The challenge for the Toronto Raptors is time.
With key additions Kyle Lowry, Landry Fields and Jonas Valanciunas easing into important roles and a dramatically upgraded bench, the Raptors are built to get better as the season progresses.
Where they are come April will be largely determined on how they handle the early days of the schedule.
The Raptors play 16 games in 27 November days. Ten of those games are on the road and the month includes six back to back games, the most the Raptors will play in any month. Some of those road destinations include low-win zones: Brooklyn, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Indiana, Boston and Memphis.
If the Raptors can come out of November with a passable record they can count on an updraft that should set them up for an encouraging campaign. It will not be easy. Other than Dwight Howard taking his talents to Los Angeles the Eastern Conference seems markedly improved this season.
Start with the new ready for prime time players.
Kyle Lowry, PG. In Lowry the Raptors have a fourth-quarter presence who commands the game. A ferocious defender, Lowry’s penetration and transition skills should fundamentally change the look and feel of the franchise.
Jonas Valanciunas, C. While his playing time will be measured in the beginning, Valanciunas presents himself as a difference maker. Because he has shown an ability to avoid fouling and make free throws early concerns that Valanciunas would be often unusable for wide stretches have proven premature. Coaches praise his mental toughness and strong fundamentals but it’s Valanciunas’ over-the-top energy and ability to run the floor that will make for arresting viewing all season.
Landry Fields, SF. Fields’ skill set complements that of Lowry. A precise, unobtrusive player whose best moments often come away from the ball, Fields’ defence and court sense should help stiffen an already-improved defence. The Raptors will soon learn whether the drop-off between Fields’ rookie and sophomore campaign was the result of the arrival of Carmelo Anthony or whether Fields game hitting a plateau.
Andrea Bargnani, C/F. The Raptors brass was relieved when a kick to the calf Bargnani injured last season did not bring a reoccurrence of his leg injury. Before being shut down Bargnani was enjoying his best NBA campaign. He has shown improvement defensively. If he continues to attack the basket (Bargnani pushed his free throw attempts from 2.9 a game to 5.6 over his last three seasons) his seventh NBA season could be his best.
DeMar DeRozan, G/F. Going into his fourth season, DeRozan has matured into a 20-point a night type player but his willingness to go the basket in traffic and draw fouls will determine his prominence in the league. The preseason results have been encouraging but…
Amir Johnson, F. Hard to believe but Johnson is just 25 and growing into his game. He has added a mid-range jumper and while no one will confuse him with Kevin Durant Johnson has added more finish to an offence already teeming with put-backs and hustle baskets.
Jose Calderon, G. Always comfortable with coming in off the bench, Calderon should be able to orchestrate the game on the second unit.
Ed Davis, F, C. Davis’ shot has been rebuilt but he will continue to prove his worth on the glass. Davis led the team in rebounding last season but that status will soon be challenged by Valanciunas.
A better bench.
Terrence Ross G/F. While injuries and illness have hampered his preseason, Ross, the eighth overall pick in last summer’s NBA draft, brings an NBA-ready jump shot into his rookie season.
Aaron Gray, C. A hard-working journeyman, Grey’s professionalism will buy Valanciunas time to mature and continue to free Bargnani from the five hole.
John Lucas III, G. In the right situation the Raptors can slide Lucas into the two guard hole and exploit his gifts as a scorer.