One of my favourite things about covering the Toronto Raptors the past few years, is the inordinate amount of quality writing regarding the club.
Whether it's the traditional print media, bloggers, or even general sports networks with a dedicated Raptors' writer or two, "the game done changed" from when we first started back in 2005.
To that end, with the 2012-13 NBA season fast approaching for the Toronto Raptors, we reached out to some of our favourite voices in Raptor-land to get their take on the upcoming season, and a myriad of questions surrounding it.
Our panel consisted of Toronto Sun ball-ace and old school hip-hop fiend Ryan Wolstat, Sportsnet Mag Assistant Editor and general superstar Dave Zarum, TSN.ca basketball savant Tim Chisholm, and subbing in for Tom Liston of Raptors Republic (who according to some reports was too busy taking over Bay Street to participate), Joseph Casciaro, who's been killing it for the Score.com and Raptorblog.
A formidable team indeed.
We formed the team like Voltron and got down to business, first talking off-season, moving into individual player evaluations and then in part two tomorrow, playoffs and the club's future.
As Slick Rick once said, "heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere, we go..."
1. RaptorsHQ: Let's start general. What do you think the biggest move of the off-season was for the Raptors?
Tim Chisholm: In terms of basketball the biggest move of the offseason was easily getting Kyle Lowry to Toronto. Bryan Colangelo has always been a "point guard GM", and it's always easier to get a sense of the direction he is taking his team when he has a top-flight point guard in toe. In Phoenix he had Kevin Johnson then Jason Kidd then Stephon Marbury then Steve Nash. When he got to Toronto his first big trade was to bring T.J. Ford to the Raptors and sign him to a rich extension. Lowry ranks somewhere in the middle-of-the-pack in terms of points guards that Colangelo has had to work with, but that is as much a testament to the caliber of point guards he's used to having than any kind of knock on Lowry.
In getting Lowry he got a defensive guard that suits the direction the team is going in to a tee and in getting him the club inherited his obscenely cheap contract which extends over the next two years (a contract that helps absorb the sticker shock that came with Landry Fields' eye-popping offer sheet from days before).
All that said, though, and as important as Lowry is going to be to the team this year, the biggest offseason move overall was chasing - and losing - Steve Nash. While people plugged into the team and Nash understand the circumstances surrounding Nash's decision to go to L.A., I have lost count of the number of conversations I've had with casual fans this summer about how ineffectual the team has to be if they couldn't secure Nash's services this summer. The pursuit had the exact opposite effect on the club's reputation that had hoped for, and the blow was for more pervasive than I thought it was this summer - and I thought it was bad. No other story about the Raptors moved the needle like their ill-fated pursuit of Nash and while Lowry may be an even better fit for the club going forward, all anyone I run into wants to talk about is how hopeless the team is if they can't even get Nash into a Raptors uniform at the tail-end of his career.
Dave Zarum: I wish I could say "shoring up the small forward position" (the one glaring need on this team heading into the off-season, and still its biggest hole entering training camp), but obviously that didn't happen in any meaningful way. And yes, the Lowry trade will likely have the most impact this season, for the reasons Tim outlined. But for my money, the drafting of Terrance Ross will prove to be a major boost for the franchise. I'm trying not to invest too much into a summer league appearance, but forget the numbers (nearly 15 ppg)- I look at how comfortable and confident Ross seemed throughout the season (Wolstat, who was there can confirm/deny...) as reason to believe he can not only step in and contribute significantly off the bench this season, but also has the chance to be a big piece of the puzzle moving forward. He's a good shooter, a willing defender, and the Basketball Gods turned his athleticism up to eleven. In other words, I'm sold.
Obviously it remains to be seen how Casey will utilize Ross while still dishing out starter's minutes to DeRozan, but when you look at the potential impact of another rookie, Jonas Valanciunas, coupled with what Ross brings to the table (we'll see how Quincy Acy's game translates to the NBA...), adding raw young talent to a team that continues to be developing it's identity under Casey was critical.
