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Chisholm: Bench Warming

TSN.ca Talent Blog
7/29/2008 4:01:19 PM
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And then there's Will Solomon. That would be the signing that unofficially ends the Raptors offseason and solidifies the team that Toronto will go to battle with in three months time.

One through five the team is solid, if unspectacular. Chris Bosh and Jermaine O'Neal make-up probably the most talented frontcourt in the NBA, and Jose Calderon is a point guard who's production sits just below, but still below, that of elite names like Deron Williams and Chris Paul. Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon have proven to be serviceable swingmen who may be afforded less responsibilities now that Jermaine O'Neal has become Toronto's 'other' 20-10 impact player who will attract double teams and lock-down the team's post defense.

So while the team could use a little more talent on the wings in the starting five, they are still poised to compete with pretty much any team in the East at the start of each game.

After that, things start to get a lot less promising.

In order for a team to front-load a roster with guys like Bosh, Calderon and especially O'Neal, financial constraints are going to dictate that the depth of the bench is going to suffer. The theory behind such a situation is that the starters, especially Bosh and O'Neal, will play heavy minutes to keep the pressure on the defense, allowing a less than spectacular bench room for mistakes.

And mistakes are something that the Raptors and their fans are going to have to accept with a reserve unit so short on experience and proven talent. As savvy as GM Bryan Colangelo has proven to be in the past with nabbing quality under the radar talent (Jorge Garbajosa, Parker, Moon), every time he chooses, or is forced, to go that route he rolls the dice that his gamble won't pay off.

In the past this wasn't such an issue as the bench had certain fail-safes built in. The T.J. Ford-Calderon tandem guaranteed a more than capable playmaker on the floor at all times. Rasho Nesterovic gave the team a dependable big man and guys like Carlos Delfino and Morris Peterson afforded the team the ability to have some more experienced vets on the court in amongst the team's younger and imported core.

Today, though, Ford, Nesterovic, Delfino, Peterson and Garbajosa are gone. Their replacements in the rotation carry none of the dependability that their predecessors carried with them, and in the case of some their NBA experience is irrelevant if it exists at all. For a team looking to return to the top-four of a reloaded Eastern Conference it could demand a lot of things to break their way as their inexperienced bench tries to find their NBA legs on the fly with the Raptors.

The whole operation starts with former number one overall pick Andrea Bargnani. His second year went above-and-beyond the definition of dreaded 'sophomore slump' as he saw not only his statistical production dip, including his much-vaunted shooting prowess, but his once-remarkable confidence and swagger, as well. The Raptors still have high hopes for their Italian seven-footer and have laid out a rigid training regimen this summer to try and help him regain the upward trajectory that nabbed him the runner-up slot in the 2007 Rookie of the Year considerations. One big help that could come his way is the presence of O'Neal allowing Bargnani to be a permanent bench player after being yo-yo'ed in and out of the starting five last season. A more appropriate game-plan that makes better use of his unique skills (his passing, shooting and athleticism) rather than trying to turn him into something he's not would be a bad thing to explore, either. If he can even just return to the level of play he had during his rookie year he'd be a huge asset for this team and its underwhelming bench. If he plays with the indecision and inconsistency that plagued his game last year, it will not only put a tremendous strain on Bosh and O'Neal to play heavy minutes every night, but it will leave the Raptors severely limited in its options up front.

That's because without a capable Bargnani, this team is virtually without a useful option down low on the second unit. Kris Humphries remains the ultimate frustration player. If he could ever ease into and accept his role as a hustle player and rebounder rather than insisting that he is an offensive force he could do wonders for this team. Unfortunately he has rarely shown the kind of maturity on the court that would insinuate the he has the selflessness and focus to be a useful player for the team on a full-time basis. He'll follow-up a game or two of extremely productive minutes grabbing rebounds and playing tough defense with a string of games where he forces his shot at the expense of team offense and will routinely see his rebounding and defense dip in those instances. It's as if he's only able to focus on one element of his game at a time and, lamentably, he too often elects to focus on the lesser part of his game.

Despite the question marks surrounding Bargnani and Humphries, they are going to be logging plenty of minutes this season by default. Regardless of whether or not they are capable of or prepared to play serious minutes this season, without Nesterovic or Garbajosa around to ease their load, they are going to be called on often to spell the team's formidable starters. Behind them rests Nathan Jawai, the Australian big man who the Raptors landed with the second-round pick they received in the O'Neal-Ford deal. Like Uros Slokar, Pape Sow, Maceo Baston and Primoz Brezec before him, he's more of an end-of-the-bench practice player who has potential down the road but will likely do little to affect the Raptors' fortunes this coming year.

In opposition to the frontcourt, which is loaded in the starting unit and tapers off significantly thereafter, the backcourt (outside of Calderon) has a lot of interchangeable parts between the first and second units. While Parker and Moon will probably be the tandem that opens the season at the two and three, respectively, Jason Kapono is essentially on the same level as they are talent-wise. All three are fairly consistent and specific in their roles on the team. Moon will likely get the starting nod due to the need for defense at the start and the need for offense off of the bench from Kapono. None will be giant-killers at their positions, but so long as they do what they can do well - and do it consistently - they will be a help to this team. And if Kapono can carry over some of his remarkable scoring (as opposed to just shooting) that he put on display against Orlando in the Playoffs it would allow the team to breath a lot easier as they await salary-cap relief over the next two seasons.

