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A Change in Philosophy

An All-Star as a Raptor? Possible. Very possible.

An All-Star as a Raptor? Possible. Very possible.

It’s a complete 180 from last season.

2007/08 Raptors
Biggest Strength: Depth
Biggest Weakness: Lack of Grade A Talent

2008/09 Raptors
Biggest Strength: Grade A Talent
Biggest Weakness: Depth

The trade for six-time All-Star Jermaine O’Neal was BC essentially recognizing that you need stars to win in the NBA. This is something I have preached since Day 1. Depth is only an asset when it is supported by a firm, strong foundation. The Raptors now have that foundation.

Looking at the current roster it is not a stretch to believe that if things work out and the injury bug stays away that the Raptors will have three representatives at the NBA All-Star game this year. Bosh, Calderon and O’Neal.

There are questions surrounding each one of these players. Can Bosh elevate his game, in particular defensively? Can O’Neal stay healthy and help Bosh carry the load? Can Calderon stand the wear and tear of being a starting PG logging heavy minutes for 82+ games? All legitimate questions.

Of course it was only last season when people were questioning another trio. When Danny Ainge decided that he had enough young assets to make a big splash he went all-in by obtaining Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to put alongside Paul Pierce. When the three of them were put together there were legitimate questions being bandied about. Can they co-exist? Is Ray Allen healthy enough to play all 82+ games? Can Kevin Garnett elevate his play and win the big one? Is Paul Pierce healthy and can he share the spotlight? Is this team deep enough? In the end the answer to those questions was resoundingly yes, and the result was the Larry O’Brien trophy in Boston for the 17th time.

What’s interesting about the Boston scenario is that when the 2007/08 Celtics first took the floor there were some serious concerns about the PG spot and the C spot. The one and the five spots are arguably the two most important spots on the floor. On top of these concerns the Boston bench featured players like Tony Allen (recovering from ACL surgery), Glen Davis (questions about conditioning), Brian Scalabrine (no comment needed), Eddie House (has never actually unpacked a suitcase) and Leon Powe. Many people doubted the mark-up of this Boston team and even as they added pieces as the season wore on it didn’t change the fact that depth and play from the 1 and the 5 remained legitimate concerns.

Contrast that Celtics team to this year’s Raptors. Three positions are well manned while the SG and SF position leave a little to be desired. On a whole however, there are fewer questions about Parker’s ability to play the two spot then Rondo’s ability to orchestrate the Boston offense. Also, when it comes to the bench suddenly things don’t look so bad for the Raps. As of now the bench features Bargnani (a former number one overall pick with much to prove), Jason Kapono (arguably one of, if not the best three point shooter in the game), Kris Humphries (respectable back-up), Joey Graham (who I would argue STILL has not been used correctly) and Roko Ukic (relatively unknown), amongst others.

I’d take the Raps bench any day of the week.

The depth issue really only becomes an issue when someone hits the IR. When Boston started the season with a healthy squad they went 20-2. The number of doubters and the strength of their voices diminished. When KG went down for a stretch they came back down to earth. That’s the reality of the NBA. When a key player goes down the team is going to struggle. This will undoubtedly be the case with the Raptors this season. If Bosh, O’Neal or Calderon suffer an injury of course things will get a lot tougher.

Unlike the Celtics however, I would argue the Raps better talent to fill the gap. If the Raps do stay healthy there is no telling what the ceiling is for this squad. ESPN the Magazine predicts this team to be in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Let’s take a closer look at the Raptors bench as it is today:

Bargnani: I think the point has been made. More is expected from this guy as a result of being the number one pick in the draft. Players don’t pick where they are drafted but the expectations surrounding them are based upon that very fact. His summer is going to be filled with big man camps, intense training and a lot of practice. I don’t want to take any comfort in the fact that our number one pick could be a great sixth man, but that’s all that is going to be asked of him this season. I, for one, believe he can play this role well provided Mitchell is consistent in how he is used.

Sixth man of the year? Not what you want from a number one pick, but it will have to do.

Sixth man of the year? Not what you want from a number one pick, but it will have to do.

Kapono: It will be interesting to see if it is Kapono or Moon that starts at the 3. I for one hope it is Kapono. For these purposes however, lets assume Sam uses Kapono off the bench. When used correctly this guy is instant offence. Sure he looks slow on the defensive end but he more than makes up for it when given an opportunity at the opposite end of the court. Kapono was one of the lone bright spots late in the season and all followers of the team will be looking to see if he can build on that strong finish. If Kap-One does come off the bench there will be a lot of pressure on Ukic or whoever the second string PG is to ensure Kapono is given every opportunity to showcase his amazing shooting stroke.

Humphries: A banger who is just a little shot happy. Humphries is a solid player to but besides Bargnani when Bosh and O’Neal are getting a break (although I don’t imagine many minutes in the game when one of the big men are not on the floor). He likes to get into the paint, can move some bodies and is essentially our version of Glen Davis. There will be certain games where Hump will be an asset and others when he won’t get off the bench. Considering the rotation of big men that’s ok.

Graham: Ah the enigma that is Joey Graham. Graham was on the outside looking in last season as the team simply had too many players suited to play the 3. Now some of the backlog has cleared and once again Graham is going to be provided an opportunity to get some minutes. The strange thing is I don’t expect or want him to only play the three. Graham should also see some time at the 4 spot. As a comparison I would like to see Graham become this team’s version of Leon Powe. Powe is undersized to play the 4 but has enough strength and size to outmuscle other players. Powe is not nearly as effective outside of 12 feet but Coach Rivers found a way to use him effectively. I believe Graham could be as effective as Cal grad if Mitchell uses him in a similar fashion.

Ukic: I might be in the minority here but I for one am getting more and more comfortable with the idea that Ukic could be the back-up PG. Why? Ukic has played in the second best league in the world for quite some time now and has finally logged some decent minutes. The situation is similar to the situation when Babcock brought Calderon over. Was it a hit right away? No. Was Calderon good enough? Yes. There will be struggles but the Raptors (and their fans) need to see what they have.

Adams: Franchise will be taking a closer look at Adams this week. Let’s just say I am more comfortable with Adams then knowing the team is paying Brian Scalabrine to do similar things.

Jawai: He won’t be called on to do much and what the Raps have in this guy is a complete unknown to us at this point.

All in all I feel pretty comfortable with the depth on this team. As Franchise suggested yesterday with good health it is not completely out of the realm of possibility that they are near the top of the Eastern Conference standings. Of course injuries are part of the game. If Paul Pierce had been out of a big chunk of last season do you think the Celtics would be NBA Champs? Debateable, if not doubtful.

I am not suggesting that the Raps are positioned to win the NBA Championship next season, but so long as BC scours the globe for some additional small pieces (I for one hope he uses the remaining loot on Tony Allen), take comfort in the fact that this teams suggested lack of depth is not all that some are making it out to be.

Besides, I get way more excited about this team and what it can do with O’Neal playing 35 minutes a game then Rasho and Hump combining to do the same.