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The Lego Master Speaks

Well, the big game is tomorrow.

No, not the Raptors first regular season game.

No, not the Raptors versus the Nets in a playoff rematch.

It's Toronto versus Real Madrid in a much anticipated match-up for basketball fans across the world, especially those in Spain who will have to choose between the home team, and rooting for national pride ala Jose Calderon and Jose Garbajosa.

Real Madrid is perhaps the most storied team in the history of European basketball having won a record eight Euroleague titles. The team has also brought to prominence a number of NBA stars including Arvydas Sabonis and the legendary Drazen Petrovic.

It's also is coming off a season where they won the ACB league title and earned a berth in next season's Euroleague. Real Madrid should give the Raps a good run as its roster is comprised of various former NBA'ers such as Louis Bullock, Charles Smith and Raul Lopez, and more importantly, various Euroleague stars like Marko Thomas and Felipe Reyes.

And even though those names hardly amount to Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant, we all know now how big names don't necessarily win games.

The Raptors can further testify to this having narrowly escaped a loss to Lottomatica Virtus Roma with a 93 to 87 win earlier this week.

Chris Bosh had 23 points and nine rebound in the win and Andrea Bargnani had 13 points and seven rebounds starting at the centre position for the second straight game. Also helping out for the Raptors; Jason Kapono with 15, including 3 of 3 from downtown, and Jorge Garbajosa had 10.

Yes, this is just exhibition play, but I was a bit concerned seeing Christian Drejer drop 23 points on Bosh and his fellow front-court mates. This isn't necessarily a knock on Drejer though, many forget that he looked to be a first-round lock before his days at Florida. Unfortunately a leg injury, and a Florida style of play that simply didn't fit his game really took its toll on the forward who's only
recently re-emerging as one of the better forwards, in basketball.

Another player who had similar issues with the US college system, Erazem Lorbek, had 12 points and eight rebounds to help out his front-court mate Drejer.

And how about our boy Roko? While his shot wasn't always falling, he did have 10 points and an impressive nine assists and 2 steals. I got to ask Bryan Colangelo a few questions regarding Roko as can be seen below, and it's good to see that he hasn't yet become one of those "lost second round picks."

And speaking of second round picks, former Villanova stand-out and Boston Celtic Allan Ray had 15 points in his new home. I still think the Celtics should have held onto Allan for the pure uncanny comedy factor of having a Ray Allen and an Allan Ray.

Aside from the latest overseas action, John Hollinger at released his annual list of Player Efficiency Rating (PER/ projections for the season. Hollinger has Yao Ming at number one but where do the Raptors stand?

Chris Bosh was ranked at number 10 although CB4's recent injuries are a concern.

While it's only preseason and holding Bosh out seems more precautionary in nature than anything, it's just not something Raptors fans want to see again so soon and it may mean him missing the Raptors? match versus Real Madrid. Bosh's PER puts him in a select company with players like Carlos Boozer (11), Kevin Garnett (9), Amare Stoudemire (12), and Tim Duncan (13.)

TJ Ford and Jose Calderon follow not too far behind Bosh at numbers 50 and 60 respectively on Hollinger's list. This puts them in the company of Marcus Camby (53), Jason Kidd (56), and Richard Hamilton (59.) It also puts them behind only Chris Paul, Gilbert Arenas, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Chauncey Billups, Baron Davis (and in Jose's case, Jason Kidd) on Hollinger's list of point guards. As Adam Sandler once said, "not too shabby."

However after that, she's pretty grim as Matt Bonner ranks higher than any other Raptor in terms of predicted PER. Andrea Bargnani was next for Toronto at 145 followed by Anthony Parker at 172, and Jason Kapono at 203.

How much stock to put in these rankings depends on what field of thought you subscribe to I suppose but in any event, I think both Andrea and AP should shoot up the list as the season goes on.

A final note prior to the BC interview, from the sounds of things, it's been none other than Joey Graham who seems to be playing the best out of those competing for the starting small forward spot. I heard the groans from readers after their eyes passed across that statement all the way here in Portugal but yes, Graham has apparently been top dog in practice and even threw down a nasty dunk on Chris Bosh's head in practice. He hasn't started a game yet, and has had limited minutes, but it looks like he'll once again get lots of opportunity to show this season that he's ready to take a jump to the next level.

Sam Mitchell has been switching back and forth from Kapono to Delfino as a starter at the 3 and I'm guessing that the position will continuously flip depending on match-ups, injuries, and who knows, maybe even Sam Mitchell's mood.

