2011-2012 Toronto Raptors Season Preview
For the first time since he arrived in Toronto, Raptors President and general manager Bryan Colangelo is not expecting his team to make the playoffs. Surprisingly, Colangelo is being applauded from most corners for continuing a true rebuilding process that started in the middle of last season and not trying to land the free agents that might give the team a legitimate shot at one of the last playoff spots in the East.
The Raptors entered this lockout shortened campaign with salary cap space and a significant trade exception and choose to round out their lineup with minimum salary veterans to provide leadership to their young core and almost unexpectedly acquired restricted free agent Gary Forbes when Denver declined to match Toronto’s modest offer sheet.
Raptors new Head coach Dwane Casey has his work cut out for him as he strives to change the defense-adverse culture in Toronto and quickly assess who are the players the team will build around next season.
Here’s a preview of what to expect this season and what we here at HOOPSWORLD see as we look into the state of the Toronto Raptors in 2011-12.:
|Five Guys Think…|
It was great to see the Raptors hire the deserving Dwyane Casey this summer as their head coach because for far too long he had a bum rap stemming from his time in Minnesota. Kevin McHale did him no favors there, but he proved himself in Dallas as an assistant and now brings a much-needed emphasis on defense to Toronto. Right now he’s got a roster full of offensive-minded guys that will greatly benefit from his defensive expertise. However, it will be at least a year or two before he can get the Raptors to be competitive within their division. Their division opponents are simply more talented right now and Casey has a lot of young talent that he has to bring up to speed and develop.
5th Place, Atlantic Division
- Yannis Koutroupis
Once again the Toronto Raptors have added some nice talent in the draft and can expect to be better this season than they were last. In addition, the hiring of Dwane Casey gives them hope that Andrea Bargnani may learn to play a little defense and that the rest of the team might learn to compensate for Bargnani’s shortcomings. After all, Casey had that kind of impact on the Dallas Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki, who was not entirely dissimilar to Bargs once upon a time. The Raptors may be the worst team in their division, but with Boston getting older by the day and New Jersey in the middle of a rebuild, you never know.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
- Bill Ingram
Jonas Valanciunas is the future of everybody’s favorite Canadian NBA franchise, but unfortunately, Valanciunas won’t be playing for the Raptors this season. That means we’re stuck in a purgatory of mediocrity for at least another season with Andrea Bargnani, DeMar DeRozan, and Jose Calderon leading the charge. That’s not a bad group of guys by any means, but it’s also more or less the same group of guys that won only 22 games last year. What they need is another brutal season and then keep their fingers crossed for Harrison Barnes. He and Valanciunas could turn this franchise around. But before that? Expect to be disappointed.
5th Place, Atlantic Division
- Joel Brigham
There’s a lot to like about the future of the rebuilding Toronto Raptors. Andrea Bargnani, while not a true franchise player, proved he was a bona fide 20 plus point per game scorer, while rising shooting guard DeMar DeRozan doubled his scoring average in 2011 over the previous season. Amir Johnson showed flashes of the potential which somewhat quieted skeptics questioning the decision of the club to sign him to a long term deal, forward Ed Davis showed double-double potential, and point guard Jerryd Bayless averaged an impressive 19 points and 7 assists in fourteen games as a starter. The youth movement is right on pace.
5th Place, Atlantic Division
- Lang Greene
The Toronto Raptors have a promising young core of Andrea Bargnani, DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis and Amir Johnson, but it’ll be difficult for them to compete in the Eastern Conference this season. They play in arguably the best division in the league and are still a few years away from making a playoff push. They’ll be a fun team to watch this season and their young players will continue to develop, but don’t expect many wins for the Raptors.
5th Place, Atlantic Division
- Alex Kennedy
|Top Of The List|
Top Offensive Player: Last season former first overall draft pick Andrea Bargnani averaged over 20 points per game for the first time in his NBA career to lead the Raptors in points, field goals attempted, and three-point shots made and attempted. The versatile seven-footer is a tough cover for any defender. The quickly developing offensive game of DeMar DeRozan may challenge Bargnani as the go-to-guy on the Raptors in the future, but the big Italian is expected to lead the Raptors in most offensive categories again this season.
