By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Oct 20 2010 2:54PM
It's the beginning of a new era in Toronto, and all the Raptors have to do is figure out what that era is. With Chris Bosh now playing third wheel in Miami, his old team not only lacks a star, but any kind of identity.
Coach Jay Triano wants the identity to be a balanced team that moves the ball offensively and plays aggressive defensively. He believes that the departures of Bosh and Hedo Turkoglu provide an opportunity for the Raptors to expand the playbook and share more.
"Offensively, I thought the ball got stuck a lot last year," Triano said. "We're going to be a little bit different now, as far as not running plays through anybody."
The game plan, based on some of the European offenses that Triano scouted as part of the USA Basketball staff this summer, is workable. It may be the coach's only option without a proven go-to scorer. But at some point, someone on the Raptors must step up and get the team key buckets.
Over the last two seasons, Andrea Bargnani has boosted his scoring average from 10.2 to 17.2 points per game, and he hasn't sacrificed efficiency in doing so. But Bargnani at his best when he's playing off a primary ballhandler or scorer, not when he's the go-to guy.
Enter Linas Kleiza, who the Raptors signed to a four-year contract this summer. A year ago, after four seasons playing behind Carmelo Anthony in Denver and never averaging more than 24 minutes or eight shots per game, Kleiza was looking for a bigger role. He found it with Greek power Olympiakos.
"It wasn't an easy decision, but it was the right decision at that time," Kleiza said. "I was looking an opportunity to grow on a team. They gave me that and I'm happy I did it."
He signed a two-year deal, but negotiated an opt-out after the first, allowing himself the chance to return to the NBA if he could.
Though Olympiakos had a stacked roster, featuring Josh Childress, Milos Teodosic, Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Ioannis Bourousis, Kleiza had a starring role. He led the team with 17.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per contest in 31 Euroleague games last season, going for 19 and 11 in its semifinal win over Partizan.
Kleiza then starred with the Lithuanian National Team this summer, leading them to a bronze medal at the World Championship. He averaged 19.0 points and 7.1 rebounds in the tournament, shooting 58 percent from the field.
The Raptors have given him the opportunity to come back to the NBA and he returns a different player than when he left.
"I expanded my game," Kleiza said. "I became a more complete player."
In Denver, he was a role player who primarily played off the ball. But in Greece and with his national team, Kleiza proved that he's a versatile scorer who can shoot, drive or post up. Get him the ball on the wing and he can get to the basket. Get it to him in the post and he can punish a smaller defender.
"Kleiza is a guy who can get to the free-throw line," Triano said. "He's impressive going to the basket and he keeps you honest with an outside shot. We know Andrea's going to be able to score. It's nice to have another guy who can put the ball in the basket."
Kleiza's skills will come in handy in the Raptors' equal-opportunity offense. He will get the ball on the move and at a variety of spots on the floor. He also gives Toronto a physicality they've been lacking. While he's not a great defender, he's not afraid of contact.
For Kleiza, the Raptors presented an opportunity to take the next step in his career. He was an NBA role player who became a go-to guy in Europe. Now, he can have that role back in the league.
"I think I have a chance here to become the best player I can become," he said.
The Raptors need some time and at least a few more transactions to become the best they can be. But Kleiza can help them form an identity by bringing his European success back to the NBA.
1. A STAR FOR SALE
If a team is willing to slash salary, the Raptors could help them out using their Bosh trade exception.
2. IMPROVEMENT DEFENSIVELY
There's nowhere to go but up. This was the worst defensive team in the league last season.
3. RAPID DEVELOPMENT
At least one of the team's young players will need to really take a step forward with a larger role.
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LAST YEAR: 40-42, 2nd in Atlantic
FINISH: Missed playoffs
2009-10 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2009-10 Stats|
JARRETT JACK, GUARD
11.4 PPG | 2.7 RPG | 5.0 APG
Already a better defender than Jose Calderon, Jack also shot better than Calderon last season.
DEMAR DEROZAN, GUARD
8.6 PPG | 2.9 RPG | 0.7 APG
DeRozan is a freakish athlete that needs to develop as a shooter. He took just 16 threes last season.
LINAS KLEIZA, FORWARD
9.9 PPG | 4.0 RPG | 0.8 APG (*2008-09 STATS WITH DENVER)
Kleiza started only 36 of his 301 games in four seasons as a Nugget, but has a career high of 41 points.
REGGIE EVANS, FORWARD
3.4 PPG | 3.8 RPG | 0.3 APG
Evans is an offensive liability, but one of the best rebounders in the league. He gives the Raptors some toughness.
ANDREA BARGNANI, CENTER
17.2 PPG | 6.2 RPG | 1.2 APG
Bargnani averaged less than three free throws per game last season. More trips to the line will make him more efficient.
|Leandro Barbosa||6-3||202||G||Missed 38 games with ankle and wrist injuries last season in Phoenix.|
|Jose Calderon||6-3||210||G||Was almost traded to Charlotte this summer. Paid a lot to be a back-up.|
|Amir Johnson||6-9||210||F||Good per-minute production. Could start if he could stay out of foul trouble.|
ADDED: Ed Davis, Amir Johnson, Linas Kleiza, David Andersen, Julian Wright, Leandro Barbosa, Dwayne Jones
LOST: Antoine Wright, Chris Bosh, Marco Belinelli
ANDREA BARGNANI, CENTER
He was the No. 1 pick in the 2006 Draft. His $50 million contract extension kicks in this year. And now, with Bosh in Miami, Bargnani is the man in Toronto. Instead of benefitting from defenses paying attention to Bosh, he'll need to be the one creating open looks for his teammates. And as always, he needs to defend and rebound.
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