The expectations for this year's edition of the Toronto Raptors are quite high after a first-round playoff exit last year, which followed a very solid regular-season campaign.
One major problem that was addressed this offseason was the need to find a player that would toughen the team up inside the paint. Jermaine O'Neal's signing was one of the most notable moves for the Raptors—and if he can remain healthy, this will surely help take some of the weight off of Chris Bosh's shoulders as far as being a presence inside.
Some other notable roster moves occurred in this past offseason, such the surprising flight of Carlos Delfino to sign and play in Russia, the trade of T.J. Ford, and the loss of Rasho Nesterovic. The Raptors are looking at the preseason as one forum to determine just who will step up and contribute when coming off the bench for the team's starting five.
I had a chance to see the team about a week and a half ago, when they took on the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Air Canada Centre. Despite being a preseason affair, this game gave me a very good indication of where the Raptors will be looking to go when they call on the bench.
During the game, the Raptors starting five really only played about half of the first quarter and the majority of the third quarter. There were a few players who had noticeably higher minutes on the court—and I'd like to expand on their roles a bit further.
Two of the players the Raptors will be going to consistently off the bench will be Andrea Bargnani and Joey Graham. Bargnani has filled out his frame this past offseason, bulking up some 15 to 20 pounds, and it's expected that he'll shake off what was a frustrating sophomore year. He is an excellent shooter from all over the court, and the Raptors would like to see him take the ball to the bucket with confidence a lot more this season.
As far as Graham is concerned, he played the most minutes of anyone in this particular game, and he looked solid. He made several outstanding plays and dunks that definitely grabbed the crowd's attention. The team and management expect a much bigger contribution from Graham this year—especially in terms of rebounding and scoring—and want to see him fulfill some of the expectations they had when they drafted him three seasons ago.
Jamario Moon is a player who demonstrated last year that he has plenty of "showtime" in his game, with some spectacular highlight dunks and alley-oops. However, there were times last season where Moon wouldn't necessarily respect his own abilities. Often, as opposed to driving with the ball, he chose to settle for a difficult, low-percentage shot from outside.
If Moon can establish his inside presence on a more regular basis, it will only help his game and shot confidence as well. In addition, he should get more open looks outside if he can establish himself at a level where all teams would respect him as a serious threat to drive the lane and score.
Another big man that will see a lot of minutes this coming season is Kris Humphries. Acquired from Utah two seasons ago, Humphries showed this past season that he has the work ethic and the ability to play a big role when the Raptors need him to. His game anywhere within 10 feet of the basket improved drastically in the past season, as he became much more confident in his scoring abilities and showed that he's willing to defend the league's big men without fail.
Humphries will assume an even greater role if there are any issues with the health of O'Neal during this season. If he can pay with same confidence he did last year, he will make some important contributions to the team.
As far as guard play is concerned, the Raptors have one of the best starting tandems at the point- and shooting-guard spots league-wide. The two players that seem to be the ones with the greatest opportunity to fill these spots coming off the bench will be this offseason's draft pick Roco Ukic and Will Solomon. Both have played in Europe, and Solomon took a pay cut to come back to the NBA this year.
However, after having the chance to watch both players in action, I would not hesitate to state that the biggest challenge for the bench will be filling in for what was a two-headed monster last year, with the Ford/Calderon combo at the point. Some of the decision-making by these two players as far as shots and passes were concerned was very questionable.
The best example of this came near the end of the Timberwolves game, when Solomon was give the responsibility of handling the ball down the court with the team down by a bucket and about 15 seconds to go. Solomon proceeded to run down the court without really looking at any other player, and didn't fool anyone when he went up to shoot right away. He missed that shot terribly—which certainly was not a good impression to leave on Sam Mitchell, when the game was in his hands.
I noticed that Solomon has only played a few minutes in each of the games after that one, and may have seen his chance to shine already pass him by. Both he and Ukic are young players that are relatively inexperienced at the NBA level. This would be the most glaring weakness I can observe with the Raps bench, with the season now just days away.
Clearly in the NBA, the starting five players on the court mean a lot in terms of where you're expecting the bulk of your scoring and defense to come from. The difference-maker in almost all games however, is what kind of contribution and impact the bench players have.
Being able to turn to players who understand their roles and can fill them appropriately, is something that the Raptors will be looking for consistently this season. The right pieces are in place, and as the season develops it will be very interesting to see who ultimately steps it up and takes on the key bench roles that will certainly propel this team to be playoff-bound once again.