Ryan Wolstat: Trading for Kyle Lowry was the biggest off-season move by the Raptors. He instantly becomes the best player on the team, the extension of Dwane Casey and the leader both on and off the floor. The team has needed a point guard like him for years and arguably hasn't had a point guard as talented since Damon Stoudamire and has been equally desperate for a personality like his as well.
Bryan Colangelo waited until the price was right and pounced. If it backfires, he won't be around to lament the loss of the high lottery pick. If it works, if Lowry is great and the pick isn't a particularly high one, this could go down as one of Colangelo's better moves.
Either way, it was he right move an it provides a massive upgrade in many areas.
Joseph Casciaro: It's the easy answer, but I have to go with the acquisition of Kyle Lowry.
Heading into the off-season, I saw Jonas Valanciunas as the lone true building block this franchise had, and while Terrence Ross may prove to be a building block in his own right, Lowry immediately convinces me that the franchise now has two of those blocks in place, regardless.
For my money, he's emerged as a top-10 point guard in the NBA, and had it not been for various ailments in 2011-12, he may very well have put together an All Star campaign. Lowry's a true point guard who is just starting to come into his prime at 26-years-old, is one of the few point men in the Association who can effectively guard his position, and possesses a toughness factor that whether overrated or not, the Raptors have been missing for years out of their key players.
Considering that Dwane Casey was able to spearhead a remarkable defensive turnaround with Calderon manning the point, I can only imagine how much more improved the defence might be going forward with a competent defender guarding the point of attack, which will in turn ease the defensive workload of bigs like Valanciunas and Andrea Bargnani.
If the Raptors end up forfeiting a top-5 pick in this deal, it obviously becomes much tougher to swallow, but if the Raptors gave up no more than Gary Forbes and a mid-to-late lottery pick for Kyle Lowry, fans should be rejoicing.
2. RHQ: Ok so if Lowry's the off-season's biggest fish by most accounts, what's the one under-the-radar move you love that the Raps made, if any?
Tim: I'm prepared to be spat on for this one, but I'm saying getting Landry Fields. Yes, he's overpaid and yes most will see his addition as a side-effect of the failed bid for Steve Nash, but I also think he was EXACTLY the kind of player that the Raptors needed to take another step forward. He's a great 'fill-in-the-blanks' player, a guy who can make other players better with his passing, his movement without the ball, his defense and his rebounding. I've said it before, but he reminds me a lot of Jorge Garbajosa for those reasons. No, they're not the same player, but the share a lot of intangible elements to their games. Guys like Fields are easy to overlook because they are so utilitarian in what they do. They are like the screws that hold things together. No one pays them much mind, but without them the whole falls apart.
Now, obviously for any of this to actually prove true Fields has to regain most, if not all, of his statistical effectiveness from his pre-Melo days, but I am bullish on that happening after watching his time last season playing with Jeremy Lin when Anthony was injured. He needs a highly functioning team to be his most effective, and I think that the Raptors - a team without a central cog like Carmelo - suits him a lot better than New York did for most of last year.
So, while in one sense this move wasn't 'under the radar' because so many people actively despise it and see it as a regressive move in an otherwise progressive summer, I think that if one can look past his contract they'll see that Fields is going to be a solid addition to this club.
Joseph: Dammit, Tim, you beat me to it.
Fields can defend the opposition's most dangerous wing player, rebounds well for his position, knows exactly where he needs to be and how to space the floor when running on offence, and isn't the type of player who needs to get his own on offence to stay happy and do his job.
Landry's strengths just seem to perfectly mesh and potentially mask some of the deficiencies of other key players on this team. He probably won't be much of an offensive threat (though I do see him becoming a better three-point shooter) and his strengths usually won't translate into an impressive stat sheet, but Landry Fields is the kind of role player ever good team needs, even if they don't realize it until he's gone.
