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Jose Calderon and his Spanish mates may have some explaining to do...

Jose Calderon and his Spanish mates may have some explaining to do...

Howland: So let’s start things off with a question, what will we be looking for early on when training camp starts and the regular season kicks off? On my part I think the most interesting story line early on will be Andrea Bargnani. There has been a lot of talk about his off-season training and people are going to expect to see a big difference in his game almost immediately. Year three is the make or break one right? Colangelo will have a chance to lock him up long term after the season so it will be interesting to see how Bargnani performs.

The biggest thing I will be watching for is not necessarily a particular skill, but just a better demeanor. I hope to watch him on the court and see a more confident, polished player. If Bargs can come to camp looking sharp it takes a load of pressure off both the other bigs in Bosh and O'Neal. The perfect situation is if Bargs can give a consistent effort from the get-go so Mitchell doesn't need to put too much pressure on a guy who played all summer and a guy who should be eased into things.

My focus is going to shift half-way through the season though when my eyes will be on Jose Calderon. Around game 40 I think we will start to get a sense of whether he is up for leading this team for all 82 games.

Franchise: I agree, those are two big things to watch. We'll be talking about Bargs as a real X factor later this summer but I think the other thing that bears watching is how guys like Jason Kapono and Jamario Moon play. Does Moon take the next step? Does Kapono find himself being used more to his strengths?

Right now though, my focus is on Calderon with the recent Spanish basketball team-photo debacle. There hasn't been a huge media explosion at this point, but you gotta wonder what the Raptors' PR folks are thinking. (Or what the Spanish team themselves were thinking for even taking this photo.) Toronto's demographics and fan base is a lot different than that of say a Charlotte Bobcats or a New Orleans Hornets so the team might have to switch to full damage control mode. It's just yet another black mark on Spanish sport.

Howland: People shouldn't have the right to get upset about that photo if they are not protesting human rights injustices, environmental issues and China's insular approach to global issues. Poor taste? You bet. Worth debating further? No. Sure with Toronto being a multi-cultural city there might be some concern in the MLSE public relations department but this a petty issue. Imagine being in the PR department for the Pistons or Pacers after the malice in the palace. Talk about earning your keep.

Franchise: No, that's true. I guess it's just going to be interesting to see if there's any fall-out from the whole thing in terms of what the Raptors do. What the Spanish team did isn’t much different than a team painting their faces in black paint circa the movies of the 1920’s had the Olympics been someplace in Africa. Just idiotic so let’s move on.

Next topic, free-agent signings. Did Josh Smith get too much? How about Emeka?

Howland: I don't think either got too much as both teams were in similar positions in that they HAD to sign these guys. For Charlotte it was all about showing a commitment to winning while in Atlanta had they let Smith walk for nothing, there may have been a full-scale revolt. Can you imagine Rick Sund's reputation had he not matched?! I like the Josh Smith deal a lot more than the Emeka deal because Smith has a higher ceiling. I will say that if I was any other team but Charlotte I would not have signed Emeka to that deal. He is not a star, but rather a guy who you put next to a star. What will be interesting is to see what happens with Iggy now. Is he worth more than these two guys? We have talked about the fact that he is a perfect second or third option but it looks like he will want "star power" money now.

Franchise: I hope Iggy signs with Memphis...that would be fantastic. (Editor’s note, Iguodala and the 76ers came to terms yesterday evening.) I agree that the Smith deal makes a lot more sense than Okafor, but it just sucks if you're a fan of either team. Now you have limited cap room for limited talent.

The Hawks in fact remind me of the original Superfriends cartoon series. What a useless super-hero team. Superman is the only one who can really do anything. Any time they had to go and fight some dragon or space villain, the rest of the team was screwed. I mean, what the hell is Aquaman going to do in Space; summon some flying dolphins? And Batman? Sure he'll have some sort of Bat shuttle, but once that gets destroyed he's done as well. Wonderwoman was the only other semi legit talent.

Right now the Hawks are the same. Joe Johnson is solid in a few areas
like Wonderwoman, and Josh Smith still has a ton of upside not to mention multiple skillsets. I guess that makes him Superman in my analogy. The rest of the team? Ugh. One-dimensional players at this point. Maybe there's some hope with Al Horford...but the Hawks even lost their Wonder Twin Josh Childress to the European superhero league.

Howland: So what character would Speedy Claxton be? I actually wouldn't have been surprised if Memphis had tried to sign Iggy to an offer sheet. Look there is no way Josh Smith wanted to play for the Grizz and I can't help but think that Memphis putting forth the offer was a favour to Smith's agent. The Grizz need all the help they can get in luring free agents there, let alone draft picks, so making good with the agents when the time is right is a smart move. Why wouldn't the Grizz have tried to do the same thing with Iggy? Worst-case scenario they have Iggy alongside Gay, Mayo and Conley, which in my books makes them one of the most exciting teams in the league to watch. Sort of like Portland last season…now if Darko could suddenly make like Optimus Prime and transform into Greg Oden...

The Hawks = The Superfriends?
The Hawks = The Superfriends?

Franchise: Hands down Claxton would be "Gleek," the Wondertwins' Space
Monkey. Both get injured or captured and screw things up for their teammates all the time. Darko right now isn't even in the Transformer league, he's more like a Gobot.

So looking at next year, what team are you most excited to watch outside of our Raptors, Portland? I can't wait to see how bad Minnesota is going to be. That team is one Al Jefferson injury away from being the Dakota Wizards.

Howland: I am pretty sure my NBA fantasy team is one Al Jefferson injury away from being the Dakota Wizards. Portland was my team to watch last season for late games. I can't see that changing this season either although GS is a close second. Who do you think wins more games next year, the Warriors or the Clips? I will tell you the teams I won't be watching and they all reside in Houston. Now with the Artest trade I think Rocket games are going to be painful to watch and I am anticipating NCAA scores when they play. The Mavs I expect will be brutal and will deal Josh Howard or Dirk at the deadline (think Portland for Aldridge and parts), and San Antonio will still bore me. I love fundamental ball but during the regular season I would rather watch fast-paced games, which I guess means I should enjoy Raptors games a little less...but that won't be the case.

Speaking of teams to watch what's your prediction on teams making the playoffs in the East and West?

Franchise: Those are some big trade predictions! As for Warriors or Clips, that's tough. Assuming everyone stays healthy, I'm going to say the Clips. They actually have a fairly solid roster and I expect them to fight for a final playoff spot in the West. So in terms of predictions...hmmm...still a bit early maybe but in the West I have the Hornets, Lakers, Suns, Blazers, Rockets, Jazz, Mavericks and Spurs as of now…but not in that order. In the East? Celtics, Pistons, Magic, Raptors, 76ers, Heat, Cavs and Wizards and once again, not in that set order. Should be a close fight for spots 3 right to 8 as I think the Heat will be a lot better than people expect as long as they stay healthy. What about first coach to be fired, who would you say?

Howland: When it comes to coaches getting's a tough call. I would probably go with Mike Woodson, Mike Brown or Mark Iavaroni. There is a lot of new coaches this year it seems so unless we have a situation like Rudy T in La La Land I don't expect much on the coaching side of things...of course none of us should be surprised if Larry Brown headlines started popping up. Of course if the Raps start poorly there is always Sam....

Franchise: Yeah, let’s not even get into that yet, it’s still August. However you’re right, should the team falter yet stay healthy…

Ok even discussing this issue is making me queasy.

Back to Olympic trampolining…