Toronto Raptors Return Home for Important Stretch

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It seems like every season the Toronto Raptors hobble back from their west coast road trip a tired and beaten team.

Last season, the early Western Conference road trip was, arguably the nail in the coffin for their playoff hopes. This season, they return home after a tough western road trip tired, but not beaten.

Even the most optimistic fan would have been happy with a 3-2 record on this trip, so 2-3 isn’t bad considering the quality of their opponents. But this trip came at such a crucial time in Toronto’s schedule because the next 10 to 15 games could decide the playoff fate of this team.

The Raptors will play at home for the last two games before the All-star break and play eight out of their next 10 at the ACC. Of those next ten games, six of them are against conference rivals that they will be battling for position in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

It is important for Toronto to be healthy and ready for those games.

For the first time this season the team is looking a little worse for wear. Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan are fighting nagging injuries. Kyle Lowry has been bothered by a knee issue lately and the team is coming off a long road trip.

Late nights, time zone changes and lots of flying can take its toll on a team at this stage in the season, especially a young one, but the Raptors need to fight through this rough patch. The next 10 games will go a long way toward deciding if they are a playoff contenders or pretenders.

The asset the Raptors have going for them right now is depth. They are a far deeper team than they were a year ago and have used this asset to their advantage since the ‘Rudy Gay trade’. Dwane Casey has used a tight nine man rotation most nights and seems very confident with this group.

As the season continues he may have to dig deeper than was originally thought. We may see a lot more of Landry Fields, Steve Novak, Julyan Stone and Chuck Hayes may be needed to take some minutes away from overworked starters.

The coaching staff may have to make moves in the starting lineup, trading Amir for Patterson or Hansborough on a given night to help keep the legs on this team fresh and ready for battle. Young players like Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross have only gone through a complete NBA season once and certainly not playing the amount of minutes they are currently playing.

Rest may be needed and players that haven’t been logging very many minutes may be called into duty.

On this road trip we saw a lot more of Novak than we have in a long while. I would expect this to be something we see more of as the season wears on. He came in ready to play and played valuable minutes during the trip. Having a strong veteran presence at the end of the bench (Novak, Fields, Hayes) may become an unexpected benefit.

The Raptors have given it everything they could over the first two chapters of this season and they are in a great position because of it, but they are going to have to use every weapon available to them to finish out the stretch.

On paper, the hardest part of the season may seem to be over, but the reality is, it only gets harder from here.

The Toronto Raptors Are In Good Hands

MLSE has made some noise by making some bold moves to bolster the on-field talent of Toronto FC. The acquisitions of Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Dwayne De Rosario show that MLSE is willing to spend money to make Toronto a winning team in MLS.

These moves instantly make TFC a legit contender and a big time draw in the city.

But what does this have to do with the Raptors?

It’s simple: the man behind these big time, game-changing acquisitions is the same man who is in charge of the Raptors. Tim Leiweke, was brought in to make a splash and help lure big name talent North of the border. He is starting to live up to this task.

With the additions to TFC, Leiweke is showing that he is more than capable of making the big time moves necessary to win. Defoe is, arguably, the second biggest acquisition in the history of the MLS and one that was probably more difficult to get done than people think.

The biggest acquisition in MLS history is, of course, David Beckham (which was also orchestrated by Leiweke).

If Leiweke is able to make this kind of impact with TFC, then there is no telling what he can do with the Raptors.

I can’t help but recall the first press conference Leiweke ever had as president of MLSE. He made it very clear from the onset of his time as president that the Raptors and TFC were a big priority.

It was a small comment, but one I picked up on at the time: He said, “I don’t think it’s any secret the emerging question and the first action is going to be the Raptors…”

Of course, at the time, Leiweke was directly referring to the fate of then GM Bryan Colangelo, but make no mistake, since Leiweke has arrived, he has been very heavily involved and focused on the Toronto Raptors organization.

First he hired Masai Ujiri, the reigning executive of the year and a man who had to be sold on leaving a very good situation in Denver to come to Toronto.

Next, he helped orchestrate the bid and landing of the 2016 All-Star game for the city.

The next item on his agenda is likely the acquisition of a big name talent that will help make the team a serious contender for that ever so important 2016 season.

Now, Leiweke isn’t directly in charge of the day-to-day transactions the Raptors make. He is much more of an overseer. It was Leiweke who chose to bring in Ujiri to turn the fortunes of this franchise around and make those day to day decisions. So far Ujiri has done just that. But Leiweke’s influence around the league cannot be understated and his ability to land the big fish will likely play a key factor in the teams immediate future and the decisions that Ujiri makes.

Leiweke’s resume includes, most notably, a long stint in Los Angeles where he was president and CEO of AEG who own and operate the Kings, Galaxy and Lakers. There he learned how to land the ‘Big Fish” with the Lakers.

“I come from the NBA, I know a lot of people in the NBA, I’ve learned under the curve of Jerry Buss and Jerry West…” Lieweke boasted once he arrived in Toronto. “You do not find two better teachers than those two guys on how to build an organization that not only wins one championship, but becomes the dominant organization.”

With words like these, he has given hope to the Raptors fan-base that a long awaited return of playoff basketball is not far away, that this franchise is finally going to build a contender the right way and that the agony of watching top flight talent leave the city will be a thing of the past.

Since the trade of Rudy Gay and the change in strategy on the court the Raptors are already looking like a playoff bound team and one that is playing very exciting basketball. The turnaround has been fast and may be happening earlier than originally expected.

Much of the credit falls on Ujiri, the man Leiweke brought in.

Ujiri is one of the best minds in the game today. His ability to quickly turn around the fortunes of the Denver Nuggets despite losing Carmelo Anthony was a thing of beauty and he hasn’t looked anything but brilliant since taking over the Raptors.

Trading Bargnani for future picks and financial flexibility was a solid move with an eye to the future and the Rudy Gay trade has resulted in the team you see on the court right now, but also a wealth of additional assets.

Still, in a season where most teams are not putting their best team on the court, the Raptors need to be wary of getting too over-confident about the current on-court product. Yes, they have some good young pieces to build with, and yes they are winning a lot of games, but this is not currently a team that is going to do much more than challenge for a mid to low playoff spot in the long-term.

Leiweke knows this. He knows this is not a team bound for multiple championships at the moment. This is a team with some solid pieces, but lacking a true, legit star. Leiweke didn’t come here to just make the playoffs, he came here to compete for championships and I believe that is exactly what he is going to try to do. In order to get to that place he needs to land a ‘big fish’ for the Raptors.