If the Raptors were looking at limited cap space in the future and Fields' deal was now weighing them down, I'd understand the outrage from some fans and "experts," but this team still has cap flexibility going forward and depending on what decisions are made regarding other players (whether to use the amnesty, whether to re-sign DeRozan), might even have maximum salary space next summer.
Fields is a young, fundamentally sound basketball player making about a million more than the league average, and the fact that no one's really paying attention to that and is instead fixated on that unfathomable overpayment makes him an "under the radar" get.
Ryan: I don't mind the Fields deal myself, but I prefer the John Lucas III addition as an under the radar move.
He signed on the cheap and will help in a number of ways most immediately (while Calderon remains a Raptor) providing a quality scoring option off the bench.
That will be crucial since this will be a team that struggles to score and desperately needs to replace the offence Barbosa and Bayless brought.
Once Jose goes and the Babcockian era finally cedes into history, Lucas will back up Lowry and should fare well in that role as well, even though he's not a true point.
Dave: After a relatively quiet off-season and with no substantial roster upgrade in sight, it's on the Raptors 'core' to take a big step (like, for real this time) for the team to have a chance at anything more than another meaningless season. So why not surround your young players with guys who'll help set the tone and play their asses off in practice? That's what the Raps can get from Lucas, or Alan Anderson, who impressed in his late-season audition and was brought back on the cheap. Anything either one can give you in real game action- particularly Anderson who will be starved for minutes- is a bonus.
3. RHQ: Some great picks here guys. Let's stay with the individual player questions for a minute, and one of the big ones that's likely on the minds of Raptors' fans heading into this upcoming season: Can Andrea Bargnani sustain his pre-injury level of play from last season, and finally break through as an upper-echelon NBA player?
Joseph: If anyone appears able to get it out of Andrea, it certainly seems to be Dwane Casey. But while I believe that Bargnani will be a better player than the one we saw before last season, I won't say that he'll sustain his pre-injury level of play to become an "upper echelon" player.
Quite simply, I can't convince myself that Bargnani will suddenly be an upper echelon player because other than a 13-game sample last season, he's never showed the consistent drive and effort necessary to get there. I think he'll continue to be a pretty effective offensive option when healthy, and maybe he'll get to that upper echelon on the offensive end, but I just can't believe that he'll play as hard defensively for a whole season or longer as he did pre-calf strain last season, and a one-dimensional player can never truly be considered top-tier.
If, by chance, Bargnani has figured it out and suddenly becomes an NBA star, then I suggest we take Andrea's 'Il Mago" nickname and bestow it upon coach Casey, because it would be Casey who's pulled a rabbit out of a hat here.
Tim: I don't know that Bargnani will ever be an upper-echelon player. That may be a semantic interpretation of the phrase, but after six NBA seasons it's hard to see his stock rise too much higher than it did last year, when his mythical thirteen-game outburst caused a good portion of the NBA press to reevaluate him as a player and deem him broken-through, willfully ignoring his post-injury return and all of the negatives it brought with it.
The fact is that Bargnani's pre-injury play was far enough outside his career-norms that a reasonable expectation has to be that his game would have levelled off at some point last season. Now, it may not have dipped all the way back to his career norms, but opposing teams would have started game-planning for him better than they had to start the season and Bargnani's all-out commitment to defense and rebounding would probably have ebbed at least slightly if for no other reason than fatigue would have eventually set in (Bargnani had never worked so hard in his basketball life).
Keep in mind, too, that there is only so much of Bargnani's regression from last season that can be pinned on his troublesome calf. I say that because the player that returned to the Raptors after the All-Star break was not so foreign as to be considered unrecognizably crippled. His slow defensive rotations, his indifference to rebounding, his willingness to settle for long-twos - if one wants to say that all of those things could be chalked up to injury then one has to be willing to concede that career-long norms and patterns of behaviour may have also played a part.
