As many of you likely know, the schedule for the 2006-07 season has been released. For the Raptors, (and in particular coach Sam Mitchell who you know can't have his team go 1-15 again) it is not an easy start. From the opening tip-off against New Jersey in the Meadowlands, there is no time for this completely reconstructed squad to feel each other out past pre-season and training camp. The team is going to have to "click" and do so in a hurry. You get the feeling that if they do this early and build confidence, then the team might have a real shot at making some noise in the East. If however things get ugly early, like last season, Toronto could quickly fall behind the eight-ball, unable to recover. Yes, the Raps need to stay afloat in the first two months of the season if they want any chance at doing what so many Raptor teams before them have been unable to do...make the playoffs in the East.
So what are we here at RapsHQ looking forward to? Here's a rundown of what we feel will be highlights of the upcoming season:
Friday November 3 vs. The Bucks:
Well first off it's the home opener - there will be a new opening song and montage (please for the love of all things holy do not involve dancing, any member of Destiny's Child, or Kid Rock), new uni's (all the purple is gone and the away is black), and hopefully no more 4-korners sound crew (who looked like they should be hosting a grade 8 sock-hop at the local junior high). Every team around the league will be optimistic....ok except the Knicks and Hawks...This is truly the beginning of the Colangelo era in Toronto. For many, in particular those outside of Toronto, it will be the fans first look at "team international." It will also be the first glimpse into "who outplayed who" during training camp. Will Fred Jones start or come off the bench? Will Graham bring the heat and the hustle to ensure he's not attached to the end of the bench? Will Mo play the 2 or the 3? Will Bosh start? Kidding.
Of course that's not all.
We will get to see whether Charlie has developped his game during the off-season...for the Bucks. That's right folks, come one and come all and expect the Villanueva show. No, we have not lost sight of the fact that TJ will also be making his home debut, and we are hoping he proves all the doubters wrong, but expect a big game from Charlie. Raps fans know that when he is motivated he can be a terror on the offensive end. But of course the most interesting aspect of Charlie's return is the direct match-up with Bosh. This will be a battle and we are pumped. Will Charlie be quick enough on his feet to stay in front of CB4 or will he get into foul trouble early? Or will it play out the other way where Bosh has a tough time containing the inside out game of CV Smooth?
This may be the greatest home opener in years.
November 12 thru November 20:
As mentioned in the intro, the schedule makers for the NBA clearly have no relation to those in the NFL. After a quick three game homestand, the Raps head out west for five games in seven nights. Better hope those new uni's scare somebody because with Sacramento, Golden State, LA Lakers, Denver and Utah on the schedule, this is going to be ROUGH, and will set the tone perhaps for the rest of the season.
Things to look forward to in this stretch?
1. The Raps face Salmons: Someone please, (calling Joey G) put him down hard as soon as he makes his way to the bucket. No don't injure him but make him pay for playing with Franchise's feelings. A win against the Kings would really boost the team's confidence going into GS where they can also win.
2. Back to LA: We all know what happened the last time the Raps faced the Lakers. I think it's a pretty safe bet to say that won't happen again (I'll report back on whether you can bet on this in Vegas next week) but you just never know with Kobe.
3. KMart and the Nuggets: By the time the Raps play the Nuggets, what do you think the chances are of Martin having either faked an injury and is not with the team, killed George Karl, or is the tenth man. This Denver team has a lot of talent, but with Kenyon likely to still be around (seriously the Knicks and Nuggets need to make a deal with Martin and Steve Francis) they could have their chemistry go sour like two-month old milk and have a terrible season.
4. HOFFFFFFFFFFFA: To close out the road swing the Raps take on the Jazz and their former first round pick Rafael Araujo. A battle of the bigs between Nesterovic and Araujo will also bring some entertainment value...for as long as both are in the game.
After this, Toronto still spends the majority of the first part of the season on the road including a tough Western road swing right before Christmas.
December 27 - The Mike James Show:
Here's a date to circle on your calendar as a Raps fan though. Mike James, Kevin Garnett and the newly drafted Randy Foye make their first visit of the year to the ACC on this particular Wednesday. For James, this marks his first visit to Toronto since his departure this off-season and by this point, it should be fairly obvious as to how much of a lift James has given the T-Wolves. The battle between him and TJ Ford will be interesting to watch and fans will get a look at Randy Foye, a very similar player to James. Also interesting will be to see whether James gets into a little tussle with his ex-teammates as he did last year when Houston came to town and Howard planted the ball in his mug after screaming "And-One."
Following this matchup, the post-Christmas portion of the schedule sees Toronto's current GM face his former squad in his "new home" for the first time with Steve Nash and the Suns visiting on Jan. 3. And days later on Jan. 14, "Il Mago" Andrea Bargnani faces the player he's been most often compared to, Dirk Nowitzki, for the first time with the Mavs in town. If Bargnani develops as expected, the Mavs/Raptors matchup will be a very intriguing one for years.
Of all the games though that are on this year's schedule, here are the ones each of us here at the HQ are anticipating the most:
Franchise: The contests I'm looking forward to the most are actually the ones involving some of the NBA's worst teams - teams that like Toronto, are trying to improve and fight for respectability in the league meaning the Atlanta's, the Boston's, the Charlotte's, the Portland's etc. Why? Well for starters it gives me the opportunity as a huge NCAA fan to see some of this year's top picks like Adam Morrison and Brandon Roy in action. It's also a great way to gauge the Raptors's improvement over last year. Beating those "lesser clubs" should send a strong message that Colangelo's moves have the team moving in the right direction. But faltering, even playing .500 ball against them, will definitely give rise to some questions...
Howland: I too want to watch this team against teams that are actually up and coming. Ok maybe not teams like Hawks and Bobcats who I still feel will be among the league's "cellar dwellers." No, think more Orlando. Now here's a team putting together a solid squad with a great young front court, some shooters and a solid but undersized PG. In fact Orlando reminds me a lot of the team built here in Toronto. Other match-ups I will be watching closely include Chicago (who always seem to own the Raps), Golden State and New Orleans...all teams on the up and up. How will the Raptors fare against teams with some solid talent who didn't need a lottery pick to fill gaping holes? These teams to me are the true measuring stick. When Babcock was fired, one of the rationales was to speed up the "plan" or "process." Unless this team performs against the next level of competition then it would appear that expediting the process was actually just an excuse used at the time of the firing. Colangelo wants to win now and that being the case, these are teams you must at least play .500 ball against.
Chapman: For me there's a few main games on the schedule that I've got my eye on starting with obviously the home opener vs. Milwaukee.
I'm also looking at Dec. 1 vs. Boston, (is Boston GM Danny Ainge building the next Baby Bulls or the next Atlanta Hawks?), Dec. 10 vs. Portland (I'm really intrigued at what the Blazers will look like this season - Martell Webster for most improved player?), Dec. 27 vs. Minnesota ("Who is Mike James" return?) and finally Feb. 7 vs. Orlando (are they for real this season? Plus I can boo Redick.)