The Raptors roster is currently a solid mix of young players and a number that could be very useful off the bench, but they lack a top-tier star. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that DeMar DeRozan has the potential to be a solid number 2 on a good team, but the Raptors need a number one. A star. A player that can take the game into their own hands. That’s where Leiweke and his influence around the league will come into play. If he can convince Jermain Defoe (still a very talented and useful player), to leave Europe to come to Toronto, then he can likely do the same with todays NBA stars.

In the next two years players like Durant, LeBron, Carmelo, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving will all be available. Second tier guys like Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe and Lance Stephensen will also be available and could help deepen this team even further.

Now, I’m not suggesting the Raptors will have the ability to lure one of those big names North of the Border, but with Leiweke in charge and the money now available to them, these next few years will be the best opportunity that the Raptors will ever get to add a franchise cornerstone.

Add to that the pressure Leiweke has put on himself and the organization to compete by the 2016 All Star Game and you have a recipe for success. 2016 is very much the end goal for the Raptors. Leiweke and MLSE want to be a significant player in the NBA by that time and the hope is, obviously, that at least one or two Raptors will be taking part in that game.

With the success of the current roster, it is clear the Raptors organization has the pieces and the resources to make a move in the very near future. Tim Leiweke clearly believes in the future of this organization.

Talk of tanking is now firmly in the rearview (probably for the best) and the focus is now on how to use this successful year to build on.

With the combination of Ujiri’s ability to evaluate talent and Leiweke’s ability to recruit top-tier talent the Raptors have a dangerous duo running the show.

Also, do not underestimate the influence rap star Drake will have as well. Another Leiweke move that could have serious gains in the NBA where most players are big fans of the star. If coming to Toronto means getting to hang out with Drake on a regular basis, there are players that would very interested in that opportunity.

After all, it was a simple phone call by Drake to Defoe that helped tip the scales and bring Defoe Across the Atlantic. His influnence cannot be understated.

Leiweke has made it very clear that the organization is ready to do what is needed to make this franchise a dominant one.

Whatever path the Raptors are going to take to get themselves into the championship conversation it is clear Tim Leiweke and Ujiri will be the ones steering the ship. With the leadership at the top of the franchise firmly in place, fans should enjoy the journey from here to 2016.

Good things are in store for this franchise.

The Kyle Lowry Conundrum

The Raptors, a team expected to compete hard this season for the number one draft pick next June, have had their plans altered by some truly inspired play and now look primed for a potential Atlantic Division title run.

The catalyst for much of the recent optimism in Raptorland is the man leading the team: Kyle Lowry.

Lowry has become the player he was envisioned to be when, then GM Bryan Colangelo, traded a 1st round draft pick to Houston for him. He is scoring at an impressive rate and is getting all of his teammates involved. One of the perceived issues with his game over his Raptor tenure has been his inability to involve the players around him.

With Rudy Gay’s departure, Lowry has taken over as team leader and the team is sharing the ball very well. Lowry has developed a good chemistry with Jonas Valanciunas and has helped Terrence Ross take the next step in his development.

Lowry is looking like the player he was supposed to be last year.

The thing is he was almost dealt a few weeks ago and still might be on the block.

Surely, a deal that involves Lowry would cause immediate issues with team chemistry and be a clear signal that the 2014 NBA draft is more important to the franchise than the Atlantic Division title.

That’s not necessarily a mindset that most Raptor fans disagree with, but is it the right choice?

Lowry is a young player (only 27 years old), and seems to have great chemistry with what would presumably be the Raptors future core in Amir Johnson, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. He has shown significant improvement in the last year and would seems to be a player worth building around.

Since the Rudy Gay trade, Lowry has averaged 8.1 assists per game and looks like a totally different player of late.

Then again, he is a free agent this year and is not necessarily worth the money he may end up getting. He is a talented, but flawed player. He traditionally shoots the ball too often, doesn’t shoot a high percentage and hasn’t been as effective on the defensive end in a Raptor uniform.

So what do you do?

Sell high and hope the lottery ping-pong balls fall your way? Take a shot at signing a young player with higher upside than Lowry? Or, do you keep him, extend his contract and see where this young team takes you?

DeRozan is having his best year as a pro and seems to have turned a corner into a player that can lead a team and close out games. Ross is just scratching the surface of his potential and we haven’t seen the best out of Jonas Valanciunas yet. Does the franchise want to mess with the current success? Would trading Lowry even mess with that current success?

Keeping Lowry long-term allows the Raptors to continue growing together. It also eliminates the problem of not having a point guard moving forward. The Raptors would either have to acquire one through the draft or through free agency in the off-season unless they are banking on Greivis Vasquez being the point guard of the future.

Lowry may be their best option going forward.

Then again, maybe the plan is to get a high pick and take a point guard like Marcus Smart out of Oklahoma State or Zach LaVine out of UCLA. Perhaps free agency has an option the Raptors might look at like Eric Bledsoe, Ramon Sessions or Avery Bradley. None of which are sure-fire options or much better than what Lowry may be able to provide. Add to that a trade involving Lowry would likely bring in a young player or some assortment of future draft picks and you have a lot of factors to consider before you move Lowry.

Masai Ujiri is faced with one of his most difficult decisions as general manager of this team. The fate of Lowry will have an immediate and far-reaching effect on this franchise. There is no clear choice to be made and fans may have to wait another month or so before the final decision is ultimately made.

One thing is certain, if we are to believe the words of Ujiri, This team will not finish in ‘no-mans land’. There will be a clear choice made as to where the Raptors are going to go this year.

What that choice is exactly, will have everything to do with the future of the Raptors starting point guard.

Raptors Need To Finish Strong

It is hard at this point in a lost season to find the motivation to put it all on the floor. There doesn’t seem to be anything important to play for, other than pride and individual stats, but the Toronto Raptors would be wise to finish the year as strong as they possibly can.

Another loss in Charlotte on Wednesday night is not the kind of effort that is going to instill any faith in this franchise going forward. Despite recent losses there are still a number of talented young players on this team that need to prove to the fan base in Toronto that there is something about this team worth holding onto going into, what could be, a very tumultuous offseason.

There are a number of reasons to finish this season as strong as possible.