Or maybe Bryan Colangelo's.

Yes, finally I got some time during my travels to transcribe what is a very lengthy media scrum with the Legomaster himself.

First of all, I can't begin to imagine how different it is for the media to deal with Bryan Colangelo than to say with former GM Rob Babcock. B.C. just exudes this calm, authoritative presence and he always makes the media around him feel included instead of stuck on the outside looking in.

As you can see, he also gives the most detailed answers of any sports figure I've ever seen/heard. The scrum surrounding him didn?t even ask many questions as most were answered in his lengthy responses.

This was great however and I found myself at times simply enthralled as the basketball knowledge poured out of him. Even more interesting was the candor he displayed in the interview and while the Legomaster didn't tip his hat to all of his secrets (I now wish I had asked about Pape Sow and Uros Slokar) he did give fans a glimpse of his vision for the team down the road...

Reporter: Are you concerned about the fact that there's not a lot of discussion around the Raptors this year? Everyone seems to be talking about Boston and other clubs.

Bryan Colangelo: I would say we have some teams that have improved in the Eastern Conference and in particular in our division. Boston seems to be the odds on favourite at this point and you know, you've got improving teams like New York, and New Jersey getting healthy should make them better. But I like the position we're in. I like the fact that there's not a lot of discussion and while we'll probably still surprise a few people along the way, at least they know who we are and what we're about. We've kept our core together and we talked a lot about the improvement of this team this year and those strides that we will make will come from within. And I do know for a fact that having watched a lot of it myself but also monitoring the activities of all our players this summer, they're all giving 100 per cent effort to get back and make a step in the right direction.

People want to know what my prediction is on wins you know, are we gonna take another step towards 50, again, I'm not a prediction guy, but I would obviously be disappointed if we don't take a step forward and that means winning more games and advancing in the playoffs.

Reporter: Tell us about the training camp in Italy?

BC: I think it's a great opportunity for the team to number one, come together and form a bond early. This group is a group that's mostly intact from last season so I think you'll see some of that pride shown from the Spanish guys, Calderon and Garbajosa when they're in Spain, a chance to show everybody where they're from, a chance to experience the culture, I think Andrea and Maurizio are going to have a nice time hosting everybody in Italy. It's certainly about having a little fun but it's also about getting ready and doing the things that we have to do as a basketball team. And I think dealing with some unique circumstances and new persons in this process actually helps you get there a little bit quicker and when you come back and are in the friendly confines of our practice court and we're now gearing up for the season, everyone will appreciate that much more what we have here.

There's a lot to be said about these type of trips and what good it does for us, it's not a financial windfall at all, it's more about doing something that's good for the league and good for the Raptor brand and we are the league's only international team, why not exploit that? We did that with our roster last year, not necessarily by design, but it just happened to work out that way that the players that we added happened to have some international flavour to them and we keep going in that direction. We brought in Carlos Delfino this year from Argentina, Jason Kapono I think wishes he was Croatian or Serbian or something (laughs), Maceo comes to us after one season at Indiana but he also really kind of made his way playing in Spain and then in Israel, alongside of Anthony Parker, so we continue to be a unique team, we're bringing in some guys that we think are gonna reinforce what we've done with our roster and we like where we are but this trip should bring it together all very quickly.

Reporter: Can you summarize your thinking in terms of adding the guys you did this summer, I mean what will they bring to the table?

BC: First and foremost, from a pure offensive standpoint I think we're gonna be one of the best shooting teams in the league. We were talking about it the other day and analyzing some rosters and really, I'm not sure you could put many people in a shooting contest with Anthony Parker, Andrea Barganani, Jason Kapono...I mean it's a situation where there's gonna be a lot of shots made this year.

