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Chisholm: Looking at Raptors' changes in the paint

Tim Chisholm
9/7/2012 1:40:48 PM
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If the Toronto Raptors are going to have any major success this season, it is going to be on the back of their bigs, the last position we're looking at in our year-over-year review of the Raptors' offseason moves.

Which Andrea Bargnani will show up this year? How will Jonas Valanciunas fare in his first NBA season? Will Ed Davis finally show some signs of growth as a player?

The Raptors frontcourt is overloaded and will probably be pared down through a trade or two at some point this season, but for now, here is a look at how the big men stack up against last year's roster. 

STARTING POWER FORWARD

Last Season: Andrea Bargnani
This Season: Andrea Bargnani

In his first 13 games last season, Andrea Bargnani was a beast. He scored 23.5 ppg, he was virtually unguardable as he posted nights with 30, 31 and 36 points, he meshed immediately with Dwane Casey and bought into his defensive schemes, which transformed the impact he was able to have in games. More importantly, though, for the first time, he looked like a guy that the Raptors could use to anchor their club as they looked to rebound in the post-Bosh era.

Of course, 13 games is not a great sample size from which to work from in the NBA. After a calf strain had him in and out of the lineup after those first 13 games, he looked like a much more familiar player in the games that he managed to play in. In the 18 remaining games, he scored just 16.1 ppg, shot .403 from the floor and didn't have nearly the same focus or intensity at the defensive end of the floor.

Everyone within the organization was quick to attribute his struggles to his calf strain, and that's fair and probably accurate, but his regression was certainly worrisome for a fan base that had hoped that after five ho-hum years, their former number one overall pick had finally turned a corner. Now they have no idea what player they'll be seeing when the season kicks off in November.

Like the situation facing DeMar DeRozan, this roster is better suited to maximizing Bargnani's strengths and mitigating his weaknesses than ever before. However, those roster-shaping efforts will have been in vain if Bargnani cannot justify them with his play this season. While there has been a ton of turnaround on the roster, there is still no player as integral to Toronto's success as Bargnani will be this fall.

Verdict: NEUTRAL

STARTING CENTER

Last season: Aaron Gray and Amir Johnson
This Season: Aaron Gray and Amir Johnson

This spot is obviously just a placeholder until Jonas Valanciunas is ready to slide into the starting five, but for now (probably this entire season), Gray and Johnson will split the duties depending on matchups and injuries.

Gray is a stellar rebounder, fifth in the NBA last season in rebound rate, and he's the team's only legit seven-footer that is physically equipped to guard against the biggest pivot-men in the NBA. Gray started 40 of 66 games for the Raptors last year (he probably would have started even more had he not missed the start of the season with a rapid heart rate) and he'll likely be the default choice for the Raptors until Valanciunas gets comfortable on an NBA court.

It's worth remembering, of course, that Johnson also started 43 games last year, mostly at power forward as a result of Bargnani's injury problems keeping him out of regular action. General manager Bryan Colangelo has been boastful in the past about how the club's analytics favor a Bargnani/Johnson frontcourt, so one shouldn't rule out Johnson getting a chance to usurp a more permanent role in the starting five from Gray - it's just up to him to earn it with his play.

While Johnson can't match Gray's bulk, he is a more mobile forward and the club has been encouraging him to work on his jumper in an attempt to expand his offensive game. If he can prove himself a more capable back-line defender than he has been in the past while also making himself a more consistent pick-and-pop option, then whatever his role is, he should not have to worry about minutes in Toronto's rotation.

Verdict: NEUTRAL

BACKUP POWER FORWARD

Last Season: Amir Johnson and Ed Davis
This Season: Amir Johnson and Ed Davis

It's hard to see how Davis fits into this roster this season. Saying he's the backup forward is technically true, but if Gray starts the percentage of games he's expected to, then Johnson is far more likely to play primary backup minutes to Andrea Bargnani because he's simply ready to bring more to the table than Davis is after two NBA seasons.

Now, Davis has gotten kind of a raw deal in his career so far. An injury kept him out of training camp in his rookie season and he was allowed no contact with the team last summer because of the lockout. To say his development has been stifled to this point would be underselling his career disadvantages to date. However, The NBA is an unforgiving league. The Raptors want to start piling up wins this season, and right now there are other guys on the roster better equipped to help in that cause than Davis is.

After two years, all you can really guarantee Davis will give you is rebounds. That's useful, but the Raptors have Jonas Valanciunas and Linas Kleiza on the bench, too, and they're both pretty strong rebounders in their own right.

Davis needs a much more well-rounded offensive game, a better ability to read defensive situations and a body that can actually hold its position at both ends in the post if he wants to hold off Johnson, Valanciunas and Kleiza for minutes in the frontcourt this season. Maybe the Raptors force-feed him minutes, but he'd have to make a quantum leap in his development for the club to actually justify making such a move.

Verdict: NEUTRAL (with downward potential if an undeveloped Davis is force-fed minutes)

BACKUP CENTER

Last Season: Jamaal Magloire
This Season: Jonas Valanciunas

Yes, we all know that Valanciunas struggled in the Olympics. For those of you who have only seen him over those six games in London, you are probably suitably prepared for a guy that has tremendous potential but is still very raw in basketball terms. For those who've followed Valanciunas a little longer, who know that the Olympics represent probably the worst he's looked in years (remember, at last year's EuroBasket he fared well against many of the same competitors), the Games were probably a much-needed reality check as to how raw a player Valanciunas still is, even though he seems to defy his age at times when he plays outside of Olympic competition.

Either way, Valanciunas is a massive upgrade over Magloire, he of the 2.7 PER, as the team's backup center this year. He averaged 14.2 ppg and 7.4 rpg last year with Lietuvos Rytas in 23.5 minutes per game last season. He also shot .682 from the floor and .825 from the free throw line. He's a very strong rebounder, a solid shot blocker (1.9 per game last year) and he's already a very capable option rolling to the basket in pick-and-roll scenarios. He won't be brought in situationally like Magloire was either, he'll be a regular rotation player that the team hopes will be able to inherit the starting spot by this time next year. Considering he's replacing a guy that had one toe in retirement last season, that's a pretty unqualified upgrade.

That said, this will be an up-and-down ride for Valanciunas. Fans have expectations for him that he may not be able to meet, and the skill and size he is going to face on a nightly basis will prove to be discouraging at times. The nice thing about Valanciunas, though, is that he only knows how to play one way - hard - and so long as his mistakes come from trying too hard out on the court while he's getting his NBA feet under him, he'll win over the fans in due time.

Verdict: UPGRADE

THIRD-STRING BIG MAN

Last Season: Solomon Alabi
This Season: Quincy Acy

It wouldn't take much for even the most middle-of-the-road player to out-duel Alabi, and on paper, it looks as though Acy would have him licked. The problem here is that Acy offers a lot of duplication at a position where the Raptors have the most depth - power forward - whereas Alabi offered the team not only another centre but their tallest player at 7-foot-1 (Acy is generously listed at 6-8).

Of course, Alabi had so little tangible NBA skill that Acy has him handily beat as a player, but it's hard to see how anything but a string of injuries gets him off the inactive list, let alone onto the court. He may be a workhorse in the Reggie Evans mold, but so long as Andrea Bargnani, Amir Johnson, Linas Kleiza and Ed Davis are in front of him, he'll be earning most of his salary on the practice court rather that in real games.




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