Behind them sit the enigmas that are Joey Graham and...well, baby Joey Graham, Hassan Adams. Neither one even hints at the kind of consistency of the three men in front of them on the depth chart, and while both promise significant athletic prowess and defensive abilities in theory, neither one has given anyone any reason to believe that they can translate those gifts into productive NBA minutes. As physical of a game as basketball is, the mental strength is no less important to a player's fortunes. Graham has no end of talent in his chiseled 6'7" frame, but his concentration routinely fails him and has prevented him from being a regular player on the Toronto Raptors. Adams has had less of a chance to demonstrate his skills in the NBA but until he gets a chance to log meaningful minutes against regular NBA opposition, he'll remain as much of a question mark as Graham. He's smaller (6'4") than Graham, an issue especially when he's called on to guard small forwards. He is more active on the court than Graham but that also leads to gambles that can put his team in jeopardy if he misses and finds himself out of position. His jump shot is atrocious and will be a liability on a team that needs to space the floor for two All-Star big men, and that inability will also limit his ability to get to the rim as teams will have no problem sagging off him and forcing him to shoot.

One or both of them will be forced into action plenty this year alongside Kapono and the nod will probably go to Graham more often due to his size and ability to shoot the ball. Adams could force his way into the rotation with a solid pre-season or by making the most of his minutes like Jamario Moon did a year ago, but for now it looks like Kapono and Graham will be primarily responsible for spelling Parker and Moon this coming season. It's not a deadly swing rotation, but there is a little more parity there than up front.

Of course, the backcourt extends farther than the wing. The point guard position, the position that has been seen a third member join the Raptors, thus completing their summer shopping this week and making the position the team's most Euro-centric. Obviously Calderon has been promoted to full-time starter as a result of the Ford trade - as well as his new $8 million-per-year salary - and 2005 second-round pick Roko Ukic has finally been imported to back him up. Calderon will likely been called upon to average the 35 minutes or so he averaged as a starter last year in Ford's absence, with Ukic being thrust into the fire right out of the gate. As much as the team would love to ease him into the position and the NBA style of play, they really can't afford to take that route. Calderon's efficiency dipped towards the end of last season after a year playing heavy minutes began to catch up with him and without a player like Ford to compensate for that he'll need to have his minutes monitored to ensure that doesn't happen again. That will mean that Ukic will be called upon to help keep Calderon's minutes manageable, especially after Jose spends the bulk of this summer playing basketball for Spain's national entry at the Olympics. While he should have no problem playing starters minutes in the range of 35 per game, he won't be able to replicate the kind of 40-plus minute-per-game he logged when Juan Dixon and Derrick Martin proved equally incapable of holding down the fort while he was on the bench a season ago.

Ukic had a breakout year last year for Lottomatico Roma and looks as poised as he's going to look for a trip overseas. He's a slick ball-handler who has remarkable court-vision and is certainly as good a player as was available at the backup point guard spot. His defense will suffer as a result of the speed he's going to be facing, and he'll be turnover prone at first due to his propensity for attempting 'thread-the-needle' passes. Still, he operates in a positive contrast to Calderon's fundamental approach to the game. He plays with a big more flash and a bit of a riskier approach, but he provides a different look to opposing defenses while still being a pass-first point guard. That said, many of his positives may take time to manifest, perhaps going into his second season. Even Calderon needed over a year of NBA experience before he found his groove in the league, and the same should probably be expected of his new prodigy.

To mitigate that learning curve, somewhat, is Will Solomon. He won't be called on all that much, and it isn't like he's overly experienced in NBA basketball, either, having played only one season for the Memphis Grizzlies as a second round pick. But he's a heady player who may be able to come in in situations where Ukic looks lost on the court. While this is a bit of a narrow comparison, the thinking is that Solomon would be more like a Parker/Garbajosa import; a player with enough basketball experience to offset his lack of NBA exposure. It's a light risk since the eggs are primarily in Ukic's basket and it isn't like there were a bevy of better options available, but the point guard position behind Calderon, while heavy on potential, is light on dependability which could be troubling for a Playoff-bound team.

And that's where the team's bench stands today. It's light on reliable options and deep on potential, but it stands to reason that this team will have a very hard time dealing with an injury to any key player for any length of time at any point this season. While it's possible that one or two of their under-26 players (Graham, Humphries, Ukic, Adams, Jawai and Bargnani) could break out and help this team's second unit immensely, it's not guaranteed - even though it would be a (realistic) best-case scenario. Bryan Colagnelo has had an incredible streak at turning these kinds of scenarios in his favour, but even he might have bitten off more than he can chew with his back against the wall here. Having the opportunity to acquire a player like Jermaine O'Neal without giving up Bosh, Calderon or Bargnani is a must-do deal, but absorbing his $20 million contract forces further considerations elsewhere on the roster.

While the Raptors starting five looks poised to go against any in the East, even with teams like Philly and Indiana upgrading their offerings, Toronto's bench is what is going to make or break this season. If the team can continue it's streak of capitalizing on their excellent scouting department then they should be fine, but if their luck finally runs out it could spell trouble for a very important season with Chris Bosh's free agency ever-looming in the free agent supermarket that is 2010. Should the team be worried? No. Should they try to ensure it doesn't become an issue? Absolutely.




Golfer Taylor Pendrith is the highest ranked player on Canada's men's national team. The recent graduate of Kent State University is 18th on the world amateur rankings. More...

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