Fight for your fan base

The franchise owes it to the fans to provide a glimmer of hope. Season ticket holders are mulling over their renewal options right now and fans are trying to figure out whether this team, one that has missed the postseason for five straight years, is worthy of the expense. A late season surge and impressive play from the young Raptors core could help provide the glimmer of hope the franchise is going to need to pedal tickets to buyers in the offseason. A strong finish will also help to convince fans that this team really is a playoff team if given a full year of Rudy Gay.

If nothing else, a strong end to the year will provide the paying public with a reason to come down the ACC and get their money’s worth between now and the end of the season.

Fight for your spot

The Raptor roster for next year is not anywhere near set and the Raptor players need to establish themselves as part of the core heading into what will very surely be an interesting off-season. Nobody is a slam dunk to return next year outside of (maybe) Jonas Valanciunas.

DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry, all of whom seemed like integral pieces coming into the season are tradeable assets that could be moved depending on what direction the franchise decides to take moving forward. It is imperative this group show their worth.

However, most of those players constitute what Bryan Colangelo feels will shape the core of the team going forward, but all have contracts that are very moveable if the right offer presents itself.

Fight for vindication

A strong finish, perhaps reaching as high as ninth in the conference won’t only prove this team is worthy of playoff predictions heading into next year, it will also ensure that Toronto will not lose a high first round draft pick. The higher the Raptors finish, the less likely it is that OKC receives a high draft choice in the pick they own from Toronto as a result of the Kyle Lowry trade. A lottery victory or mid-first round pick for OKC would provide Tyler Seguin level embarrassment for the Raptors. They need to finish as high as possible to make sure the lost draft choice is one that doesn’t hurt the franchise or provide embarrassment for their front office.

Fight for the Future

The word finally came down from the mouth of Dwane Casey himself, that the Raptors intend to play Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross more now that the playoff push is over. With the youngsters getting a longer look it is important to tout the future of the franchise.

Valanciunas is a player that excites the fan base. He is beginning to show more confidence and skill in his increased playing time. On Wednesday in Charlotte he looked solid inside bringing down 7 rebounds and pouring in 18 points on 54% shooting. There is legitimate hope for his future in Toronto and now is a great time to play into that.

Let the fans know this is a team on the rise and that there is a franchise player to get behind. It worked in the early days of Vince Carter and Chris Bosh and it should work now.

Fight for your employers

Whether the Raptors know it or not, they are still fighting for the future employment of both Dwane Casey and Bryan Colangelo.

Colangelo doesn’t have a contract next season and has missed the playoffs for five straight years. His job is in danger unless he can sell the fan base and the MLSE board that Rudy Gay gives this team a legit shot at the playoffs next season.

Casey has one year left in his contract, but hasn’t led the Raptors to the playoffs and his substitution pattern has been bizarre at times this season. He’s also recently taken issues with the use of analytics by the team after a recent Grantland feature by Zach Lowe brought light to the issue. Though, according to Holly MacKenzie, the team denies there is any friction, but it is still very possible Casey is playing out his last days here in Toronto.

With a few more wins and strong play from the rookies, Casey could be given another shot at the end of the season depending on what happens with Colangelo. If the players want the current coaching staff to stick around, they need to pile on some wins.

The Raptors need to show the organization, its fans and the front office exactly what is in place here for next season and prove that there is reason to believe the Raptors playoff drought is on its way to being over.

Otherwise this summer could once again be filled with change and rebuilding. Something that will not sit well with an increasingly impatient fan base.

All Eyes Are On DeRozan

For the better part of three seasons, DeMar DeRozan has been a little bit of everything. He’s been a dependable defensive presence, an important offensive weapon, a go-to scorer and a team leader.

He’s also had his fair share of disappointment.

He has drawbacks to his game. He has, over the season he’s been here shied away from contact, hasn’t been able to shoot the three consistently and hasn’t not shown he can be the predominant offensive weapon on a team.

He remains a puzzle.

This is the year Raptor fans finally find out what they have in DeRozan. Is he a solid piece of the puzzle, a superstar in waiting, or just another serviceable swingman? Or, if you want to look at it more seriously; is he a part of this core going forward?

DeRozan needs to prove to the raptors and the entire NBA that he is more than just a “flashy dunker” and that he can get to the free throw line consistently.

Since he arrived in Toronto as the number nine pick out of USC in 2009, there have been expectations, perhaps unfairly assigned. Fans wanted to see a high flyer, a guy who could score in buckets, an heir apparent to Vince Carter, and a possible superstar in waiting. Suffice it to say, a lot was expected.

So far DeRozan has been a little bit of everything, but hasn’t quite lived up to the hype of the fans. He’s shown strong defensive effort since his rookie season, enough that he was able to win a starting role on a team fighting for the playoffs in his first year.

He is a great target for our point guards when coming off of a cut and he can throw it down with some of the best in the league. If not for Blake Griffin’s infamous car jumping dunk, DeRozan would have won the dunk contest in 2011.

For stretches of time last year DeRozan seemed to be putting it all together. Runs of high scoring nights and frequent trips to the stripe but then steps backward where he would disappear on offense crack under the pressure of being the number one or falter when guarded by a premier perimeter defender. Without Andrea Bargnani to share the offensive duties, DeRozan was smothered by other teams’ defenses and was not as effective as he was with stronger support.

Coming into each of the last three seasons DeRozan hasn’t had to worry about his status as a starting wing. And make no mistake about it; DeRozan will be the starting shooting guard for the Raptors once again on Oct. 31st. But he’s got some competition on the bench waiting for their opportunity.

This competition will hopefully push DeRozan a little more than he has been over the last few years. DeRozan has had it pretty easy so far in Toronto. A guaranteed spot, very little internal competition and the benefit of the doubt when playing with an injury plagued roster.

This is the year raptor fans need to see DeRozan step up and fulfill the promise he showed when he was drafted three years ago.

There is now a wealth of options on Toronto’s bench this year that could spell DeRozan at the 2 guard for stretches during the year. Landry Fields is more comfortable playing the two and is an excellent perimeter defender. Alan Anderson has earned the respect of the coaching staff with his strong work ethic and attention to defense and he could see some minutes at the 2.

Also, with three strong point guards on the roster there will likely be times when Jose Calderon or John Lucas III find themselves sharing the back court with Kyle Lowry as both posses strong shooting ability, a skill DeRozan hasn’t shown to be a strength.

