New era, no hope

The Toronto Raptors head into the 2010-11 NBA season as a team with no identity. The unquestioned face of the franchise for the previous seven seasons, Chris Bosh, abandoned the team to chase a title in South Beach with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. With no clear leader on the court, or in the locker room, the once up-and-coming “Raps” are poised to toil at the bottom of the standings all year.

The main problem in Toronto is simple — they have no talent. In a league where championship teams are built around at least two, and usually three, superstars, the current Raptors have none. Their roster is comprised of role players, inexperienced and unproven prospects and overpaid stiffs. Not a single player on this roster would have started for the Lakers’ championship team.

If you had to choose one player amongst the bunch to label as the go-to guy, most fans would point toward Andrea Bargnani, the former number-one draft pick who’s never quite lived up to expectations. While the sharp-shooting big-man did post career bests in points (17.2), rebounds (6.1) and blocks (1.4) last season, it is difficult to build a case that we will be getting much more from Bargnani. Sure his numbers might increase this year but that would simply be due to filling the void that Bosh left in his wake. Bargnani will be hard pressed to become the 20-point, 10-rebound player that Raptors fans have been hoping he’d become.

Playing alongside Bargnani in the frontcourt will be Amir Johnson, who slides into Bosh’s vacant power forward starting slot. Johnson will have to live up to some lofty expectations considering that he somehow convinced the Raptors brass to sign him to a new five-year, $34-million contract in the off-season, despite averaging just 6.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game last year. Other players expected to contribute in the front court will be first-round draft pick Ed Davis and the offensively deficient bruiser Reggie Evans.

To help bear some of the scoring load, the Raptors brought in a new small forward, Linas Kleiza. After spending four seasons with the Denver Nuggets as a role-player, Kleiza bolted to Europe last season to play a more pivotal role with Greece’s Olympiakos. That leadership experience will be counted on by the young Raptors bunch. Kleiza should split time at the small forward position with one of last season’s few standouts, Sonny Weems, whose energy and athleticism should provide a spark off the bench.

In the backcourt, the Raptors return with three familiar faces and one new one. The point guard position will once again be a time-share between Jose Calderon and Jarrett Jack. Ideally, one of these two will step his game up and assume the starting spot, but based on last season’s sorry results Raptor fans can once again expect mediocre play from their point guard tandem.

Despite the definite lack of star power on the roster, there does appear to be some talent in Toronto’s shooting guards. Second-year player DeMar DeRozan comes into the season as the team’s starter at the two-guard. After averaging 8.6 points per game during his rookie campaign last season, DeRozan should see a heavier workload and will be given every opportunity to showcase his talents. The Raptors also acquired Leandro Barbosa from the Phoenix Suns in an off-season trade. The former Sixth Man award winner had seen both his minutes and his numbers decline over the past three seasons, but could use this change of scenery to resurrect his career. If Barbosa can stay healthy, which hasn’t been the case the last two seasons, the Raptors are hoping he can return to his form from the 2006-07 season, when he managed 18.1 points and 2.4 three-pointers per game.

An optimist might say that the Raptors have a chance to possibly sneak into the playoffs, where they would undoubtedly be bounced. A pessimist would say that the Raptors have the inside track to next year’s first-overall draft pick. Regardless of the point of view you take, the 2010-11 Raptors season looks to be a wash. Give me the first pick in next year’s draft and bring on the 2011-12 season!