup. In the absence of Jose Calderon, he has done an admirable job keeping the starting line productive.

Smith: Andrea Bargnani. He has continued to improve as his career has evolved and he really seems to be stepping out of his shell that much more this year. Not only is he scoring, but he's starting to rebound and defend much better as well. You can tell he's more comfortable in his own skin - on and off the floor.

Devlin: Outside of CB4, it’s Andrea Bargnani. Il Mago is second on the team in scoring and rebounding. He leads the team in blocked shots. He’s averaging career-best numbers and he’s the third-highest scoring centre in the East. He grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds in Indiana. More importantly, Bargnani is realizing that he can impact the game in different ways. When his three isn’t on, he’s driving to the bucket, he’s posting up smalls, sharing the ball, getting stops on D (remember the 1-on-1 coverage with Duncan and Howard?), rebounding better and Andrea is getting more vocal.

3. Speaking of Bosh, do you think the Raptors’ first half has influenced, good or bad, his looming decision on free agency?

Devlin: Simply put… no.

Ulmer: Chris Bosh is one of the few athletes who means it when he says he will move to play for a winner. Much depends on the second half of the season and the playoffs. One thing is for sure, it would have been extraordinarily difficult to see him staying in the wake of another losing season.

Virk: Considering that the raptors first half has hovered around the .500 mark I don’t think it’s had any impact on his decision making. I don’t think even he knows what he’s going to do at this point and it will be predicated on this club making the playoffs and how they do from that point forward.

Armstrong: Based upon what we've seen from this team so far if you're CB4, I still think you're hoping to see some more internal improvement around you before you make a decision on your status. This is a great market with phenomenal potential. He's endured more losses and frustration than triumph and wins. If this team gets better between now and end of year, the Raptors will have a good shot at making a strong pitch to Chris on the future of this organization. Smith: Honestly, I'm not sure if it has had any impact - good or bad. I still believe that Bosh has not made up his mind RE: staying or going and that decision won't come until the end of the season and Bosh takes a look at things like post-season success (or lack thereof) and how promising the future looks for the team as a whole. While being "the man" (having "his own" team) seems important to CB4, I don't doubt that being on a consistent, winning team is just as important.

Hamilton: Hard to tell. At one game over .500 I wouldn’t say that is overwhelming proof for him to stay or leave. I think Chris’ decision will come down to the best opportunity to win and comfort level.

4. Is this team better, worse or about where you expected at this point of the season?

Hamilton: I thought this Raptors team would be a bit better record-wise at this point of the season. Even though they had a pretty difficult schedule in the first half I expected more consistency, and a clearer identity by now.

Virk: They are about where I expected them to be. In the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff teams. Originally I had them pegged at 42-40 and sixth in the East. Looking at the upcoming sked, I think they could reach 45 wins at best or as low as 39 if a slump ends up hitting.

Armstrong: I expected a bit better at this point but pretty close to where I thought they could be. I thought they would be a 43-46 win team if all went right and they've had injuries and a major transition with lots of new guys. I do think they are wery capable of getting on a roll in second half.

Smith: I'd say they're right where they should be. Sure, it'd be nice to be 2-3-4 more games above .500 (or more) but I predicted the Raptors to finish with 43 or 44 wins and I think they're right in line for that now. With more home games and a "lighter" schedule coming in the second half of the year, that win total (or more) is very attainable.

Devlin: The Raptors are exactly where I thought they’d be at this stage of the season. Although there have been some crazy games along the way that have provided a wide range of emotion from us all, it takes time to put the pieces together. I said this often, imagine if you ran a business with 15 total employees and nine of them were new to your company. How long would it take before you were operating on all cylinders. Then you factor in 30 games in the first 53 days or so and the Raptors are right where I thought they’d be.

Ulmer: The Raptors have talent. They are experienced but they figured to need time to mesh. A .500 team feels right.

5. In terms of seeding, where do you anticipate the Raptors will finish at the end of the regular season? If they qualify for the playoffs, just how far can they go?

Armstrong: I'm convinced based upon the talent level on the roster that they're a fifth seed in a weak bottom half of the Eastern Conference beyond Boston, Cleveland, Orlando and Atlanta. Can they win a first round series? Based upon the fact that Atlanta is currently the fourth seed and how they match up with them, I'd say they must add another dynamic wing player if they're going to have a chance to be a second round team come springtime if DeRozan, Bellinelli, Wright and Weems don't take another step or two.

