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First Trimester Bloggers Roundtable

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When I was in Spain attending David Stern’s press conference he said something very interesting concerning the changing face of the NBA. He noted that the National Basketball Association is the most blogged about sport in the world.

We have no doubt as to this considering the number of quality blogs in existence so we’ve decided to host a roundtable of some of our faves.

-Michael Grange from the Globe and Mail is the author of "From Deep," a new blog on the scene offering some great insight into the world of the NBA and of course the Raptors.

(http://www.theglobeandmail.com/blogs/wbbasketball)

-Chris Clarke and Kinnon Yee both write for HoopsAddict.com, one of the net’s most comprehensive basketball sites and both are huge Raptors fans to boot.

(http://hoopsaddict.com/)

-J.E. Skeets and Tas Melas from Basketball Jones are also Raptors aficionados who host the web’s most hillarious basketball podcast.

(http://www.thebasketballjones.net/)

We threw out some questions, and here is a sampling of some of the responses we got:

RaptorsHQ: Let's kick things off with some Raptors' talk. Toronto is currently on a a seven game Western Conference road trip and looking to get back on track after four losses in their last five games. In some of these, we’ve seen teams push Toronto around and a number of articles have been written as of late about the Raptors'lack of toughness.

What are your thoughts on this topic and if it is an issue, how does Toronto address it? Is this something that is a
major concern come playoff time?

Chris Clarke, Hoopsaddict.com: This Raptors team isn't all that tough...but do they need to be? The Celtics didn't push the Raptors around last time they played - they forced Toronto to play half-court basketball, and they were better at it than the Raptors. (Fastbreak points: Boston 4,Toronto 3. Yikes.)

Aside from a hard foul from James Posey on CB4 and LeBron's "they didn't fight?" reaction to the (Hor)Ford-on-Ford collison last week, I don't think toughness is of great concern.

Under Colangelo, this team isn't looking to get tougher. I believe it was Mr. Grange who said that BC turned down the chance to sign an athletic big (was it Darvin Ham?) because said big wasn't much of a shooter.

Also, I'm pretty sure Kris Humphries would lay the wood on someone at Smitch's suggestion.

Michael Grange: The toughness issue is easily confused. As I noted on From Deep the other day, James Posey fighting you does not likely strike fear into many NBA players. Fighting is not a significant or meaningful part of NBA culture. But Posey is a jerk. He has no compunction about offending you in the name of winning a basketball game.

Bruce Bowen is like that. He really, really doesn't care if other teams hate him. Against the best teams and in the biggest moments there's something to that. It's not that the Raptors aren't mentally tough. If professionalism and dedication to craft are important parts of being mentally tough, the Raptors are pretty mentally tough. If being consistent is part of being mentally tough, Chris Bosh is mentally tough, and so on. What the Raptors lack, collectively, is the inherent inclination to lay it all out there. If you don't play nice with your opponent there's a chance they might get really riled up and come back at you harder. But if you meet that challenge, they're dead in the water.

But you have to be ready to step up the intensity if you're going to play that way, and that might mean pissing someone off. It's not something to blow up a team over, or necessarily trade for. It's probably something that will come with experience and confidence from within, maybe after some people realize that they're being taken advantage of a little bit. The Raptors aren't quite there, I don't think, but it doesn't mean they won't be.

PS -- and the only reason I've ever even thought about Darvin Ham is because he got ripped off in the dunk contest by Kobe way back when.

RaptorsHQ: Speaking of Darvin Ham, is it a sign I watch too much basketball when I was pleased to see him drafted third overall in the last NBDL draft that I was watching live on NBA TV?

Ok...don't answer that.

Getting back to the Raptors and the "toughness" issue, on this road trip we’ve seen a team that seemed to lose its "fight" once it got down. Like you Michael, I'm hoping over time the team starts to develop that on their own but so far we've only seen it in spurts. The loss to the Suns was Toronto's fourteenth giving them a record at about the first trimester mark of 15 and 14.

Has the team met each of your expectations to date?

Kinnon Yee, Hoopsaddict.com: The great thing about being a gamer is that you kinda get to experience the NBA schedule before hand. After playing NBA 2K8, I figured that if the Raptors could be at about .500 by the end of November, it would be up to my expectations. I know a lot of people expected this team to be hot out of the gate, but there were a few things to conspire against the team, even without all the injuries. The first thing is that the Raptors were looking to introduce two players to the starting lineup (Bargs and Kapono) and trying to put together something of a bench after picking things clean and leaving Calderon with nothing to play with.

At the end of the day, the record is about where I expected them to be, but overall, I'm disappointed with the play of the team on an individual night. It's worrisome to me that this team feels like it's lost its identity. Some nights, it's a great scoring team, but terrible getting to the line and the glass. Other nights, it's great at the glass and keeping the opposing team to a low shooting percentage, yet they can't seem to buy a basket and can't seem to figure out alternative ways to score.

Chris Clarke, Hoopsaddict.com: I'll just quickly add that I had no early expectations for the Raptors this season. Start hot or cold (or somewhere in between), I know they're going to get it together after the holiday break, just like last
season when they started streaking.

Aside: I think Kinnon addressed something important:

What is this team's identity? What do teams worry about when they play Toronto, their defensive intensity or their offensive firepower? Both? Who are the Toronto Raptors?

