OK, here goes: I call the Raps for a 42-40 season, which should land them the #8 seed, and a playoff berth. It’s time to take off my fan’s blinkers and try to justify to your satisfaction and mine how I can predict such a leap from last season’s dismal 23-43 record. After all, I haven’t seen LeBron or Kobe in a Raps’ jersey recently.
If you look at the roster which suited up for our final game last season, & compare it to the personnel who will dress tonight against Indiana, you could be forgiven for wondering if it’s a different franchise. Gone are J. Johnson, J. Bayless, B. Uzoh, G. Forbes, J. Magloire & S. Alabi. The New Kids On The Block are L. Fields, K. Lowry, J. Valanciunas, T. Ross, Q. Acy, D. McGuire, & J. Lucas. That’s a lot of churn.
Since you’re reading Raptors Rapture, it’s a given you’re a savvy NBA fan, so I don’t need to “sell” you on the extreme importance of having top gun talent at the Point Guard & Centre position. Who’s starting for the Raps this season in those slots? Lowry & JV, who represent not only a vast improvement over last season, but are the guys we want to be announcing as starters for years to come.
Exhibition games are notoriously difficult petri dishes from which to extrapolate a team’s prospects. Nevertheless, there are several important conclusions to draw from the Raps’ results to date. First, we have a Centre. Jonas Valanciunas has arrived, and he’s NBA-ready. He needs time in the D-League like Rob Ford needs second helpings of dessert.
To me, JV is the key to this year’s Raps, which is pretty astonishing considering he’s 20 years young. If JV can anchor the interior defence by drawing charges, changing or blocking shots, & clearing the boards, a lot of other positive dominoes start to fall. The team’s defensive efficiency, already greatly improved by diligent coaching, will continue its ascendancy. Bargnani will not have to play out of position as a pretend Centre anymore; he’s in his self-proclaimed desired spot at Power Forward. Coach Casey has been pushing faster play in camp, a laudable goal. However, we won’t become Phoenix North without JV’s rebounds & outlet passes.
Next, we have a Point Guard (in fact, we have several). Kyle Lowry has already shown us feistiness, solid ball handling, and excellent shooting. His speed & defence pushes him in front of Jose as our starter.
On the wings, DeMar DeRozan has bulked up, and discovered a quicker first step. Assuming his jumper finds the net often enough to be a weapon, he will continue his advance towards top-journeyman status, which I believe is his ceiling. Ascension into Star category won’t be possible without a reliable 3-point shot, which DD shows little sign of developing. Landry Fields has yet to establish himself in my eyes, but he’s adequate and experienced at Small Forward. Whether he’s a Glue Guy remains to be seen.
In sum, our starters are not likely to be grabbing any All-Star slots, but there are no glaring weaknesses either. There’s certainly enough talent to give all but the top squads’ starters a tussle. We can rebound (JV, Fields, even little Kyle, & Andrea is welcome to mix it up), defend both inside & outside, and our scorers (AB, DD, Kyle, possibly Jonas) only need to improve slightly in order to provide a balanced attack nightly.
It’s the second unit which should be our secret weapon. Let’s begin with a truism: we want our second unit to do us no harm when they’re out there. In other words, if the starters leave the floor with a 6-point bulge, you’d like to see them return half a quarter later with the team clinging to the lead by four. You guys don’t have to win many games, but we can’t have you losing them for us either. Is that hope a realistic one with this year’s relievers? It certainly is, and then some.
The still-capable, but defensively challenged, Jose Calderon will be more than a match for most teams’ backup PGs. Aaron Gray was badly miscast as a starter last season; he simply doesn’t have enough weapons. But he can crowd the defensive paint & grab some boards at either end. The Bobbsey twins, Amir & Ed, should be too strong and mobile for many teams to handle. Kleiza and increasingly Terrence Ross at the wings may be sufficient.
I think we can safely conclude that both the first & second units are competitive. The Raps collapsed last year when Andrea went down with a calf injury, and while such a thing happening again would be damaging, I don’t think it would be devastating. Coach Casey has said he wants to play a 9-man rotation; I’ve postulated one which is 11-deep.
Even the backups’ backups are decent players. John Lucas III has been a revelation so far. He can hit from distance, drive to score or dish, and defends with vigour. Alan Anderson can hold his own, makes very few mistakes, & will nail 3-balls if not covered tightly. Dom McGuire may turn out to be the poor man’s James Johnson, sans JJ’s baggage. A solid defender on the wing is always welcome.
The Raps are young, but not that young. JV is greener than a pool table, but that’s off the court. He’s been playing against men for years. The other starters have more than enough NBA experience to figure things out. Youthful players should be able to withstand the grind of a long season, and tolerate the inevitable bumps & bruises, more easily than those on elderly teams. The Knicks, Celtics, Spurs, & Lakers are ancient by comparison with our guys.
Let’s sum up. Our personnel have undergone a significant upgrade. We’re deeper than any Raps team in recent memory. We’re young, but we aren’t a gaggle of fresh-faced rookies. Our coaching is highly regarded. I don’t think we will blow out many teams, but I don’t foresee many bad games either. Hence, a record just above .500 feels right. We’ll win some close ones, and drop our share, but a late-season charge will seal the deal for the #8 slot.
Set aside some money for playoff tickets, folks. You’ll need it.