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Great Expectations

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In his famous book, Great Expectations, author Charles Dickens navigates the reader through a fascinating tale of an orphan's struggle with his societal rank and the expectations he places upon himself. By the book's end however, the orphan realizes that these expectations are merely a product of his own environment, and that he has the ability to control his own happiness.

So why the Grade 12 English assignment summary? Let's just say that if I had a press pass...and 15 copies of the novel I described above, I would have dropped them off at the Raptors' training camp this past week.

As we've all seen this past off-season, the optimism and intrigue surrounding the team is the highest it's been in years, and with good reason. New management, new players, better talent and depth, greater fiscal understanding...all of these equate to a new outlook for fans and media alike.

And so in swoop the numerologists.

28 wins.

36 wins.

42 wins...

...and on and on.

Even the Raps own Chris Bosh has given his take saying that he expects more wins this year than losses.

My thoughts? I think on talent and potential alone, this team can hit 38 wins. But my caveat to that is that a lot of things have to go right to get there. 38 wins would represent an 11 win increase over last year, no small feat, and a huge step in the right direction for this franchise.

Am I being unreasonable? Perhaps, but when I think back to some of the heart-breaking losses the team endured last season, injuries, and their inability to close out games, couldn't the Raptors have won at least six more games just by regulating some of these factors? That would put us at 33 right there. And with the increase in depth and talent and a better start and finish to the season, couldn't that account for another five wins?

However the point of this piece is not so much to analyze why I think the Raps are good for between 33 to 38 wins this season. No, I think the point is just the opposite - this club needs to forget about expectations.

As is, Toronto has almost an entirely new team going into the season (including new locker rooms apparently.) Beyond the obvious culture issues that the media loves to raise, my main concern is simply that these guys haven't played together! This "the team needs to gel" angle has been boiled to death like my grandmother's peas but unfortunately it's true. Just look at Greece's defeat of the US during the recent World Championships. Yes Greece shot an amazing percent from the field and exposed the flaws in Team USA's defensive strategies; but they also played very comfortably under pressure and consistently found the open man, both products of a team that has had time to mesh and knows the intricacies of each other’s games. With the shot-clock winding down, Theodore Papaloukas time and time again was able to find the open man as he knew exactly where his players would be and where they preferred to catch the ball - and plays like this make the difference between wins and losses, especially during crunch time in close-knit affairs.

Right now, time is not on the Raptors side, and it's not helping that the NBA has put limits on lengths of practice time either. While the practice issue is a whole other kettle of fish, the point here is that simply based on how cohesive this team becomes will go a long way in determining their success this season, especially early on. Therefore I’m just not sure how at this point people can throw out definite win expectations. Perhaps if Toronto was fielding essentially the same club from last year that would make sense, but with so many new players, fans need to realize that it may take a full season before we can really even evaluate the impact of Colangelo’s moves.

That’s why I think that any expectations of win-loss records or individual player stats are premature. If I did have any expectations, they wouldn’t be of this sort and in fact c0uld be condensed into three main topics:

1) A better defensive club: This one is huge for me. Seeing teams get easy tip-in’s, drive the lane with ease, and hoist uncontested jumpers drove me crazy last season. The Raps allowed their opponents to shoot 49.1 per cent from the field and since they always had to double the post (to make up for their lack of interior size) also allowed an above league-average amount of three-point attempts. The Raptors were among the top five clubs in the league in terms of offensive efficiency yet only won 27 games…that simply enlarges the spotlight on how poor last year’s defence was. And it wasn’t for lack of effort â€" I know the Raptors were giving their all. But as we all know, Sam Mitchell and co’s defensive schemes just weren’t hacking it. It was like watching that friend of yours trying to beat the last level of Mario Bros. back in the day…try as hard as he could, you knew that he was still going to get crushed by King Koopa everytime.

