Season preview: Toronto Raptors
Jermaine O'Neal can lift the Raptors beyond the first round ... if he stays healthy
The Raptors will be better with Jose Calderon as the full-time starting point guard
Former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani needs to take a big step forward in Year 3
SI.com will analyze each of the NBA's 30 teams as regular-season tip-off approaches. For a complete list of team-by-team breakdowns, click here. The information in the "Go figure" category below is provided by Roland Beech of 82games.com.
Raptors at a glance
Last season: 41-41; lost in first round of playoffs to Magic
Notable additions: Nathan Jawai (R) and Jermaine O'Neal (trade with Pacers), Roko Ukic (R), Hassan Adams (FA)
Notable losses: T.J. Ford and Rasho Nesterovic (trade with Pacers), Carlos Delfino (signed with Russia's BC Khimki)
Coach: Sam Mitchell (148-180 in four seasons with Raptors)
Reasons for hope
1. O'Neal remains a force ... when healthy. From 2001-07, O'Neal was a lock to average at least 19 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. Yes, last season was a wash as he struggled with a knee injury, but O'Neal will be only 30 when the season starts; he'll still be one of the league's best defenders and he'll still be a lot more dangerous as a scorer on his worst day than last year's part-time starter at center, Nesterovic, is on his best. O'Neal, who made a habit in recent years of hinting he had tired of the Pacers, arrived in Toronto proclaiming his willingness to play second fiddle to franchise player Chris Bosh. If he plays true to his word, the Raptors will field a low-post lineup that will rival any other team's.
2. Jose Calderon is an unquestioned starter. By dealing Ford to the Pacers, Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo broke up the time-share at point guard that only served to demonstrate how much more efficient Calderon was than Ford. Calderon proved to be a valuable offensive weapon last season; he averaged 11.2 points and 8.3 assists, led the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio and shot 51.9 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three-point range in 30.3 minutes. Based on that performance, the 27-year-old Spaniard should have little trouble carrying the extra minutes as a full-time starter -- at least at that end of the floor (see "Go figure" below).
3. Colangelo is calling the shots. More than a few GMs seem more interested in keeping their jobs than in doing them. They'll toy with some mid-level contracts and make a small trade or two to bolster the bench, but ultimately fail to pull the trigger on a deal that offers the hope of bigger things immediately but the risk of failure, too. In his tenures in Phoenix and Toronto, Colangelo has proved to be anything but risk-averse. With the Suns, he signed Steve Nash to a $65 million deal even though many expressed concern about whether the then-30-year-old point guard could hold up physically. This summer with the Raptors, he rolled the dice on O'Neal, another 30-year-old who comes with health concerns. Even if O'Neal doesn't produce the payoff Nash did, the deal demonstrated Colangelo's persistent willingness to alter his roster in hopes of finding a conference-contending mix.
Reasons for worry
1. O'Neal's injury history. O'Neal has missed an average of 31 games over the last four seasons (which included a 25-game suspension for the Palace brawl in 2004-05), suffering from bone bruises, knee surgeries, shoulder stingers, sprained ankles, sore hamstrings and a strained groin. An offseason of rest and a shift to a complementary role in Toronto should help, but given O'Neal's recent track record, the Raptors will need a little luck in getting a full season from him.
2. Andrea Bargnani has regressed. After showing promise as a rookie, the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft failed to progress last season. The Italian forward shot 38.6 percent from the field and wasn't much of a factor on the boards, and his minutes dipped from 23.9 in the regular season to 20.8 in the playoffs. With O'Neal in town, the pressure on Bargnani will ease a bit with his probable move to the bench. Nevertheless, Bargnani's development is a key factor in Toronto's long-term future.
3. Push vs. pull. Colangelo took over the Raptors in 2006 with an eye toward transforming them into Suns north, complete with a high-octane offense and the European-bred talents schooled in how to play that style. He gave Mitchell, a coach he inherited who had a 60-104 career record, the chance to implement the changes. Forty-seven wins and a playoff berth later, the marriage worked so well that Mitchell received a three-year contract extension. But last season the two reportedly were at odds over Mitchell's use of certain players and Bargnani's lack of improvement. Despite describing the 41-41 season as a "disappointment," Colangelo also added that rumors he was preparing to fire Mitchell were "absolutely ludicrous." With the addition of O'Neal and the streamlining of the point guard situation, Colangelo has, on paper, made Mitchell's job easier. At the same time, however, the pressure is there to win now. Scuffling along at .500 will not be good enough for Mitchell this time.
Keep an eye on ...
Jason Kapono. With Bosh and O'Neal keeping defenses busy in the paint, and with Calderon directing traffic, Kapono's perimeter shooting is what can make the Raptors a multifaceted terror. Playing off Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade two years ago in Miami, Kapono proved capable of the job, converting a league-best 51.4 percent from beyond the arc. In fact, Kapono proved capable last year as well, hitting 48.3 percent from three-point range, although it wasn't so easy to tell considering his minutes declined by 7.5 per game. His playing time could rise if the Raptors intend to take full advantage of the double teams that Bosh and O'Neal figure to draw in the paint.
Calderon made the team offense much better (six more points scored per 100 possession) last season, but he also made the team defense worse (4.6 more points allowed per 100 possessions).
O'Neal should make the Raptors a better team, but that assumes he plays more like a six-time All-Star and less like the day-to-day proposition he seemingly has become. Bargnani should make the bench versatile and explosive, but that assumes he earns Mitchell's trust. Calderon's increased role should make the Raptors more fluid on offense, but that assumes his iffy defense doesn't subvert those improvements. Toronto has the talent to advance beyond the first round, but that assumes Mitchell is up to the task. Can a team win with so many assumptions yet to play out? With good health, we'd assume so.
Sports Illustrated's NBA preview issue will be on newsstands Wednesday, Oct. 22.