The biggest threat to DeRozan this year, however, might just be rookie shooting guard Terrence Ross, albeit likely over the long-term. Ross is a strong defender and possesses a deadly long-range shot. He is a great compliment to Kyle Lowry who pushes the ball up the floor and often kicks the ball out to the perimeter. Ross is even more deadly off of a kick out because of how quickly he can release a shot. It is that deadly shot and accuracy that make Ross such an attractive option at this position.

This season will be a make or break year for DeRozan in Toronto. He is due for an extension and his agent will likely be looking for a large payday. If the Raptors don’t make the playoffs and DeRozan struggles, if he doesn’t find that magic chemistry with Lowry and the rest of the team, he may find himself wearing a new uniform this time next year.

DeRozan is going to have to prove to fans and management that he can be the player that he was thought to be back when he was drafted. DeRozan needs to be more than an average defender and a flashy dunker. He needs to take that next step and cement his place in the Raptors future.

Shooting guards who produce the numbers DeRozan has over the last three years (14.1pts, 3.4 reb, 1.5 ast, 45.7 FG% and 20.6% 3-pt %) are not terribly difficult to find around the league for a much lower price than DeRozan is likely looking for. If his stats last year (16.7 pts, 3.3 reb, 2.0 ast, 42.2 FG%, 26.1 3pt%) are an indication of what kind of player he will be this year, then he could see his last year playing north of the border. What the Raptors need is for DeMar to show he can be a three-point threat this year and score consistently in the paint.

Without that added aspect to his game, he will eventually sit in favour of better shooters or will ultimately be replaced by a cheaper option.

He has been working hard over the summer to strengthen his game. Dwane Casey offered, when asked about DeRozan: “He did a great job this summer of really putting on strength and right now he’s doing a great job of hitting the guys first, creating contact, not being afraid of getting into the paint, and it’s going to pay big dividends for him.”

This year we will finally find out what DeMar DeRozan is made of.

DeRozan has the ability and skills to be a superstar in this league, but needs to put it together soon or the Raptors will quickly run out of patience.

It’s time we all find out what exactly Toronto has in DeRozan. One thing is for certain, however, he will be the architect of his own destiny.

This could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

Or not.

No Nash, No Problem

I, like many in Toronto, counted their chickens before they had hatched. Steve Nash is not coming home, he isn’t coming back to Canada, he isn’t even coming to the same time zone as us. Nash agreed to a 3 year $27 million contract with Kobe and the Lakers on Wednesday.

Raise your hand if you saw that coming…

Me neither.

One person did however, and that was Bryan Colangelo.

Less than 24 hours after losing out on Steve Nash and watching the phone lines at FAN590 and message boards all over the internet light up with calls for his head, Colangelo orchestrated a quick and effective move to fill the point guard position.

Acquiring Kyle Lowry will not have the same impact on merchandise sales or in the PR department as a Nash acquisition would have. At least not yet.

While Steve Nash is looked upon in Canada as an icon and a saviour for the franchise, Lowry may be the better long-term option for the Raptors.

Nash is 38 years old and could at any time break down. While I think that is unlikely he still is a little too long in the tooth to be a long-term option at the point for a very young Raptors team.

By comparison, Lowry is 12 years younger than Nash. He possesses strong defensive skills and gets to the rim frequently. He is also a very good rebounder for his position.

The Lowry acquisition may, in the end, work out better for the Raptors than Steve Nash would have, at least on the court.

Last year Lowry was instrumental in Houston’s rise back to prominence. He averaged 14.3 points per game and helped his teammates get involved with 6.6 assists per game. Those numbers climbed to 15.1 and 7.2 when he was appointed the starter. He was an integral piece in their late season surge that almost ended with a playoff berth.

Toronto fans will like his game. He takes the ball to the rim regularly and doesn’t settle for jump shots. He isn’t a ball hog and gets his teammates involved in the flow of the offense and is all over the court on the defensive end. He’s a hard worker that will likely have fans at the ACC standing in appreciation. He is a strong free throw shooter (86%) and can hit with consistency from 3-pt range (38%).

In many ways, Lowry is a much better fit for this young Raptors squad than Nash would have been. Makes you wonder why he was even available, but his relationship with coach Kevin McHale was tumultuous.

Lowry won’t have that problem here. Dwane Casey loves to preach defense and he will now have a strong defender at the top of the circle leading his team on both ends of the floor. Casey will likely put his trust in Lowry in a way McHale never did.

The icing on the cake with regard to Lowry is that he scheduled to make $5.75 million this year and $6.21 the next. That is a fraction of what the Raptors would have had to pay to get Nash to sign on the dotted line. The Raptors now still have money and assets to go out and acquire another player.

Perhaps not landing Nash was a blessing in disguise.

For the many who were calling for Colangelo’s head after the Fields signing and the Nash debacle, things now appear to be a bit brighter.

Colangelo, like he has done many times as GM of this franchise, took a punch and quickly responded. Plan B may actually turn out to be better than Plan A.

Fans in Toronto need to learn to wait until all the dust has settled before they snap to judgement. Colangelo has been around a long time and is not one of the more respected GM’s in the league for nothing. The Lowry deal proves Colangelo is a valuable asset in charge of this franchise.

In the end, the success or failure of these off-season moves cannot be accurately judged until the Raptors get on the court in the fall. But Dwane Casey did a phenomenal job with lesser talent last year. Fans wanted to see what he could do with an improved roster. Adding Landry Fields and Kyle Lowry is certainly an upgrade.

Looking forward to seeing what Casey can do with his new talent and what moves Colangelo still has up his sleeve.

Calderon May Be The Odd Man Out

This offseason is going to be a big one for the Toronto Raptors.

First and foremost, they are coming off a 23-43 season that saw lots of positive steps forward, but not enough to avoid missing the playoffs for another year. The Raptors need to take the next step forward.

They have money to spend and tradeable assets that could net them a talented young player or two on the open market. Most importantly, though, is that Bryan Colangelo is entering the final year of his contract extension and needs this team to make significant strides forward if he hopes to return to his current post.

With all of these factors in place, it is no surprise that the Raptors have been linked to all kinds of players already this offseason. Steve Nash, Kyle Lowry, Jeremy Lin, Goran Dragic, Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala and Nicolas Batum are just a few names that have popped up on blogs and message boards over the last few weeks.

Jose Calderon will be front and centre this offseason as the Toronto Raptors try to rebuild their franchise.