Remember, Bargnani at his best is still a compromised player. He cannot make plays for others, he does not set strong screens, he doesn't block shots, he rarely passes and he doesn't have much of a post-ame to work with. That doesn't make him a bad player. He's quite a good player, actually, and he has been for some time, and he's going to look better this season because he has a roster that is practically designed to maximize his strengths and mitigate his weaknesses, but that won't make him an upper-echelon option. He'll more suitably fit a tier below, with guys like David West and Carlos Boozer; big men who do some things at a near-elite level but leave something else on the table to do it. There is no shame in being compared to players like that. In fact, if Bargnani can offer only most of his pre-injury play from last season then the improvements made elsewhere on the roster should put Toronto in a very good spot to challenge for a Playoff berth. To expect more, though, to expect an unreasonable amount of growth at this point in his career seems to me like a setup for disappointment. 13 games is such a painfully small sample size to work with when set against 396 others in his career.
Ryan: Short and sweet: No. Bargnani has been a streaky player throughout his career (check Feb. 07 season, Jan. and March of 08 and basically any February of his career for the good streaks) and has given what I would call false hope on many occasions. Still, with those 13 games he proved that he can be a lot better than he has shown in the past - IF - he puts in the work and commits himself to playing as hard as he can. He didn't just put up gaudy numbers as he has at the other times I pointed out, but he also looked like a different player.
Problem is, unless Alex McKechnie has really been able to get through to him this summer, I don't think he prepares himself physically to be that kind of a player for 82 games (and I'm not even going to touch the mentally part).
Talent isn't the issue for Bargnani. It is desire and preparedness that will determine if the 13-game version was a mirage or a new, attainable ceiling.
My guess is he won't be that Bargnani, but could well be 80% of that player, which the Raptors would gladly take.
Dave: We've seen what Bargnani is capable of, but only in short stretches. For what it's worth, he really did look more passionate/energetic/confident than ever in those 13 pre-injury games last season. But it was 13 games. And, like Wolstat, it remains to be seen if he or his body can sustain that for a longer stretch. Nevermind ‘"finally breaking through as an upper-echelon player"- Frankly, it's more a question of "Will we see the same Andrea we saw in that early stretch last year?" I think that's probably as good as it gets for him (disregarding the expectations that will naturally follow a no.1 overall pick), which is to say he can be a very effective second or third scoring option on a good team, but isn't suited to be the go-to-guy on a team with deep playoff or championship aspirations (...which makes him a great fit on this Raptors team...)
4. RHQ: So if Bargs can be a useful piece, but not necessarily the go-to guy, or team MVP, then which player do you think will play that role this year for the Raptors?
Joseph: Bargnani can't be the go-to guy on a contender, but he'll likely be the go-to player on this team, at least early on. I'd guess Kyle Lowry and Andrea end up sharing the role of on court leaders, with Lowry probably emerging the true leader of the squad.
I believe Calderon will settle nicely into his role as the leader of the bench, but for the most part, this team will probably go as far as Kyle Lowry can drive them.
Dave: I think Bargnani is that guy, and it's why there are tempered expectations for the Raptors this season, and probably every season that he's in that position. With what he brings to both ends of the floor, Kyle Lowry could emerge as the guy, and I still believe that DeMar DeRozan has another level that he can-and will- reach, so Bargnani's role isn't necessarily all that firm.... But he's the guy for now.
Ryan: Agreed, Bargnani is the go-to-guy on this team and until that changes, the Raptors won't be very good.
Lowry should be team MVP at the end of the season since he is both the best player and the guy who plays the hardest and has the ball in his hands most often.
Secondary scoring is going to be a huge problem unless DeRozan takes that huge step Dave mentions (I don't see it happening, though he can't be worse than he was for much of last season).
Bargnani, Lowry and Lucas are the only guys who can create their own offence. That's a problem. Calderon could as well, but chooses not to.
(Stay Tuned for Part II Tomorrow)