People say, are you worried about rebounding, of course we're worried about rebounding and team defense and those aspects of the game but more shots made mean less rebounds available and I think there's gonna be all sorts of things opened up: for TJ and Jose with driving lanes to the whole, Chris is going to have his scoring opportunities in the post, and even at the elbow he'll have more freedom to exploit etc. And if you look at our overall growth as a team, we've got guys coming back from improving over the summer, Rasho Nesterovic by way of example supposedly, I haven't seen him with my own two eyes, but Maurizio reports from the European Championships that he's in the best shape that he's seen in several years and he's coming off a very solid performance and that's great to see. Jose continues to improve and get better and he managed to have another breakout summer with the Spanish National Team. You know if there's a question mark on our team, it's the health of Garbajosa but all indications from last week's medical evaluation is that everything is status quo from where it was prior to the start of the European Championships. We've got the scans, they've been reviewed, all the images speak to that same story. It's going to be now about shaking the rust off his game and getting in better physical condition because what you saw in the European Championships I'd venture to say is probably less than what we saw last year from Garbajosa. But, you've gotta anticipate that there's gonna be some time to adjust after having spent five months coming back from what he went through. It's tough taking two weeks off in the NBA, from two weeks to five months, not like he wasn't training or doing other things, but clearly, going out and playing a basketball game is going to take a while. So we'll see where he goes and how he progresses and if all things work out according to plan, he'll be right there where he was last season for us. And as we continue to get better, I see guys a little hungrier this year.

Even last year everyone came in and they were excited and said "hey, this is fresh, this is new, let's make it work." Now you've got guys who've gotten a little taste of the apple, a little taste of playoff action and I think Chris, in particular, TJ, in particular, they're ready to go. I swear TJ had his game-face on two weeks ago in these informal workouts and some of the things I've seen him do and I really look forward to see what he's got in store for us.

You know it's an improved team because of the depth again, you know we look at what we've added and when, we've got a net positive.

Reporter: Bryan you're always talking about internal improvement, what in particular or what are you in particular looking for?

BC: Well, even though Chris excelled to the point where he's now an NBA All-Star starter, there's always going to be room for a 23, 24 year-old kid to get better and I think that he's going to strive for more. TJ Ford is going to continue to strive for more as a young point guard and he's still learning his way in the league. He played his first full season in quite some time, he hasn't played that much NBA basketball. You talk about some of the other things that have gone on in the development of the players we have, I mentioned Jose Calderon going over and continuing to prove that he can lead a team and he gets better shooting the ball every time I see him. He gets more and more consistent with his shot which is really a good thing in his case, which is being a point guard, coming off that high screen, obviously the defence has to hold true and stay home with him. And that creates other opportunities for people and I think that if he's an outside threat, and as TJ and Jose are both penetrating threats, Chris Bosh continues to develop his offensive game, we're going to have so many opportunities to score the ball in different ways with the types of shooters that we have on the court. I know Bargnani put in a great summer in terms of getting physically bigger and stronger and not to slow down necessarily but to get tougher and stronger out on the basketball court, and arguably, he was one of our better players in our final game of the playoffs against New Jersey last year. He didn't have a stellar summer arguably with the Italian National team, a lot of focus on him as the key addition to the team and there were some disappointing performances to say the least, not just by Andrea but I think by the whole, I think they finished ninth if I'm not mistaken, but I've seen him grow in the last year and a half, not just physically, but really emotionally, and I'm really anxious to see what he brings to the table this year, especially within those discussions of him possibly starting at the 5 spot.

Nothing is locked in stone, we talked about Rasho Nesterovic being in great physical condition, having a great tournament at the European Championships, you know if he comes out and brings it, he's going to win it. So we'll see how the minutes shake down but as a whole, everybody dedicated themselves this summer to getting better, across the board, everyone on the roster, and that's a great thing.

Reporter: Ok so let me take that forward, with what you guys saw in the playoffs last year, I know you were short some men, but what do you look at over the course of the regular season to say "you know, we need more of this in preparation for the post-season?"

BC: Well, we started the playoffs short-handed if you recall, Bargnani was just coming back, and by the time he got physically in shape and feeling strong again, the series unfortunately was over but he was really coming on strong. The other thing was that we didn't have Garbajosa at all. Since then, we've added one of the best three-point shooters in the game in terms of Jason Kapono. We've got another versatile athlete and defender and rebounder and assist guy who's basically a play-maker in Carlos Delfino, a multi-position player, a multi-skilled player so we've added depth there. The things that we're doing to address those needs are from inside mostly. You know, we thought we were deep last year, I think we're a deeper team this year and that's one of the things I think will help us get to that point. The other thing is one year of playoff experience under our belt is gonna be huge for this club. You know, I'm not going to say we had dear in the headlights eyes last year but it was a good experience for a lot of people, (laughs), ok Bruce Arthur says we did, but basically I think that year of experience, being together, having a roster that's mostly intact, so when you think about our roster not many teams can say "ok, we won 47 games, won our division, went to the playoffs and kept it all together."

It seems like a rarity whether it's contract issues, right now you look at Cleveland, they went to the NBA Finals and there are still key pieces that aren't in camp.