While any and all of those players would be welcome additions, it does beg make me wonder about some of the guys we already have. With many point guards appearing on the list of players the Raptors are linked to, one has to wonder where, if at all, Jose Calderon fits into the Raptors future.

Mind you, Calderon is a very humble player and has happily embraced a backup role when asked by his team in the past. But one has to figure with a Nash or a Lowry in the fold, Calderon may have seen his last game in Raptor red. Such a thing is almost unimaginable. He is the longest-serving Raptor, a fan favourite (for the most part) and is coming off of one of his most important seasons yet. This season he raised his game (10.5 points, 8.8 assists in 34 minutes per game) and became a leader in the locker room. He also became a different player under the watchful eye of Dwane Casey.

Casey is widely credited with finding a way to make Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki fit into a successful defensive system. He was asked to do the same with Calderon, who was thought by many to be one of the worst defenders in the league. This season Casey helped Caldeorn adjust to a new defensive system and minimized those defensive miscues that had Raptor fans calling for Calderon’s head a couple of years ago.

Casey trusts Calderon with the team on both ends of the floor which is evidenced by the number of minutes Calderon played this year. He gave everything he had on the floor and led the team by example throughout the entire year.

Calderon showed marked improvement across the board and worked hard on his defensive game under coach Casey. He became the leader of the Raptors team this year.

So, if Calderon plays a key role on the team, is coming off one of his better years as a pro, has taken to Casey’s defensive system, and the fans love him, why then are we looking for point guards? Obviously the talent and allure of a Steve Nash or Jeremy Lin is too much to pass up if you are Colangelo. And Calderon provides a host of other possibilities for the Raptors boss.

Calderon could become part of a point guard tandem, something that certainly is not unfamiliar to him. He broke into the Raptors starting five by battling TJ Ford for the starting point guard spot in 2007. That tandem, colourfully called “Forderon” by many, was not as successful as the Raptors had hoped. Calderon was solid in a starting role, but Ford couldn’t handle what he saw as a demotion and the whole experiment crumbled.

Calderon and Jerryd Bayless were not able to find harmony either as a tandem this past season. Bayless, like Ford, was only able to raise the level of his game as a starter despite the fact his skill set appears more suited to coming off the bench. In both instances, Calderon eventually returned to the starting lineup.

To his credit, Calderon has shown a willingness to step aside and let others contribute. Bayless had a pretty solid stretch of games, where he looked like the heir apparent and Calderon stepped aside without incident or noise.

Can he do the same if the Raptors acquire a Steve Nash, Jeremy Lin or Kyle Lowry? Would he be okay sharing the time? Would the team benefit from having two point guards of different abilities on the court? I mean, we’ve already seen this story, right?

Calderon is a Ying to most Point guards’ Yangs. So while a Nash or Lowry might push the tempo up and take larger risks, the Raptors can always depend on Calderon to come in and slow things down and play it safe when need be. This is something he has been one of the best in the NBA at over the last few years. Assist to turnover ratio is one of the beacons of light from Calderon’s stat line every year. He provides a good contrast to the younger, flashier point guards the Raptors appear to be targeting.

He could also be a great teacher and veteran presence to a young point guard like Jeremy Lin or Kyle Lowry. He could help them develop ways to protect the ball, teach them when and how to play in control and would provide that veteran presence off the bench when the younger point guards make the mistakes that young point guards do. Or provide extended backup minutes to allow the aging Nash to rest.

The only issue with this creating a tandem is Calderon’s large contract. Calderon will be paid $10.5 million this season in the final year of his contract. That’s an awful lot of money to be paying a backup point guard. It’s also a lot of money coming off the books at the end of the year and, thus could be very appealing trade bait for another team with a small forward or a shooting guard to spare. It wasn’t long ago that Calderon’s contract was considered one of the worst in the association, but now it is gaining popularity with each passing month and may be worth packaging with a draft pick or even keeping until the deadline.

Calderon, then, presents a conundrum for Colangelo. He has value if he stays and a lot of potential value in a trade. What is the Raptors boss to do with the popular point guard? If a Calderon package (with a draft pick and Ed Davis) could attract a top flight shooting guard or small forward, then the decision to move Calderon becomes more logical. His value may never be higher than this year because of the 10.5 million coming off the books, and the opportunity to acquire an Iguodala, Batum or Rudy Gay may be too tempting to pass up.

Be assured that the point guard position appears to be one of the first areas Colangelo intends to address when he is finally able to start (officially) making changes to the roster on July 1st. No matter what happens for the Raptors this offseason, Calderon is sure to be right in the middle of the action.

It is also assured that whether he ultimately stays or goes, “Numero Ocho” will be a big factor in the Raptors’ next step forward.

Toronto’s Offseason Starting To Take Shape

It has been an intriguing offseason thus far for the Toronto Raptors, that is to be sure. They haven’t even done anything yet and there has already been plenty of chatter surrounding the team and potential free agent signings since the day the season ended. Whether these rumours are based in truth or conjecture remains to be seen. Regardless of the eventual results, people are talking about the Raptors and fans are getting excited.

I’m not one to get caught up in rumours, but these rumours seem to have some weight to them and all of them could change the course of the Raptors hopes for next season as well as the long-term status of GM Bryan Colangelo, who has one year remaining on his contract.

First came the Steve Nash rumours. Now Steve Nash rumours are nothing new around these parts. He’s Canada’s greatest basketball talent ever and would look fantastic playing for Canada’s only basketball team. Over the years Toronto has heard lots about Nash coming to town, but there wasn’t really any way to get a deal like that done. But now the “Nash to Toronto” rumours have a certain weight to them.

He’s long been rumoured to be leaving the Phoenix Suns after this year and his recent appointment as President and General Manager of Canada’s Mens National Team would seem to indicate he wouldn’t mind spending more time closer to his homeland.

A Steve Nash arrival in Toronto would mean improved play on the offensive end and a whole lot of jerseys being sold at the ACC.

Nash would fit in swimmingly here in Toronto, despite the fact Jose Calderon already occupies the starting point guard spot. Calderon has been quite willing and ready to share time whenever necessary and the depth at point guard could give the Raptors a leg up on competition in the Atlantic division. Calderon seems better suited to the backup role anyway and could become valuable trade bait down the road with a large expiring contract.

The Nash rumours also have weight as his former Canadian National team coach, Jay Triano, is employed by the Raptors and Bryan Colangelo, the GM that drafted and then re-acquired Nash in Phoenix is currently the Raptors President and GM.