Top Defensive Player: On a team that has been near the bottom in most defensive categories, the player with the best defensive skills could be hard to identify, but there are several candidates who could have breakout seasons under the tutelage of Coach Casey. Power forward Amir Johnson played through foot and back problems last season but still hustled his way to collect 6.4 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, and 0.7 steals in 25.7 minutes. Acquired at the trade deadline from Chicago, small forward James Johnson averaged 4.7 boards, 1.1 blocks, and 1.0 steals for Toronto over the season’s final 25 games. Also, Coach Casey has identified point guard Jerryd Bayless as having the tools to become an impact defensive player. With the changes being implemented in Toronto, if James Johnson can improve his floor discipline, he has the potential to become this team’s top defensive player.
Top Playmaker: Jose Calderon averaged just shy of a double-double in points and assists over 55 games he started last season and this production was nothing new for the team’s six year veteran. Calderon has been one of the NBA’s better passing point guards since the Raptors acquired him from Tau Vitoria in Spain, averaging over 8.5 assists per game as a starter during his NBA career. Bayless is expected to challenge Calderon for minutes this season, however the veteran Calderon will remain this team’s top playmaker for a while yet.
Top Clutch Player: After Kleiza signed with the Raptors in July 2010, he went on to lead Lithuania to a surprising 8-1 record and bronze medal finish at the FIBA world championships. Unfortunately a preseason knee injury wouldn’t heal and the Raptors never got to see if Kleiza’s clutch play that summer would translate to the NBA. Rehab will cause Kleiza to miss the start of this season, but if he returns to the form we saw at the world championships, he could be this team’s best clutch player. If Kleiza has lost a step, Bargnani and DeRozan will likely alternate in the clutch.
The Unheralded Player: Leandro Barbosa was traded to Toronto for Hedo Turkolglu before the start of last season, but a wrist injury in the final preseason game was just a prelude to a series of injuries that caused the former Phoenix Suns sixth man to miss 24 games and play hurt nearly the entire way. An easily overlooked player during a bad season, Barbosa was third in scoring for the Raptors with 13.3 points per game despite struggling with his shot. Barbosa has elite level straight line speed to the basket and is a pesky defender who plays equally hard at both ends of the floor. His play may go unheralded in Toronto, but don’t be surprised if a playoff bound team in need of guard help at the trade deadline takes a serious run at him and his expiring contract.
Best New Addition: Into a crowded field of guards and wing players, the Raptors unexpectedly landed restricted free agent Gary Forbes from Denver. The 26-year-old second year player has played at the one, two, and three already in his short NBA career averaging 5.2 points in 12.6 minutes, but he may be best known in Toronto for dropping 39 points, five rebounds, and six assists on Canada at the 2011 FIBA Americas tournament in Panama’s only victory. That loss eliminated Canada from any chance at qualifying for the 2012 Olympics. Forbes looked good when given a chance to play for Denver last season and his disciplined play fits well with Casey’s style.
- Stephen Brotherston
|Who We Like|
1. Dwane Casey. Colangelo made it clear this is Coach Casey’s team from the moment he arrived and the Raptors players immediately embraced their new floor boss. Bringing an acknowledged defensive guru to a team without a defensive identity was welcomed by everyone in the organization. Casey’s situation is not dissimilar to what Coach Collins faced in Philadelphia last season and the early indications are Casey has similarly gained the attention and respect of the Raptors players. Toronto’s success this season will depend almost entirely on how fast Casey can instill his culture into the organization.
2. Andrea Bargnani. Last season Bargnani showed us he could score as a primary option. This season under Casey, Bargnani is expected to take another step in his development to become a more well rounded player. As Casey reminds us, the 26-year-old Bargnani is still young.
3. Ed Davis. Davis finished his injury shortened rookie campaign with 13 double-doubles and averaged 12.9 points, nine boards, and a block in April. This year Davis entered camp as one of the Raptors key young pieces and expectations are high after an extended summer of adding strength and weight in order to better hold his position in the post against other NBA big men. Davis collected 19 points and 18 rebounds in limited minutes over the two preseason games against Boston.
