With an incoming coach and new philosophy on defence, the Toronto Raptors transitioned last season from the least efficient defence in the National Basketball Association to 12th overall, without making any significant roster moves.
Coach Dwane Casey’s system is now in place, and new players that fit the mold have been brought into the fold along with the a returning Raptors’ core to battle it out for positions in the lineup as camp gets set to open in Halifax.
“We’re going to have competition at every position.” Casey told assembled media before a voluntary workout at the Air Canada Centre last weekend.
“There’s not going to be one position where a guy comes in and says, ‘hey I’ve got my spot, my minutes tied down,’ and that’s kind of the way you want it. It’s going to be a competitive camp from that standpoint.”
The hopes of the club rest primarily on the consistency and tenacity of Andrea Bargnani, the Italian seven-footer that the Raptors took first overall in 2006.
‘Il Mago’ played in just 31 games last season, plagued by an unrelenting calf strain. With his improved defence, post game, and leadership, Bargnani’s all-star potential could be realized this year.
In the absence of Bargnani, Raptors aerial artist DeMar DeRozan became the face of the franchise for much of 2012. Depended on to carry the bulk of the offensive load, the 6-7 guard averaged 16.7 points while working to expand his game.
DeRozan will have to share the load with the returning Bargnani and the additions of a scoring point guard and a few new wing players. Time will tell if the Compton, Calif., native will prove his place on the team or fade into the its deeper bench.
Depth at point guard has been the Raptors’ strength for much of the Jose Calderon era in Toronto. The soon-to-be 31-year-old Spaniard has been in the NBA since 2005, entirely in Toronto, and has shared point-guard duties with the likes of Mike James, TJ Ford, Jarrett Jack and Jerryd Bayless.
He will once again play in tandem, this time with former Houston Rocket Kyle Lowry, who was acquired in the off-season for Gary Forbes and a conditional first-round pick.
“I think we’re kind of like different players,” Calderon said, before the ACC workout.
“He’s maybe a little more a scorer, he’s strong, he’s been playing pretty good so we’ll try to do our best to have two different speeds in the game.
“Maybe sometime we may have to play together if we need something because he really can score. We’ll see, but it’s too soon to talk about that.”
Calderon averaged 10.5 points and 8.8 assists in 53 games last season (out of 66 in the lockout shortened year) with the Raptors while Lowry averaged 14.3 and 6.6 in 47 games before being hospitalized with a bacterial infection.
For point-guard insurance the Raptors signed John Lucas III, who averaged career highs nearly across the board as a back-up in Chicago last year.
Up front, the Raptors will get a boost by the incoming Jonas Valanciunas, ready to make his debut after the Raptors selected the young Lithuanian fifth overall in the 2011 NBA draft.
The 6-11 centre underwhelmed in the Olympics and was recently sidetracked by a calf strain (not as serious as Bargnani’s last year) that may limit him in training camp.
A transition to the NBA game will be difficult, but Valanciunas has tremendous upside and has been playing professionally overseas since he was 16.
Linas Kleiza, a fellow Lithuanian, will guide Valanciunas as he prepares for his third season with the Raptors. The 6-8 forward averaged 9.7 points and 4.1 rebounds, primarily as a scorer off the bench in 49 games.
Rookies Terrence Ross, a 6-6 wing player from Washington taken with the eighth pick in 2012, and Quincy Acy, a 6-7 post player from Baylor chosen with the 37th pick will provide depth and character for the Raptors.
When Landry Fields was acquired from the Knicks after signing a lucrative three-year, $20-million US deal he seemed like a consolation prize after the organization lost its bid to land Canadian great Steve Nash.
However, the 6-7 wing player seems to be a good fit that excels in an equal-opportunity offence like the Raptors, plus he rebounds well from the perimetre.
Returning to provide post depth are power forwards Amir Johnson and Ed Davis, and centres Aaron Gray and Jamaal Magloire. They’ll collectively rebound, defend, and block shots and play closer to the basket while Bargnani uses his perimetre skills.
The Raptors are also bringing back 6-6 guard Alan Anderson, who filled in admirably down the stretch last season, and signed 6-9 former-Warrior Dominic McGuire as an athletic defender for extra bench depth.