Nash has a knack for bringing the very best out of his teammates. Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudamire, Channing Frye, Jason Richardson all owe much of their success (and large pay cheques) to the point guard that gave them the ball.

Nash has always put himself second and his team first. His teammates were the beneficiaries on and off the court. How much could a point guard like Nash improve Andrea Bargnani’s game? or DeMar DeRozan’s? Makes you wonder.

Nash makes good players great. He brings the best out of his teammates and could certainly benefit some of the underachieving Raptor players.

Nash would therefore seem to be a perfect fit in Toronto. Unless, of course Jeremy Lin is. Lin is a restricted free agent and there are now reports from a host of sources claiming the Raptors will be very much in the mix for his services, should the Knicks decide to let him go.

Lin is much younger than Nash, could be cheaper and may fit better into the core that is developing in Toronto.

Jeremy Lin is a rumoured Raptor target this offseason. His acquisition could be the spark this young Raptor team needs.

He is a restricted free agent, so how much stalk can we put into these Lin to Toronto rumours? It is very possible that the Knicks get out-priced for his services. Lin is not a player that has been around long and therefore may not have earned the lucrative deal he seeks in the eyes of NBA GM’s. His stats are good, but the sample size is small, and he was never really able to mesh with franchise player Carmelo Anthony suggesting he may need to be a number one option.

Lin, who missed the Knicks’ run to the playoffs, could be the odd man out in New York, making him very much available to Toronto. A move for Lin would be very reminiscent of Colangelo’s other signing of a young point guard that changed his Phoenix Suns back in 2004. That, of course being, Steve Nash.

Lin has shown he can be a game changer, a superstar, a go-to guy. At the point guard position that is simply something the Raptors have never had.

It is clear that Lin’s stats are a small sample size and his median numbers are not nearly as good as his 2011/12 stats, but he could be worth the risk.

He is explosive and can certainly shoot the ball with confidence. He can drive the net and get his teammates involved in the offense. His defensive ability is weak but his deficiencies could be fit into Dwane Casey’s system. If Calderon worked out, Lin likely could too.

He would also become a big fan favourite here in Toronto, a city with a large Asian fan base. It could be a big marketing opportunity that the new owners at Rogers and Bell, simply cannot pass up.

Still, the odds of landing Lin rest in the hands of Glen Grunwald and the New York Knicks and what they are attempting to do this offseason. The Knicks maintain the right to match any offers the young point guard gets, meaning the Raptors will likely have to overpay to get him.

Lin presents an interesting option for the Raptors, but one that they ultimately don’t have complete control over.

Then there are the murmurs about Nicolas Batum. Now, none of these rumours are anything but pure and utter speculation, but he would fit very nicely into the Raptors lineup. A small forward with that kind of ability has alluded the Raptors since the days of Tracy McGrady. Batum would instantly become one of the best small forwards the franchise has ever seen. A great fit for the short and long-term. Plus his European background would be a plus in the locker room. He certainly won’t be cheap and the Blazers are very unlikely to let him go for nothing. Expect the Blazers to match everything and anything for Batum and then work out a trade with a team if they have to.

If the Raptors are serious about acquiring Batum, which they should be in my opinion, then they are going to have to put together a trade package that will make it happen. That is much more difficult than just signing a player, but if anyone knows how to work out a complicated off-season trade it’s Colangelo.

So despite the fact the Playoffs are going on without the Raptors, there is plenty for a fan to sit and ponder. This summer will be another chapter in the remaking of this Raptors team and it is exciting to imagine the possibilities. So far three of the most solid offseason rumours would offer the Raptors definite upgrades in talent at two key positions. All three rumoured acquisitions are big name players that would raise the talent level and profile of basketball in Toronto.

Like most Raptor fans, I can’t wait to see what happens on July first. Judging from the early offseason rumours, it is likely to be one of the more exciting ones yet.

Evans Is Leaving His Mark In Los Angeles

Every year there is a player or two that step out of obscurity to become a big part of their teams’ success in the playoffs.

For every Michael Jordan there is a Steve Kerr, for every Dirk Nowitzki there is a Tyson Chandler or Ian Mahimi, for every Kobe Bryant there is a Sasha Vujacic. A player that contributes more in a playoff setting then they may have during the regular season.

For the Clippers this year that player appears to be Reggie Evans.

He’s a banger.  He grabs rebounds he has no business getting, makes himself a pain in the rear on the defensive end and moves around the floor grabbing loose balls and missed shots like he isn’t 250 pounds.

Raptor fans know how valuable Reggie Evans can be to a team, and now the rest of the NBA is now getting a chance to see it as well as he has been a difference maker so far in the playoffs.

Evans is a game changer, an X-factor and in a series as evenly matched as Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Clippers, he might just be the difference maker in this series. A player that tips the scales in his Clippers favor.

Evans has been putting together a nice run in the postseason.  He’s increased his minutes to 22.6 per game and he’s chipping in with 8.7 boards while shooting 50% from the field.  This from a player that averaged 5 rebounds in 13 minutes during the regular season.

His sudden playoff turnaround has come as a major shock south of the border.

Of course, while the rest of the US have been amazed with Evans’ sudden good play, the Raptor faithful in Toronto aren’t surprised at all.  That’s just how he always played the game while he was here. During his two years in Toronto he made himself a fan favorite with his endless effort.  Raptor fans weren’t used to seeing a player haul down rebounds on a regular and consistent basis.  He did.  He earned himself a starting spot during the 2010-11 season mainly because of his rebounding prowess.

Fans here couldn’t get enough of his effort.  He wasn’t a shooter or a flashy player , by any stretch of the imagination, but no player endeared himself to the fans more than Evans.

In fact, on a number of occasions during his time playing on the court and before he came back from injury in 2009 the fans at the ACC regularly chanted “Reg-gie, Reg-gie.” It now seems to be catching on in Los Angeles.

This year he found himself in LA playing a much less important role.  He didn’t get much time and was only able to make a marginal difference with 4.5 rebounds in limited minutes. He played off the bench behind Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and eventually Kenyon Martin, too.  He had to make the most of his minutes and, for the most part, he did.  He was the same hardworking player he was in Toronto but the results weren’t as noticeable on the court as they were the year before.

That is, until now.