I'm not sure how that's going to shake out or resolve itself but that's an adjustment they're going to need to make. We don't have those adjustments right now. The biggest adjustment is probably the loss of Morris Peterson who had been here and a familiar face but at the end of the day, and this is not to take anything away from Mo, but you know we didn't get it all year long from Mo. There were times when he did look good and provided us with that emotional lift and then that scoring punch off the bench but for the most part, I'm going to say that we like what we've done to improve the depth off the bench; whether that's Kapono, or Delfino coming off or starting, or Joey Graham, there's going to be minutes that need to be distributed and that's going to be up to Sam. Saw Juan Dixon come in, I talk about TJ with a game face on early, Juan Dixon had his game face on and said to Sam point blank "hey, I'm going to be in your rotation this year, get used to it" and then proceeded to knock down just about every shot he took in semi-formal scrimmage. It's impressive to see the type of people we have, and the type of talent we have and that mix is what makes us, I think, a special group.

Reporter: Did you consider investing in the defensive side of the equation rather than a better shooting team, a better offensive team?

BC: I think if you look at the previous year, to where we climbed last season, we took a big jump forward in those areas and Sam feels that with the players we have we can continue to improve and continue to take a step forward. There are going to be things that we need to address, one thing I can tell you is a healthier, more agile and perhaps more effective Rasho Nesterovic will certainly address some of that but again, that depends on the flow of minutes and how many looks at the game he's going to get. Everyone's going to be competitive here and we've got it layered such that that constant grind for playing time is going to make it very interesting and it's going to make it difficult for Sam to try and figure out how to distribute the minutes. But, when you've got that grind and you've got the right type of people, and you don't have that tension necessarily, there's always going to be tension, but when it's negative tension it's not good. When it's positive tension I think that's a plus and we saw a lot of that last year already and I'm sure we're going to see a lot of it continue. With respect to addressing those needs, did we go out and get a great defender in Jason Kapono, no, and I think he'll be the first one to tell you that. Delfino can certainly defend, he can rebound the ball, especially from a wing position, and so that is a marked improvement and so yes, I'd say that's something we've done.

Have we gotten better shooting, yeah, I can say that. Now, when you shoot the ball better, there's fewer rebounds to get so at some point we'll see how that affects the flow of the game. It's bringing it all together, it's focussing on offence, it's focussing on defence, it's making sure that the team is as ready as possible.

Reporter: What about the direction of this club, is it flowing in the fashion you had intended?

: I think so. We've got a great group of players here and a solid core of talent, things that are so important in the NBA today. We don't have a ton of cap space to work with right now but who does, we all saw how the off-season went and there are teams and players out
there right now having to sit tight because of financial situations.

For us, we'll get some relief next summer but when we can really make a splash, and what we'll really be focussing on, is the summer after that, the summer after the 2008-09 season. We'll continue to build towards that and keep our options open. Economics is so important in the NBA right now and you want to maximize the talent you're getting without overcommitting financially and hurting the franchise's future in the long run hence looking towards that summer. Of course, we'll keep our ears open in the meantime as you never know, and without mentioning any names, we all have heard of a few major players who maybe aren't quite happy in their current situations, but the reality is that we won't be big free agent players for the next few years. In the meantime, if we can keep improving internally, keep our ears open, do some more tinkering with the roster, we get our draft pick back next summer as of now (laughs) so we'll have that, and work on coming together as a team, than we'll be on our way. We've got a number of players who are just starting to develop, and ones who I think fit the new style of long, athletic, multi-skilled individuals who can help us in various areas.

Franchise: Does Roko still fit in with these long-term plans?

BC: Oh yes, definitely.

Franchise: You were saying that you didn't get to see the play over in Europe but from what Maurizio told you, did Roko have a good tournament?

BC: He did have a good tournament and in fact, I think he's going to be a better NBA player than a Euro-league player. He's got skills that would transfer quite nicely to the NBA and I'm happy that he's got a fresh start with his new club. This should put him in a situation minus some of the issues from the past where he can have a chance to run a basketball team and continue to grow as a player.

Franchise: As a big, over 6-4 point guard, does his length and size fit that mould of the evolving NBA? Is that part of his appeal?

BC: Yes, he's got some of the physical characteristics that the NBA covets but he's really going to have to work on his shooting first.

Hopefully in his new situation he'll be able to do that and we're all excited to get a chance to see him and play against him while we're in Europe.


And if that isn't enough reading for you the Southwest Division is now being featured here.