4. Jerryd Bayless. After two seasons in Portland and a cup of coffee in New Orleans, Bayless arrived in Toronto last season with a chip on his shoulder and hoping for an opportunity to prove that he belongs in the NBA. The freshman guard with a 38” vertical was drafted soon after Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook in 2008, but had spent his first two NBA seasons backing up veterans on the playoff bound Trailblazers. In Toronto, Bayless played over 22 minutes per game averaging 10 points and four assists, and when injuries to Calderon provided Bayless his chance to start, he averaged 18.1 points, 6.7 assists, and a steal over 14 games. The 23-year-old point guard says he loves it in Toronto and there are a lot of local fans clamoring for him to start this season.
5. James Johnson. After rescuing Johnson from an impossible situation with the Bulls, the Raptors new small forward made an immediate impact as he helped Toronto defeat Chicago in his first game as a Raptor 118-113. Johnson had nine points, five boards, and three blocks in the victory over the Bulls and started in all of the Raptors remaining 25 games. Just like Bayless, Johnson loves being in Toronto and he showed up to camp trimmed down and in the best shape of his career. While Johnson oozes with athleticism and unbridled enthusiasm, he needs to show more discipline on the court. In the Raptors two preseason games against Boston, he had four blocks and four turnovers in less than 10 minutes in game one and collected eight boards, five steals, and two blocks before fouling out in game two. Under Casey’s guidance however, Johnson is expected to have a breakout season.
- Stephen Brotherston
After a season of injuries and featuring the youngest starting lineup in team history on too many occasions, the Raptors enter this year at an average age of 27 with several veterans to provide leadership. The anticipated player rotation will be balanced with little drop off in effectiveness when Casey goes to the bench and even the twelfth man should be able to help the Raptors deal with the condensed 66-game schedule. The historically suspect defense is being attacked by the same methods Casey used in Dallas to change the culture of that offensive-minded team, and this year’s Raptors should not be expected to reside among the worst in opposition field goal percentage or points allowed. Perhaps the biggest strength of this team is they are an unknown quantity with several players who could have breakout seasons.
– Stephen Brotherston
The best description of the core of the Raptors rotation is they are unproven. While they are a good group of athletes, most of these players have perceived flaws in their game or are considered to be still developing their skills. Colangelo has said as much in his own assessment of the Raptors and the team’s goals for this season are to find out what they have and be ready to hit the ground running for next year. Also a new head coach with a new philosophy usually means a slow start to the season as players learn to adapt to a new culture and revised expectations. Add in the handicap of a shortened training camp and the Raptors will be several steps behind all of the more established teams.
- Stephen Brotherston
|The Coach’s Chair By Anthony Macri|
This is a season of discovery. We need to figure out what we want to be, and it will happen over the course of this season. Let’s get back to the defensive end in a bit – we have plenty of work to do there, but I want to focus on individual offensive production first. DeMar, you flirted with All-Star status last year. We need you to take that project head on, being assertive and aggressive the whole way through. Andrea, what kind of player do you want to be? We need you to hunt opportunities throughout possessions, whether that be shots beyond the arc, or offensive rebounds in the paint. I have thoughts for each and every one of you that we need to explore throughout the course of the year. But as a team, the goal has to be to learn how to play on the defensive end. Expect us to do a lot of different things on that side of the floor, but we need every guy to commit mentally and physically to getting stops. Don’t be surprised if we do some things you’ve never done before, and be ready to accept the new stuff, learn, and implement over time.
- Anthony Macri
|The Burning Question|
Which players survive Coach Casey’s culture change?
Colangelo seems to be waiting for next season when Jonas Valanciunas arrives from Lithuania, the team adds another solid draft pick, and they have up to $20 million to invest in free agents. Casey’s job is to determine which players on the Raptors current roster have the potential to become part of a future championship contending team. The pressure is on and this should make for a very interesting season in Toronto.
Bargnani is being asked to become a better defender within a system Casey says is designed to keep his big men from being exposed. Specifically, Bargnani is being asked to collect at least eight boards a game, 3.1 more than his career average. Calderon is being challenged by Bayless for the starting point guard spot and both players long term place on the team is under review as there are a number of top point guard prospects in the 2012 draft. A battle between James Johnson, Kleiza, and Forbes is bound to develop for the starting small forward spot, and after Valanciunas arrives, there may not be enough regular rotation minutes for all of the team’s big men. The competition for minutes and jobs in Toronto is real and no player is being given a free pass. Who survives the changes Coach Casey is implementing will be the burning question in Toronto all season.
- Stephen Brotherston
How do you see the Raptors this season, leave your comments below…