2)A more balanced offensive scheme: Another biggie. I think I held Mr. Space Mountain Mike James in higher esteem than some…but for the Raptors to have more success this year, especially considering all the new faces on the club, the offense needs to come from a variety of places, not just Chris Bosh. In his recent training camp preview of the Toronto Raptors, ESPN.com columnist John Hollinger raises a good point. Who can name the second best player on the Raptors? I can’t. An argument could be made for Mo Pete, TJ Ford, Andrea Bargnani…heck even Joey Graham could have a breakout season and inherit that label by season’s end. But at this point, no one can say for certain. For the Raptors to be successful, the offense is going to have to come from a number of sources until someone steps up as the legit “number two option.” In addition, with the loss of the likes of Mike James, CV Smooth, Matt Bonner and even Jalen Rose, the Raptors are simply not going to be able to rely on their go-to offensive scheme last season, the pick-and-roll, nearly as much. Each of those players was a threat to hit the open J and in particular, James and Bosh terrorized other clubs running it time and time again. Can TJ Ford run this with the same degree of effectiveness considering his history of shooting woes? â€" I have my doubts. And finally on this topic, with the loss of the aforementioned long-range threats, the Raptors are going to have to rely less on the “swing the ball till you find the open 3” mentality. Sure, Bargnani looks like he can fill it up from beyond the arc, he put up 21 points in yesterday’s intra-squad match, but some of the new Raptors are going to have to balance this with their ability to penetrate â€" and I expect this from two players in particular, Fred Jones and Anthony Parker.

3) Development: I don’t expect the Raptors to make the playoffs. I’d even say (and this will bring out the haters I know) I don’t want them to. Until I see Joey Graham and Pape Sow show more than glimpses of the potential they were drafted on, and until I see how the “Euro-players” adapt to the NBA game, I still feel this team needs more talent â€" and one of the best ways to do this is via the draft. This year’s draft looks to be ripe with talented players, especially big men (Greg Oden, Joakim Noah, Tiago Splitter, Josh McRoberts, Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Spencer Hawes etc, etc) and we all know that the Raptors could still use some help in the size department. In addition, the Raptors average age is now almost 26 (25.7) so they’re not quite the spring chickens they were last year. The bottom line for me is that while the Raptors may have improved on paper this off-season, the team still doesn’t have nearly the talent of a Dallas or Miami. Therefore my last "expectation" is simply for the team to show improvement. It would be nice to see this in terms of more wins but as long as I see progress throughout the season from the likes of Graham, Bargnani, Calderon and even the likes of Sow, Bosh and Mo Pete, I’ll be happy.

As the Raptors go into tonight's matchup with the Wizards, a game that will surely be a good test for the Raps new players, I hope they realize that new faces and new talent alone do not equate to more wins. Hard work at both ends of the court should be the mantra the team subscribes to and only then will this new incarnation of the Raptors have a shot at fulfilling any and all expectations.

FRANCHISE

Pre-season Tip-In: So far so good for Jorge Garbajosa. The NBA's longer 3 point-line didn't seem to bother the Spanish rookie as he sunk the game-winning shot in last night's 93-88 win over the Wizards. In a game that saw most of the Raps' starters play only limited minutes, it was some of the newer players that had the biggest impact. Andrea Bargnani had eight points and four rebounds in his debut but also picked up a Hoffa-esque five fouls in only 13 minutes. And it was Kris Humphries who provided a huge boost off the bench when Bargnani got in foul trouble as he was constantly around the rim and fighting for loose balls, the same thing we here at the HQ saw in summer-league. Toronto's lead scorer was Fred Jones who had 17 points and who interestingly played the point with Jose Calderon playing the off-guard spot for some of the game. The result was a success as it allowed the Raptors to take advantage of Washington's defence whenever Toronto ran their pick and rolls.

Coach Sam Mitchell however warned the players about feeling too good about themselves in pre-season, especially after Joey Graham's experience last year. The Raps next game is tomorrow night at home against the Boston Celtics.