Those three letters basically define the season for this team. No matter how Bargnani does as the team's offensive catalyst, no matter how adept DeMar DeRozan proves to be as a wing scorer and no matter what Ed David does in his rookie year, TPE will hang over all of it, ready to enhance or invalidate at a moment's notice.
TPE, in this case, stands for Traded Player Exception. It's a $14.5-million poker chip that the Raptors acquired from Miami in their sign-and-trade deal with Chris Bosh and the club has one year from the date of acquisition to make use of it. What it allows this team to do is acquire salaries from other teams up to the face value of the exception without sending any players or salaries back to match. At $14.5-million, there are only twenty NBA salaries that cannot be wholly absorbed by the team because of their size; otherwise any NBA player could simply be taken on without a single complimentary sacrifice having to be made. That is a huge negotiating asset in a league where owners are always looking for ways to tighten their belts and GM's are always looking for ways to erase that last onerous contract.
As the season wears on, and teams are forced to acknowledge that they simply aren't as good as they thought they were, high caliber players will hit the market and the Raptors will be armed with one of the most enticing returns in a pool of buyers – nothing. Nothing in that a team can simply send out a player and reap the financial benefit of losing that particular contract. Utah and Minnesota already made use of a large TPE this summer when they sent Al Jefferson, a borderline All-Star, to Utah so he could replace Carlos Boozer. Utah gets a 20-10 power forward to replace their outgoing 20-10 power forward, and Minnesota gets to shed $13-million from the books this season (and $32-million over the course of the remaining three years of his deal). The move kept Utah in the hunt in the Western Conference and the Raptors have the power to make a nearly identical move at any point this season (prior to the trade deadline, of course).
That is why it's been fascinating to watch pundits predict the future for the Raptors and Cavaliers this summer (the Cavs have an identical TPE after signing-and-trading LeBron James to Miami) because so many are content to write them off for this season and the foreseeable future. Now, neither team looks poised to do much of anything this season as currently built, that most can agree on, but the transformative power of such a large TPE is being so thoroughly ignored that it defies logic – especially when so many are praising the Jazz for what they got after using theirs this summer. The idea isn't that a TPE will always net an All-Star, a team may not even want to use it all or may want to break it up to acquire multiple pieces, but the power to assess one's roster and then augment it freely as necessary is a very powerful ability to have and shouldn't be written off (or forgotten about) as quickly as some have opted to do this summer. The Raptors will start the season off as a piecemeal team without the defense or rebounding to be a real running team, without a big man to protect their vulnerable perimeter defense and without a guard who can create offense for himself and others. They also start the season with the knowledge at any time one of those areas (or any other area of want) could be addressed in a significant way, possibly transforming the club in an afternoon. So, sure, let's say that the Raptors (and Cavs) are poor teams today, with a lot of B- and C-level players hardly equipped to win night after night at the NBA level, but let's also say that both are uniquely positioned remake their team on the fly without having to sacrifice meaning players to do so.
Today, they're not good, but predicting tomorrow is a fool's game, plain and simple.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG – JOSE CALDERON
As long as Calderon is on the team, it's a tossup as to whether or not he or Jarrett Jack will be starting for the club. I wrote extensively last year on how Jack was better suited to start for last year's club, as the team was awful at the start and end of the season with Calderon in the starting five, but head coach Jay Triano has a soft spot for what Calderon brings to starting offense. Plus, without Bosh to simply dump the ball down to on every other possession, Calderon's superior passing may actually be needed more than Jack's ability to fight through screens or recover on rotations (yes, kids, defense is about more than just initial breakdowns). However, rumors of Calderon's imminent departure dogged him all summer, and there is no reason to assume that will stop just because training camp is on the horizon. So even if the thought of him starting sends you screaming down the street, remember that his employment on this team seems like a temporary proposition, anyway.
SG – DEMAR DEROZAN
This year, the training wheels come off. Last year, DeRozan was eased into the NBA at the start of the first and third quarters, acting as the fifth option on the floor at all times and was mostly ignored outside of the odd highlight reel dunk. This year, however, the club is going to rely on DeRozan to be their primary wing scorer, asking him to use his steady mid-range jumper and explosive athleticism to double his scoring output of 8.6 points-per-game from a year ago. He's going to be asked to take control of the ball and beat people off of the dribble. He's going to be asked to use his length and quickness to stymie opposing players defensively. He's going to be asked to sprint up and down the court in a pseudo-fastbreak attack mean to, chiefly, highlight his primary skills as a basketball player. He got a free pass in his first year in the pros, now he's going to be expected to play like a top-ten pick.
SF – LINAS KLEIZA
Despite signing Kleiza, the vastly improved forward who spent last year honing his play with Olympiakos in Greece, the Raptors spent most of the summer trying to prevent him from starting. They nearly completed a trade that would have netted them Boris Diaw from Charlotte (the Bobcats famously pulled-out of that trade at the last minute) and then they attempted to sign Matt Barnes to a free agent contract with money that they didn't actually have to spend. The reason is that, as much as Kleiza has improved, especially in the post, his game is very reminiscent of Bargnani's, in that there is little defensive interest, there is no interest in boxing-out and both alternate between standing behind the three-point arc and the post. In an ideal world the Raptors would have a more defensively oriented option here, and Sonny Weems may yet steal the spot in training camp, the time invested in getting Kleiza here (the Raptors made a hard push to sign him last summer, too) and his exemplary play in the World Championships for Lithuania, he'll probably own this spot until a decidedly superior option walks through the door.
PF – ANDREA BARGNANI
For the first time in his NBA career, Bargnani gets to play his natural position. If he doesn't learn to rebound, box-out and rotate on defense, however, Ed Davis is going to work to push Bargnani right out of town. As talented as Bargnani is as a scorer, he's never really been fully embraced by the fan base, he's routinely derided in the media for his laughable rebounding numbers and now that the Raptors have so much depth at this position, Bargnani is assured of nothing as it pertains to the future of the Raptors. If this team wants to run, they need Bargnani to defend and rebound because he's going to be playing so many minutes in the team's frontcourt. If he cannot do that, if he has reached a ceiling in terms of his development, then his long-term future with the club will be in real jeopardy. If he can turn that corner, however, and elevate his game to the level of a reliable first option, then that would make this team a whole lot more interesting very quickly this season.
C – AMIR JOHNSON
Armed with one of the most erroneously reported contracts of the summer ($30-million with a partially guaranteed fifth year, not $34- or $36-million guaranteed over five years), Johnson is going to be given another shot as a role playing big in a starting five. Two years ago he started the season in Detroit alongside Rasheed Wallace, a per-minute wonder finally being given his chance to shine. His 5-5 averages as a starter, though, quickly torpedoed that experiment and hastened his departure from Detroit. The Raptors are high on him as a frontcourt partner with Bargnani, however, and his 17.8-and-6 averages in five starts last year offer a (very small) sample as to why. However, Johnson has never proved himself as a nightly starter and the club's efforts to land a more traditional centre will continue in an attempt to fortify the frontcourt to best help Bargnani succeed, regardless of how much the team professes to love the Johnson/Bargnani tandem.