The Raptors aren't so lousy anymore, but they'll have a hard time getting out of last place in the Atlantic because it's such a good division.
I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with Jose Calderon, who has been an important part of their team. He's one of my favorite guys in terms of being a pure point guard and directing their team and making big shots, though he's not a good defender. He's somebody a lot of teams would like to have, but his big price tag [a $10.6 million salary] has put him out there in the last year of his contract. I don't expect we'll see Calderon get traded anytime soon. It seems like these situations happen closer to the deadline, unless a team has a real need for a point guard because somebody goes down.
One reason Calderon has never had firm control of the starting job in Toronto is because you always had the feeling that he's not a great defender, so you want another guy in there to help at that end. Over the last five years he's been one of the top guys in assists per game, and I know a lot of coaches think highly of him for his leadership. At this stage of his career he'd be an outstanding backup point guard.
Some people really like Kyle Lowry, though I haven't heard too many of his coaches say they really like him. He seems to have a high opinion of himself -- the word is he's very obstinate -- but he is tough and he's been productive. I can't really get a feel for him. Is he one of those guys who is a good player on a bad team when he gets a lot of shots and he can be in control of the game? It would be interesting to see what he can be on a good team [Lowry has been to the playoffs once in six seasons], though we're not going to be able to see it this year. He's in another one of those situations where he gets to play through his mistakes and selfishness while having a productive year numbers-wise.
[Chris Mannix: What to expect from the Raptors this season]
Lowry is a strong point guard who embraces his role as the alpha dog. He can beat his man on the dribble, he has been known to make open threes, he can shoot behind the pick-and-roll when he gets it going and he's a good free-throw shooter. Lowry is a rhythm player who can score in bunches and finish plays in traffic. He's tough-minded. He will get into scraps, rebound and pressure the ball. You look at Lowry's numbers and you say, He's a really good player. But there has got to be something else there -- because it was a numbers guy, [Rockets general manager] Daryl Morey, who got rid of him.
DeMar DeRozan needs to become a consistent three-point shooter to go with his athleticism, which is off the charts. Coach Dwane Casey has helped him to be more committed to the defensive end. DeRozan can be a star, but first he has to get a feel for who he is: Is he a 2 or a 3? His body is better suited to be a 2, but he's not a knockdown shooter. He could turn out to be a better-defending Rip Hamilton type, a mid-range guy. Or if he wanted to get stronger, they could play rookie Terrence Ross at the 2 and have DeRozan at the 3, because DeRozan doesn't back down when you see him guarding guys like Paul Pierce. If they can find a way to make the most of DeRozan and Ross on the wing, they're going to be really athletic.
Ross is as athletic as DeRozan was as a rookie, and he might be a better ball-handler than DeRozan was when he first came in. I also think it's going to help him to see how guys like DeRozan, Landry Fields and Alan Anderson pay attention to the little things on a daily basis.
Andrea Bargnani is a tough matchup because of his height [7-0]. Even though they list him as a center, he's really a stretch 4. If they have him at the 5, they'll usually want to pair him up with a 4 like Amir Johnson who is more of a rim player. I do like that he has posted up more in the last year or two, and that he puts the ball on the floor more often and with better success.
Bargnani needs to continue to be more comfortable in the post in order to create more matchup issues. Initially you always knew he was going to be in the trail spot or on the elbow for a pick-and-pop, so you could play a 4-man on him or switch. But if he's healthy and consistent, he can be more than that. I don't think he's ever going to be an All-Star, but he can be an important part of their team for a long time. And they appear to be giving him chances, though I'm sure part of that has to do with the fact that Bryan Colangelo made him the No. 1 pick [six] years ago.
[Ian Thomsen: Atlantic Division preview]
Is Fields going to have the kind year he had as a rookie, or is he going to be disappointing like he was last year? The difference is that he's going to have to be productive based on the money they're paying him [$18.75 million over three years]. What's interesting is that they have all of that money invested in Fields, but the future of the team depends on Ross and DeRozan. So who is going to be the priority? Fields is one of those teasers. He'll have a good game when you don't expect anything of him, and then when you do expect something he'll be disappointing.
Linas Kleiza was great in the Olympics for Lithuania against the USA. He's a tough matchup not necessarily because of his size, but because he can shoot and drive and be physical. He's best as a stretch 4 who attacks, but he can get away with playing the 3 sometimes.
You can count on Johnson's always running the floor. He is a great straight-ahead runner. He's not bad at defending the pick-and-roll because he'll be quick to get out and "show." You'd want him to be a better rebounder, and sometimes he'll shoot a few more jumpers than you'd like. He can affect the game with blocked shots and athleticism, but he's not a dominating athlete.
Rookie Jonas Valanciunas is another important young guy. I know the Raptors think a lot of him and believe he and Bargnani can make up their front line for the long term, which must mean they think Valanciunas can learn to play inside.
Ed Davis has been a complementary player in college and the NBA, and he hasn't been consistent. He's still only 23, but if you look at their roster they seem to be passing him by. They've committed to Valanciunas and Bargnani, and they've committed to Johnson for another couple of years. Put all of that together and it means they might like Davis, but they don't love him. I don't love him, either. Every fifth or sixth game he'll give you a good performance. I think he'll always be a backup because he doesn't look like a high-energy guy. It's going to be hard to play Davis and Johnson together because neither one is that talented offensively. This is going to be a make-or-break year for him.
Casey is a good coach for them. Their team was much more competitive for him last year than for other coaches in previous years. They played some zone when Jay Triano was coach, but they play it more aggressively with Casey and it creates that change of pace that's good for their team. Remember the way Casey [a former Mavericks assistant coach] used the zone to hide Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas? He can do the same thing for Bargnani here. Casey looks like he's good with the young guys, that they like him, and at the same time he's demanding of them.