The Toronto Raptors are one of the most exciting teams to watch in the league. What Bryan Colangelo has done with this team is extraordinary, and Sam Mitchell has proven that he can be the coach this team needs. They are always one of the best teams in the Atlantic Division, but still have not matched the success they had when Vince Carter was flying high in the Air Canada Centre. This year, the Raptors need to stop the tease, and show that they can be an elite team in the Eastern Conference. Chris Bosh is fresh off a Gold Medal win in Beijing, and has solidified himself as a true superstar in this league, so the Raptors can count on him. Jermaine OíNeal was acquired over the offseason in exchange for point guard T.J. Ford, and looks like he could be the perfect compliment to Bosh in the post. The Raptors, however, would not have been able to pull of that deal for OíNeal had they not already been equipped with Jose Calderon. Calderon will now have free reign of the point guard position, and this year he will get a chance to show just how valuable his services are. This Raptors team looks like they have a bright future, and the potential for this season is extremely high, but I am still not convinced that this team is ready to take the next step.
Offense: The truth of the matter is, this is just an average offensive team. Sure, they have Bryan Colangelo, an architect of the now world famous Phoenix Sunsí offense, but this team is definitely not Colangeloís Phoenix Suns. They are a good scoring team, not stellar, and can hit from the outside. One of their most valuable assets is their outside scoring, as they were second in the league in three point percentage, albeit to the Phoenix Suns. The Raptors, however, were fourteenth in three point attempts. That is not a knock against them, as they were primarily a mid-range team. They are also a unique team in that they can excel in both a full-court, and half-court style of play, and adapt to whomever they are playing on the given night. The problem, though, was that bigger, stronger teams would muscle them out of the post, and control the game through the inside. In the Playoffs, Dwight Howard and the Magic were a primary example. Although, with the addition of Jermaine OíNeal, I donít expect the bigger guys to bully this team around anymore. Chris Bosh has never been a dominant post presence, as he has always been a smooth-shooter, and uses his speed and technique on the inside, rather than brute force. With OíNeal beside him in the post, Bosh will now be able to work freely wherever he wants, and a breakout year for Bosh could be on the horizon (if thatís possible).
Jose Calderon is the most intriguing piece. He has had to share the limelight with T.J. Ford, and hasnít yet been able to truly expand on his potential. With a legitimate post presence, and a true superstar to pass to, Calderon should have a great year, and the Raptors offense will benefit from him being on the floor. This team will likely put up over 100 points a night once again, and with a stronger presence in the post, will be able to fight back against anyone.
Defense: The Raptors were a solid defensive squad last year, but lacked a presence in the post, much like they did offensively. With Jermaine OíNeal, their problem may now have a solution. The Raptors were 25th in the league in blocked shots last season, and werenít intimidating in the least bit, as evidenced by their performance against the Magic in the postseason. With OíNeal, shot-blocking and intimidation go hand in hand, and this former All-Star is a perfect addition to the Raptorís defense. With Jamario Moon and Chris Bosh by his side, Jermaine OíNeal could reignite his career and be a star defensive player, and candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. This is all speculation, but assuming that OíNeal can remain healthy, this Toronto squad will be a deadly opponent for anyone to face, especially on the defensive end.
Strengths: Chris Bosh. This guy is so multi-talented and versatile that he is Torontoís number one strength. Bosh was spectacular in Beijing, and I expect him to carry over his play this season for the Raptors. An MVP-type season is waiting in the wings for Bosh, and now that he has a dominant big man by his side, this could be the year for Chris Bosh and the Raptors to explode onto the scene.
Weaknesses: The depth of this team is a big question. The Raptors have their big three in Chris Bosh, Jermaine OíNeal, and Jose Calderon, as well as some nice role players in Jamario Moon, Jason Kapono, and Anthony Parker. After that, it gets pretty bleak. 2006 number one draft pick Andrea Bargnani has been a huge disappointment, as has Joey Graham. Nathan Jawai is looking like he could be great for this team, but keep in mind that he is a rookie. If Bargnani can finally start showing a little bit of the potential everyone thought he had, there is no question about this teamís depth, but that may be a lot to ask for.
Five Players to Watch:
Chris Bosh- Did I say this guy could be the MVP? That may sound like a bit of a stretch, but if he can mesh his game with that of Jermaine OíNealís, I donít think itís that crazy of a thought. His confidence is at an All-Time high, and he is this teamís leader, so this could be the year that Chris Bosh becomes a truly household name. The one problem with Bosh is that he doesnít seem too valuable in the clutch, but I expect that to change. I may be drinking a little bit of Raptor Kool-Aid, but I believe that this guy is a Hall of Famer in the making.
Jermaine OíNeal - It has been very sad watching Jermaine OíNeal these past couple of seasons, for both myself, and my fantasy teams. Toronto may be the team that rejuvenates this talented big man, and turns him into the dominant force he once was. He is no longer going to be looked at as the star player of the team, and I believe that will help OíNeal in the long run. Taking a seat in the sidecar to another player is just what OíNeal needs, and without all the pressure, he may wind up with an award in his hands by yearís end. The question, though, is if he can stay healthy. That hasnít been proven yet, and could be a problem for this team. Without the pressure of carrying a team anymore, though, I think OíNeal will be just fine.
Andrea Bargnani - This guy is boiling over with talent and potential, but neither he, nor the Toronto coaching staff, know how to let it out. Bargnani is set to become one of the biggest busts in league history, and this year could be the deciding factor for his career. The thing is, Bargs doesnít even have to be a star, or close to it, all he needs is to be a valuable role player. Part of his trouble last year came with playing the center position, his game just isnít made for that. If Bargnani can accelerate his game at the small forward position this year, and be a solid role player, his bust-status will likely fly out the window. After a highly disappointing season last year, though, it will be very tough for the Italian to turn things around for himself, and the fans.
Jose Calderon - This guy has amazing percentages, as well as a near perfect assist to turnover ratio, and he hasnít even been the starter for this team. Calderon will electrify the court this year, and an All-Star appearance is very likely. If Calderon can live up to expectations, hearing his name mentioned with the likes of Chris Paul and Deron Williams is not a half-baked premonition. In fact, it wonít be surprising to see his name at the top of the leader board in assists this season. Calderon has played magnificently for Toronto these past few seasons, but in doing so, has created a lot of hype. Will he be able to live up to it this season? Toronto fans would certainly hope so.
Joey Graham - Along with Danny Granger, this is a guy that Byron Scott had at the top of his list with Chris Paul in the 2005 Draft class. What happened? He has speed, size, strength; he can shoot the ball, and defend. So what the hell happened? If Joey Graham can somehow turn his lackluster career around this season, he will provide a great spark from the bench. Iím afraid, however, that he may have lost that chance with the emergence of Jamario Moon, who so far has become what the Raptors thought Joey Graham would turn out to be. This year may be Grahamís last chance to prove he has any value whatsoever, or he may be out of a job real soon.
Title Hopes: I wouldnít consider the Raptors a real contender for the title unless everything goes right. From Jermaine OíNeal and Chris Bosh clicking together, to Jose Calderon emerging as a top-three point guard, or Andrea Bargnani finally making an impact, these may be the only chances for Toronto to not only get close to the Finals, but to get out of the first round. They are in a much stronger division, especially with the emergence of Philadelphia, as well as a tougher conference. If things go right, Toronto has a chance, but there are still a few teams in the East who look a lot more powerful than the Raptors.
Prediction: 2nd Place, Atlantic Division