The playoffs have been a totally different story and it seems like Reggie Evans was built for this time of year.  In the NBA playoffs players with his skill set become king.  Look at how Tyson Chandler exploded last year or how important Joel Anthony was during the Heats’ run last year.  Reggie Evans can be a difference maker in this series.  He may even become a difference maker in the playoffs in general if the Clippers are fortunate to make it beyond Game 7 in Memphis on Sunday.

Then again, Raptor fans already know how valuable Evans can be.  We had him for two years and were fortunate to watch him beat up opposing offenses.  Now while the Raptors prepare for an important offseason fans can sit back and enjoy watching Reggie get up to his old antics.

Hopefully we will get to see a little more after Sunday.

Toronto’s Season A Step In Right Direction

I’ve taken my time in writing a year-end review for the Raptors because there are things that have already been said much better than I and at the end of the day I’m not really sure how I even feel about the way this season transpired.

The Raptors were not a great team.  They lost a lot of games.  Hell, they lost twice to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats (quite possibly the worst team in history).  They missed the playoffs again and did not secure a great chance at a top three pick.

Still, I’m a “glass is half full” kind of guy and I still feel the team had enough positive this season to be hopeful for the future.

While we saw problems with the club like the lack of a bona fide star, poor wing play for most of the season and a rash of injuries, we also saw marked improvement in a number of areas.  Our defence was much improved, some unexpected players stepped up to show they belong here and our coaching staff showed that they can strategize with the best in the league.

Overall it was a tough year, but one that has given the fan base reason to believe next year is going to be better.

My Captain, My Captain

It was clear early in the year that Dwane Casey was going to be the voice of this team.  He addressed the media at every turn and preached the same philosophies over and over.  He talked about “building a culture”, improving the team defence and to keep working hard.  His mantra, “pound the rock,” was adopted by each of his players and became a rallying cry throughout the year in the locker room, interviews and on twitter.

In wins and difficult losses his players continued to stick to the plan.

The turnaround in this team is most notable on the defensive side of the ball.  Last year the Raptors ranked near the bottom in all defensive statistics, but this year they finished 9th in points allowed, 8th in Opponents field goal percentage, and 5th in opponents three-point field goal percentage.  This was all with a back court that many thought was too weak on the defensive end.

Who then should be credited with the turnaround?  Look no further than the coach. Casey had a successful first year in charge of the Raptors because his message was simple and consistent and it stuck with his players. He was able to mask the defensive shortcomings of Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani (two players that everyone thought were hopeless on the defensive end) in his zone defense and turned the Raptors into a tough team to score against.

The effort Casey put forth helped make Bargnani a top-tier player during the first half of the season and helped rejuvenate the career of Jose Calderon.

Casey, for his efforts, has already had his contract extended and bigger and better things should be expected from the team with improvements to the roster.

Had Casey been on a higher profile team he might even be a candidate for coach of the year. His extended contract was a no-brainer and a bigger pay day may be coming if the team keeps heading in the direction it is currently pointed.

In this shortened Raptor season, Casey has given Raptor fans a reason to be hopeful for the future.

Jekyll and Hyde

No one knows on any given night which Andrea Bargnani or which DeMar DeRozan will show up.  Both had polarizing years, to say the least, and neither player could put it all together for an extended stretch of games.

Early on it looked as though Andrea Bargnani was going to bust loose on the NBA.  He was shooting the ball with confidence, driving the lane, hitting shots and playing with confidence on both ends of the floor.

For the first month and a half of the season all of the Dirk Nowitzki comparisons were beginning to finally make sense.

Then he got injured.

Bargnani wasn’t the same player when he returned.  He was hesitant, lost his confidence and couldn’t find his rhythm.  Either the injury was not fully healed or opposing defenses made adjustments.  Either way he wasn’t a dominant player in the second half.

Raptor fans are now left wondering which player was the real Andrea Bargnani and which player is going to show up next year.

While Bargnani was having a great start and rough finish, DeMar DeRozan’s season was almost the complete and utter opposite.

DeRozan started the season terribly.  By the all-star break he was averaging 40% shooting and 15 points per game.  He was getting to the foul line five times a game.  He was sputtering and everyone in the city seemed to be noticing.  Journalists, bloggers, pundits, everyone was questioning whether DeRozan was going to be a significant part of this teams future. He looked like a player destined for a career off the bench.

In the second half, he spent a lot less time trying to shoot three-pointers and started focusing on getting to the foul line.  He was able to draw contact and get to the stripe a lot more. In December, Derozan averaged little over two free throw attempts per game.  Later in the year, he bumped that to as high as six attempts per game. A significant improvement.

DeRozan has begun to learn what he does well.  Casey had him attacking the rim, and allthough he didn’t always get the call, he kept attacking.

By the end of the second half of the year, DeRozan began to look a lot more like the player Raptor fans were expecting when he was drafted out of USC.

Now Raptor fans have to hope that ‘First half Bargnani’ and ‘Second half DeRozan’ are actually who these players are.

Supporting Players

The Raptors may not have a bona fide superstar at the moment.  They may have to steal that star from the draft or in free agency, but what the team does have a plethora of is character players.  Guys that come to the court and leave it all on the floor.  A squad of fighters that any coach would love to have coming off the bench.

Jerryd Bayless showed himself to be a very capable point guard and shooting guard this season and is perfectly suited to a bench role next season, if he stays in town. He can shoot, drive and dish and can potentially cause match-up nightmares for opposing teams.

James Johnson can play many positions and does a little bit of everything.  He can block, rebound, defend and occasionally score.  He plays the 3, 4 and occasionally the 5, and he has a high basketball IQ when he’s on the floor.  If he has not burned bridges with coach Casey he will be a valuable part of the team next year.

Jose Calderon had one of his best seasons as a professional basketball player in 2011/12.  He distributed the ball with ease averaging 8.6 assists good enough for fourth in the league behind only Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash and Chris Paul.  He established himself as a team leader for this team going forward and one that Dwane Casey is not afraid to put full trust in.  He also became a much better defensive player under Casey.  Calderon may just retire here in Toronto and the fans, who have cheered and jeered him over the years, likely have no issue with him staying after the year he has had.

The Colangelo Factor

Raptors fans were subtlety reminded of the fact that they have one heck of a GM in Bryan Colangelo. Though his star is not nearly as bright as it once was in Toronto, Colangelo has positioned his team to be a player once again in 2012/13.  The steady GM has cleared cap space for his team and has drafted a number of strong young players to build around.  He’s also got all of his players signed to team friendly contracts meaning that they are very tradeable.