Devlin: The Raptors are in! It will be real tough and maybe unrealistic to crack the top 3 and with the way Atlanta is playing, the fourth seed may be out of the question. However, the fifth seed is in the Raptors’ sights for sure. That means a potential first round date with the Hawks, which could be a matchup nightmare. Although with the way the Hawks are playing now they may continue to move up the ranks. They’ve reached third place in the East as of this past Saturday. In any case, bring it on!

Virk: I see the club as the number five or six seed in the Eastern Conference and think they can win a couple of playoff games but will be hard pressed to defeat Boston, Orlando, Cleveland or Atlanta in a seven-game series.

Ulmer: I see the Raptors finishing sixth and playing Atlanta in the first round.

Hamilton: If this team continues to play the way they have over the last 12-13 games, and teams like Orlando continue to have their problems, I think they can challenge for the fourth spot, but in all likely hood I fell they will hover around the fifth spot. They WILL qualify for the playoffs and should be an interesting first round match up. I think their success in the playoffs will depend on how they are playing when they get there. If they’re clicking come playoff time they will be a scary first round matchup.

Smith: The fifth seed is still well within reach. That has to be the goal. If Toronto can finish in fifth, they'll likely avoid Boston, Cleveland, and Orlando in the first round. And while the Atlanta Hawks are certainly not slouches, I'd take my chances against them before wanting to deal with the Celts, Cavs, or Magic. They'd all be extremely tough to knock off in any round.

6. What do the Raptors need to improve most going forward?

Devlin: As of late it’s guarding the 3-point line again. Heading into their 41st game vs. Dallas, the Raptors had allowed 33 3-pointers over the last three contests. During their impressive run of winning 12 out of 17 games, they held opponents to just 29 per cent from beyond the arc. The Raptors were second in the league during that time in three-point FG percentage defence. Also, Toronto’s overall field goal percentage defence was third best. Jay Triano stressed it from day one…. DEFENCE! When the Raptors are totally committed, they are tough to beat. Also, give credit to Triano for changing their defensive approach in early December, it had led to the Raptors’ success.

Virk: They have to show a continued ability to defend for 48 minutes rather than just stretches of intensity followed by passivity. And Hedo Turkoglu needs to find his game and give the team better results than what he’s shown thus far, although his playmaking has picked up.

Armstrong: Wing spots. Turkoglu is capable of being a lot better player. He must elevate his game and be the impact guy they recruited to be this off-season. As I said previous, wing play/productivity must get to another level if they want to become an elite team.

Smith: Defensive consistency. I think it has gotten much better over the past 10-15 games and the club has definitely improved since the 110+ they were giving up (on average) over the first 20 games. But things have to get even better. Good teams - playoff/championship teams - defend and play with intensity every single night; every single possession.

Hamilton: Continue to build consistency on the defensive end. Consistent wing production. Figure out how to close teams out.

Ulmer: They need the continued development of DeMar DeRozan. They need more of the excellent defence that has characterized their recent play. Mostly, they need the Hedo Turkoglu they paid for.

7. What would be your mindset at the trade deadline?

Virk: I think Bryan Colangelo will look for a deal to come but with large contracts tied up in Turk, Calderon, and Bargnani plus Bosh’s looming free agency, I’d be surprised at a major move. Reggie Evans will be the de facto move once he returns from injury.

Armstrong: I'm a firm believer that they must be buyers. The Maple Leafs aren't going to the playoffs this year, meaning Air Canada Centre will be a real quiet building again this spring. A Toronto team must captivate the fan base. The Blue Jays won a World Series in their 15th and 16th years. For the good of the franchise and the growth of the game it's imperative that the Raptors (with the looming situation of CB4) go for it and try to add to the roster to make a deep playoff run to grow the product and gain further traction in the city, province and across the country.

Ulmer: I don’t see them being active. They are in build mode. They need more veteran scoring from the wing position but that is hardly fatal. When Reggie Evans returns from a foot injury will play into the decision.

Smith: Not to cop-out on this answer but I think it's far too early to say. We're still a month away from the deadline and so much can change. The record and the playoff seeding will easily dictate what course of action should be taken.

Hamilton: I think the Raptors should be open to discuss different scenarios. They’re probably not looking to do too much, but there may be some deals that might help clear up some of the first half woes.

Devlin: If a deal is there that will help improve this franchise and make them better, as they say on Wall Street or Bay Street – I’m bullish.