Michael Grange: I'd say no, the team hasn't met my expectations because I thought/think this team can/should win 50+ games. Going 15-12 doesn't quite get you there. Of course when I suggested they'd win 50+ games I didn't anticipate Ford having the problems he's had; Bosh struggling the way he did early and then following his knee injury, and I certainly didn't anticipate Bargnani playing so poorly, not after the pre-season he had and the first few games of the regular season. That said I had no real clue Jamario Moon was going to be a contributor in any shape or form, or that Carlos Delfino was going to make a legitimate case to be a starter or Kris Humphries would be nailing jimmies. Those developments don't entirely off-set Ford's uncertain situation or Bargnani's December no-show, but combined with a relatively benign schedule (minus this seven-game road trip) it explains why they were 15-12 prior to playing Seattle, and not 12-15.

Firing on all cylinders and healthy, I think the Raptors can nose out Orlando as the third-best team in the east.

The problem is no one can know when or if that's going to happen right now.

RaptorsHQ: Interesting point about the team not having an identity. Does everyone feel that this is something that will develop as the season goes on and the Raptors get healthy and more accustomed to playing together?

Or do you foresee the Legomaster, Bryan Colangelo, having to shuffle the deck prior to the trade deadline to help forge this identity - especially given the concerns about TJ Ford?

Kinnon Yee, Hoopsaddict.com: I'm not sure the Raptors have the ability to close out and beat bad teams like they did last year. The point is, last year, we saw a Raptors team that beat all the teams that were "worse than they were", kept the score close, and finished games with tenacity. If they were down, they rose to the occasion. If they weren't playing well, they put out enough stops to make sure the other team couldn't pull out a victory in the final moments.

It's that identity and that aura of confidence that made the Raptors so effective. This year? That tenacity seems to have
disappeared. I hate to say it, but at this juncture, the team just looks tired at times, which is why they end up losing quarter badly.

I'm not sure what you could trade for, but the Raptors just might have to do something in order to get some one to give them that tenacity. I think Jorge Garbajosa would have been the guy, but I just don't think most people understand how important he was to the psyche of the team. If it means that we might need to lose a guy like Delfino or Hump, it might make sense. This team, for all its ability is really kinda "young" right now. Especially without Garbajosa, and if you remove Darrick Martin, there's not a single player over the age of 30 besides Nesterovic and Parker and I'm just not sure that's good enough.

RaptorsHQ: I guess here at the HQ we expected a slightly better record too but it's the individual players that have surprised us as you mentioned Michael. Players who I didn't expect to struggle have, and others >who I thought would matter little to the club have become important cogs in the team's machinery.

On our list of surprises is obviously the play of the big rook Andrea Bargnani. He's back in the starting lineup now
but there’s a distinct possibility that he got a lump of coal in his stocking from Santa this Christmas.

What about Il Mago - how does Toronto get him back on track?

Chris Clarke, Hoopsaddict.com: Thoughts on Bargnani: he looked pretty good at times last year, but he certainly didn't look poised to take over the NBA if he got more minutes in his 2nd season. He's going through a tough stretch, but the Raptors are better with Rasho in the middle right now, IMHO.

Bargnani is probably better off as the first option in
the 2nd unit for now. He can be the focal point of the
offense for 12 minutes a game, and develop that way this season. Maybe next year he can start at C for Toronto. What's the rush?

Tas, The Basketball Jones: There are reasons for Bargnani's play. He started the year for the 1st time in his life as the starting centre of a team. He's played small forward for most of his career and must be spending most of his his practice time learning to play defence at the 5 spot, a tough position for any young player in the NBA, especially one who had been used to playing at the 3 or 4 for his enitre life. To put some more on his plate, being a last line of defence for this swiss cheese Raptors team makes him look even worse. He's had to go to the bench with foul trouble and his offence has suffered because he's simply had less time on the court.

Bargnani's been injured and just hasn't got in to a flow. He's a second year player playing at arguably the toughest position in the NBA. Big men need time to develop and he needs to put some time in. I think people's expectations on him coming in to the season were a little unrealistic - it's 27 games in to year #2 of his career... he needs time.

RaptorsHQ: I think that's the sensible response concerning Andrea. I mean, we were more than patient with Hoffa so let's give this kid AT LEAST till the end of the season. I think he's the difference maker that could take this team to the next level so Toronto needs to be patient and get him comfortable just being on the court again. His play could be the difference between 40 and 50 wins at some point.

Speaking of which, any final thoughts? Best guesses at the Raptors' final number for wins? What two teams do you expect to see in the NBA Finals?

Chris Clarke, Hoopsaddict.com: I think they'll win somewhere around 45 games this season. I'm hoping that they string together a few winning streaks, though, so maybe they'll win the most in franchise history, 48, max.

In the NBA Finals, I've got the Spurs and the Pistons, but I'm hoping the Raptors can somehow pull through in the East and that they'll play the Suns. We can dream, right?

RaptorsHQ: We're looking at a similar situation here at the HQ Chris...although if Toronto doesn't make it, I'd love to see a run-and-gun final like Phoenix versus Orlando.

We'd like to thank our panel for participating, especially given the hectic time of year. We'll be back in a few months for round two and hopefully by that point, we'll see a Raptor squad that's back on track.

The HQ