At a base level, it’s hard to imagine the team adding Jermaine O’Neal and not making a jump in the standings…especially considering that Toronto basically fell into the sixth seed last year with their dismal finish.
But admittedly questions such as JO’s health and ability to play with Bosh do surround the Raptors, not to mention the potential improvement of a number of Eastern Conference clubs like Philly, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Miami; yes, perhaps the sixth seed makes sense.
So how then does Toronto get over the hump of the first playoff round and perhaps higher up in the standings?
Well let’s answer that question by starting with a few assumptions:
-That Bosh puts up nearly 20 and 10 a game once more and plays at least 75 games.
-That JO stays healthy and plays at least 70 games, averaging about 16 points, 10 boards and two blocks a game.
-That Calderon can handle the full 82 game season with only minor nicks and scrapes and averages about 12 points and 10 assists.
After those three, things are pretty wide open.
If those assumptions hold true, the Raptors will again be a very competitive group. But it’s the play of the players around Bosh, Calderon and O’Neal that will go a long way in determining if the Raptors end up in sixth or rise to the top of the conference.
And I think the one player from this supporting cast that needs to rise up out of the ashes more than anyone else, is Andrea Bargnani.
It’s hard to believe that only a year ago, Raptors’ fans were praising the drafting of Andrea Bargnani, who fresh off a runner-up to rookie of the year season, seemed poised to explode on the league in his second season.
We all know how things turned out.
To put things really in perspective, we take a look at Dave Berri’s Wages of Wins journal. In an article after the Jermaine O’Neal trade, Berri stated that:
"In addition to being the runner-up MOP, Bargnani was also the L2P (Least Productive Player) of 2007-08. Bargnani - in only 1,861 minutes - produced a (-5.7) wins. Had the Raptors replaced Bargnani with a power forward that produced zero wins, Toronto could have expected to win nearly 54 games this past season."
Reading through the article you see how Berri came up with the statistical basis for his 54 win figure and while Toronto obviously didn’t simply replace one player with the other, the previous paragraph gives you a pretty good idea of just how bad Bargs was last season.
So can this year be different?
We’ve heard reports of a better-conditioned Andrea, one that has been working out in Vegas with specialists, and one that has been attending various "big-man" oriented camps.
But now with JO on board, does Toronto really need him to be that posting up style big man?
It’s an interesting question.
When Bargs was drafted, Bryan Colangelo had every intention of eventually making Andrea into Toronto’s future 5 man; one that could take opponents inside and out, much like Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki. However Andrea never seemed comfortable in that position through his first two years. His man-to-man defence improved down low, yes, but suddenly last season the very skills that made him so dangerous in his first year, started to regress. Here was a player drafted for his shooting ability and last season he shot a clunky 39 per cent from the field.
39 per cent?
That number was the lowest for any Raptor that played more than 12 minutes a game, and while he did shoot a respectable 35 per cent from beyond the arc, it just looked for most of the season like something was off.
So was he simply playing out of position and now with the arrival of O’Neal, his shooting touch and offensive game will return?
I wish it were that simple.
Because even if Andrea averaged 15 and six next year (he averaged 10 and 3.7 last year and nearly 12 and 4 his rookie year) it would be a huge boost for Toronto. With two powerful low-post options, a player like Bargs who could both draw out defenders and take advantage of mismatches down low, would make for a nightmare third option.
However based on what we saw last year from Il Mago, this scenario seems like a dream one right now and it’s going to be very important that Sam Mitchell makes like a UPS worker and "handles the Bargnani situation with care."
Because let’s face it, this is no Rafael Araujo we’re talking about here. Andrea has plenty of talent and has shown in flashes that he could be a great player in the league.
So my hope is that Mitchell takes a "baby steps" approach with Andrea. That means no random decisions out of training camp to start him at the 3. And it also means using Bargs more effectively based on match-ups and game situations. With O’Neal now as the legit #2 player, Toronto doesn’t need Bargs to come in and put up 20 points a game for the team to win. Now, he should be feeling a lot less pressure in that sense and be able to let the game come to him. Last year we witnessed a player who was rushing his offence, and seemingly making his mind up before making his move with the ball. This resulted in who knows how many traveling calls and a number of turnovers that just didn’t need to happen.
So this year, let’s hope he gets back to the basics, starting with his shooting touch.
If the shots start going down in whatever minutes he plays, this should help his entire game. We saw in Toronto’s playoff series against the Nets, that when Andrea was scoring from outside, suddenly his inside game started to wake up too.
And really, with JO manning the paint now, Andrea just needs to score, the defense and rebounding can come with time. If "the Magician" can be that outside assassin, it not only makes things easier inside for Toronto’s twin towers, it also changes the game for the rest of the Raptors. Suddenly teams are running out to guard Andrea leaving even more deadly long range bombers like Parker and Kapono wide open. And suddenly teams are thinking about putting their bigs up close to him on the perimeter so he can’t shoot, which should allow him to use his superior speed to get into the paint.
Which brings me to my next point – conditioning.
Last season there were rumours that Andrea wasn’t exactly Michael Phelps when he showed up to camp. However with what sounds so far like a successful off-season of training, hopefully that’s not the case this year and from Day 1 of the season, Andrea is ready to go.
Because while I’ve said that on the court there should be less pressure for him, pressure does still exist in a slightly different sense.
It’s the pressure of a former number one overall pick going into his third and pivotal season, looking to try and justify his lofty selection.
It’s not Adam Morrison pressure, but it’s pretty close. For Bargs’ development as an NBA player, he really needs a re-injection of confidence and a good third season will go a long ways towards that.
And we’re not just talking about Bargs’ career here.
With his rookie contract coming soon to a close, the Raptors need to know just what they have in Andrea in order to plan for the team’s future, and a successful third season would go a long ways in terms of some financial forecasting. Toronto will almost certainly pick up the "team option" on his deal for the 2009-10 season but after that? Well the following season is of course when Bosh, O’Neal, Kapono and others have their contracts expire and it would be nice to know by then if Andrea can be a central part of the rebuilding plan.
But we won’t get ahead of ourselves just yet.
This upcoming season holds so much promise and if Andrea can be the difference maker that I think he could be, we as Toronto Raptors’ fans could be in for the best season in franchise history.