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RaptorsHQ Season Preview - Part I

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Like KG, Baston played a central role in his team's success last year...

Like KG, Baston played a central role in his team's success last year...

Well...it's hard to believe, but that time of the year is finally upon us.

Yes, NBA basketball is back.

Well...nearly.

With the league's exhibition schedule set to kick off in only days, the folks at Celticsblog have started their annual tradition of blogger team previews.

We of course volunteered to look at our beloved Raptors, and the following is a general overview of this year's club.

Tomorrow we'll be looking at the team in more specific detail but for now, here's a glance at some of the major issues that will likely be on the minds of Dino fans this season:

Toronto Raptors

Last Year’s Record: 41-41

Key Losses: TJ Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, Carlos Delfino

Key Additions: Jermaine O’Neal, Roko Ukic, Hassan Adams

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?

After a disappointing finish to the 2007-08 season, the Toronto Raptors decided they needed to make some big changes. So with that in mind, they shocked the NBA world by trading Maceo Baston…oh, and picking up some guy named Jermaine O’Neal.

In dealing away TJ Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, Baston, and the 17th pick in the draft for a multiple time All-Star in O’Neal, Bryan Colangelo once again showed why he is considered to be one of the brightest minds in basketball.

The deal itself was rare in that Colangelo managed to move a player that absolutely had to be moved (Ford), and in return got back equal, if not more value. Not only was this deal one of addition by subtraction, but also one of simple addition.

By the end of last season the Raptors were being exposed for what they were - a soft, poor rebounding and defensively weak team. The addition of Jermaine O’Neal should help address all of these issues. His strong rebounding and shot blocking abilities, not to mention his overall defensive focus, will not only help lessen Bosh’s burden in the paint, but will also help toughen this team up.

TJ Ford had to be moved as his antics last season (which earned him the title MeJ Ford), could no longer be tolerated. The team simply played better with Calderon at the PG spot, and Ford was unwilling to take a back seat. To make the deal work Colangelo had to include some other valuable assets but in the end the potential upside was too much to pass up. When was the last time the league saw a front-court like the one Toronto now potentially has? Duncan-Robinson?

Perhaps the biggest loss this off-season was Delfino’s departure to Russia. Due to ownership’s reluctance to pay the luxury tax, re-signing Count Chocula became a virtual impossibility after the O’Neal acquisition.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

On paper it looks like the team’s front-court would be it’s biggest strength. Unfortunately however, many times things are not always what they appear. The front-line still starts with CB4, who after his Olympic experience looks primed for an absolute monster year, but there are big questions surrounding the other big-men.

Everyone knows that Jermaine has a lengthy medical record and has trouble staying on the floor. Meanwhile, former number one overall pick Andrea Bargnani will be under tremendous pressure from the outset to rebound from his sophomore slump. The Aussie Shaq, Nathan Jawai, is already out with cardiac issues, and despite rave reviews early in camp, Kris Humphries still needs to make a name for himself in the league.

If all goes according to plan, the Raptors will have one of the most feared and versatile front courts in the NBA, but for that to happen many pieces will have to fall into place.

Therefore the reality right now is that chemistry is the team’s biggest strength. These guys genuinely like each other and more importantly like playing with each other. This will be coach Sam Mitchell’s fourth season behind the bench, and the players by now know what to expect and what is expected of them. As much as Mitchell has been maligned at times, the consistency from the front office down is something this franchise has been lacking since its Vince Carter-era heyday. And now that the internal strife caused by the point guard situation has been resolved, the players can simply focus on playing better basketball.

Let the Jermaine O'Neal era begin in Toronto!

Let the Jermaine O'Neal era begin in Toronto!

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

Two major issues jump out in terms of potential weaknesses: wing play and depth.

In a league dominated by All-Star swingmen, the Raps feature one of the worst starting 2-3 tandems offensively. The combination of Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon does little to strike fear into the hearts of opponents as neither can truly create off the bounce. Between them last season they only managed 21ppg and even if Jason Kapono ends up starting, his defensive shortcomings leave little to be desired. Kapono should have more open looks with Bosh and O’Neal on the blocks, but this doesn’t change the fact that there is no one on this team who can be relied on at the 2-3 spot to bail the team out when the shot-clock is running low.

The other major concern is depth, starting at the point guard spot. Everyone is excited to see Calderon finally take full control of the team, but can his body handle heavy minutes? It had better because the guys backing him up are shy on NBA experience. Roko Ukic will undoubtedly struggle at times this season while trying to adjust to the NBA game, and one’s expectations for Will Solomon can’t be very high. If Calderon goes down to injury, this season could be one to forget.

On top of this, while Carlos Delfino could be maddingly inconsistent at times, his defection to Europe means that the Raptors are left with the likes of Hassan Adams and Joey Graham to back up Parker, Moon and Kapono. While Adams and Graham are two former high flyers from there college days, neither have found success yet in the NBA. If there was at times too much depth on the roster last year, this is definitely not a concern this season.

4. What are the goals for this team?

Having been knocked out of the first round of the playoffs two years running, it’s time for this team to take the next step. The second-round? The Conference Finals? The Finals? If all falls into place there’s no doubt this team will find itself in the mix for the Conference Championship. It’s a fine line though, and if any one of Bosh, O’Neal or Calderon gets hit with a serious injury, fans of this team may have a vested interest in a certain set of lottery balls come spring.

5. Can Andrea Bargnani get it together?

When you take a player with the first pick in the draft, as a fan, you tend to have certain expectations in terms of his performance. So far Andrea has not lived up to expectations, and in many ways regressed in his second season. The pressure is on the Italian to make "the jump" this year. It’s hard to put your finger on just exactly what caused Bargnani’s struggles last year, but confidence and a consistent role undoubtedly played a big part. Instead of being forced into the starting center spot this year however, Andrea will be once again coming off the bench and hopefully used in a manner more akin to his strengths. He worked hard this off-season to round out his game and is as healthy as he’s ever been. Therefore "Il Mago" has no excuses left and must become a key component to this team and its success. If Bargnani is not in the discussion for sixth man of the year when all is said and done, then it may be hard to keep the "bust" talks at bay.

Predicted Record: 49-33

RAPTORSHQ