This kind of flexibility has given the Raptor faithful some hope for next year especially with the arrival of highly touted 2011 first round pick Jonas Valanciunas.  Jonas made Colangelo look even better this year by having a stellar year overseas and raising eyebrows with his strong play on both ends of the court in Lithuania.

Colangelo should also be credited with his very clever scouting of the D-league.  He brought over three players (Anderson, Uzoh, Dentmon) and  in the final two months of the season and all three played valuable minutes and showed they belong in the league.  Uzoh and Anderson may actually have a shot of sticking with the club next year.

No Raptor player, outside of maybe Bargnani, has been as often criticized as Jose Calderon. This season may have helped to prove all the negative voices wrong once and for all.

If that doesn’t prove to people that Colangelo has got some skill as an executive, then hopefully his off-season moves will.

 

Ex-Raptors In The NBA Playoffs

The Raptors are once again not in the post season, but there is still plenty for a Raptor fan to enjoy as this years playoff series’ get under way.

Players that maybe didn’t get the chance to excel, or even play, in the postseason in Toronto have opportunities to make major contributions to their teams’ playoff run this year. From big name talent like Chris Bosh to role players like Matt Bonner and Reggie Evans, there are plenty of ex-dinos out there that could play pivotal roles in the first round of the playoffs.

Make sure you watch out for these guys:

1) Chris Bosh – Although the Miami Heat will live and die by the hand of LeBron James in the fourth quarter, Bosh will once again be an important part of any hope Miami has of coming out of the East. Bosh will have to match up against some very stiff talent and his offensive efforts could be what makes or breaks it for the Heat. With all three members of the “Big 3″ firing on all cylinders there really is no stopping the Heat.

Chris Bosh will be a key reason the Miami Heat win or lose a game this year in the playoffs.

Bosh will have to score when needed and will really have to help contain the bigger bodies of Kevin Garnett, Tyson Chandler and Carlos Boozer if the Heat hope to advance back to the NBA finals. Last year he played well offensively but wasn’t as effective on the defensive end (a trait that plagued him during his Raptors days).

If Chris Bosh excels this year the Heat will likely win it all. If he buckles under the pressure, the load his teammates are left to carry may be too much to handle.

Chris Bosh may be the difference between championship and heartache for the Heat.

2) Leandro Barbosa – When the Indiana Pacers acquired Barbosa at the trade deadline for a 2nd round pick they didn’t acquire him for the regular season. They really acquired him for the playoffs. After one game in the series against Orlando it is already clear why this young team needs the veteran Barbosa to step up.

Most of the Indiana players really lack playoff experience and success. They’re a young team and they showed their youth in Game 1, dropping it in catastrophic fashion to the veteran Magic. Orlando dominated the last four minutes of the game and stole the victory from a stronger Pacers squad.

Barbosa will likely get more minutes in Game 2. He’s been to the dance before and has had some great playoff success in Phoenix. He’s a crafty veteran and knows how to handle the pressures of the playoffs. His presence on and off the court will be of great help, specifically, to George Hill and Paul George, who were not sharp in Game 1.

Barbosa has experience in the playoffs and can hopefully help the young Indiana backcourt shrug off their difficulties and get the Pacers back into the series.

When Barbosa was with the Raptors he was instant offense off the bench. Indiana, with only 77 points in game 1, could use that bench production especially when their starting back court is having difficulty.

The Pacer bench, and Barbosa in particular, are going to be key factors in this series.

3) Matt Bonner – The San Antonio Spurs came into the playoffs playing some pretty darn good basketball. They captured the number one seed in a very difficult Western Conference and looked primed for a good run at the championship. Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli, once again, lead this team into battle with their eyes on yet another championship ring.

The Spurs also have a phenomenal supporting cast as well consisting of Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard and Matt Bonner.

When the starters need a rest, the bench doesn’t miss a beat. Jackson does the scoring, Diaw defends the paint and Bonner is there to throw in some dagger three’s.

When Matt Bonner used to hit three-point shots for the Toronto Raptors it would send the ACC crowd into a frenzy. There almost wasn’t a more exciting play at the ACC during his tenure in Toronto. When he hits them for San Antonio there is that same excitement in the air.

There is something about a Bonner three-point shot that sends electricity through a crowd. When he hits a big shot it usually has an impact on the game as well. I have a feeling Matt Bonner is going to be hitting big shots throughout the playoffs for the San Antonio Spurs.

In Toronto, we’d call Matt Bonner an “X-factor”. In this series, he could help San Antonio steal a game or two.

4) Reggie Evans – Every year it seems that a rare playoff performer emerges to the forefront and helps a team win a game a series or even a championship. Last year names like Ian Mahinmi and Tyson Chandler became household names. This year one of those names could be Reggie Evans.

In the playoffs in hockey you need toughness and forechecking. Someone who is going to bang it out and do the dirty work that doesn’t get noticed on the score sheet. Throwing a pick, chasing down a loose ball, tapping an offensive board back to your teammates are some of the intangibles that give teams a better chance to win and become far more valuable in a playoff series.

Reggie Evans is a player that does those things. He’s tough, he’s strong and if he’s defending you, you are going to have to work. Watch out Gasol, watch out Rudy Gay, the lane is about to be clogged.

Reggie is one of those X-factor type players that could end up making a huge difference for LA, even if it doesn’t show up on the score sheet.

5) Shawn Marion – He wasn’t a Raptor for very long, but it was clear during his time in Toronto that Shawn was a very offensively gifted player. He is lightning quick and can get to the rim easily. He has quick feet and can keep up with defenders. He has also shown throughout his time in Dallas that he is a valuable defensive presence as well.

Marion is another playoff veteran, having had successful runs in Phoenix and he finally won a championship in Dallas last year. Marion was a key reason Dallas was able to win and provided stellar defense during their championship run last year. He took care of LeBron James in last years final and is becoming more known for his defense around the league.

This year he has been handed the task of guarding Kevin Durant. Not an easy task, but if anyone is up to it, it’ll be Marion.

A playoff veteran, Marion has been handed the most difficult defensive assignment of anyone in the playoffs. It’s not going to be easy, but something tells me Marion’s defensive abilities could make or break his team this year.

So, Many former Raptor players are going to potentially play large roles in how this years championship is ultimately decided. Lots to watch during the playoffs, even if the Raptors aren’t a part of them.