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Chisholm: Season review of the Raptors' frontcourt

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Tim Chisholm
4/25/2012 10:24:19 AM
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In what has become an annual tradition we take a look at five season-ending areas of interest (The Backcourt, The Frontcourt, The Coach, The GM and The Draft) with regards to the Toronto Raptors as they close out their lockout-shortened campaign. With the club looking to ease back into the Playoff picture next season, how this team is reshaped this summer will see a radical shift away from youth acquisition and towards luring veterans to Toronto. For now, though, let's look at who the team already has and how they factor into the club's not-so-distant future.

THE FRONTCOURT

Here's what we know about Toronto's frontcourt after the abbreviated 2011-12 season: Andrea Bargnani has somewhat redeemed himself and is a lock to return; everything else is up for grabs.

Bargnani's first thirteen games of the season have become the stuff of legend in Toronto given his stellar stats (23.5 ppg, .476 shooting) and unprecedented effort on defence. However, after Bargnani returned from a crippling calf strain he only managed 16.1 ppg on .403 shooting – an 18-game stretch the organization is hoping was injury-related and fans will forget as soon as possible. The real Bargnani probably lies somewhere in the middle.

At this point we know Bargnani is better than a 16.1 ppg scorer and a .403 shooter. What we don't know is how much better. We also don't know if Bargnani's stunning defensive commitment from the start of the year can be counted on for a full 82-game season. Dwane Casey made mention of Bargnani's repeated defensive lapses after he returned from injury and while everyone seems to want to wallpaper over those gaffes, they are more representative of Bargnani's career to date than his early season exploits. It's also worth noting that his three-point shooting has been on decline for the last four years and dropped to below 30% for the first time ever this season. All of this leaves us unsure about which version of Bargnani will show up in Toronto next season, even if people seem more optimistic for positive returns than they have been in recent years.

In fairness, Bargnani and Casey really connected at the start of this season. There is reason to believe that with a full summer and training camp Casey can get Bargnani to recommit to doing the things he did to kick off the season. Does that mean he'll replicate those efforts? Not necessarily, but for the first time in a long time, people want to believe there is more to Bargnani than they thought before. So for one off-season let's reserve judgement. Let's allow him to show everyone what he is when next season tips off.

After Bargnani there are nothing but positional battles to sort through. The first is who gets to act as Bargnani's backup: Amir Johnson or Ed Davis. Coming into this season, most thought this was Davis' job to lose. Unfortunately for him, he appears to have lost it. His lack of physical development combined with inconsistent play at both ends left the door wide open for a workhorse like Johnson to swoop in and steal his role.

The Raptors have a lot of player development still to work through next season with rotation players like DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and this year's incoming rookies. One wonders if the appeal of the know-what-you're-getting Johnson is going to push Davis out of the rotation or even right out of town. It's not a knock on Davis to say the Raptors may simply not have the minutes available to develop him in their crowded frontcourt. It's just a reality for a player who needs more playing time to develop.

After those two comes the positional battle for backup small forward. Neither Linas Kleiza nor James Johnson proved they were a viable option as a starter going forward, which makes the starting spot a priority this summer for Bryan Colangelo. However, both have made a case to operate at the position in reserve. Who wins the spot will depend as much on how the roster is shaped around them as it does on their respective outputs.

Kleiza is a strong offensive option who can hit threes and rebound better than people think (he has the same rebounding percentage as James Johnson). Johnson offers more at the defensive end and when he's plugged-in he gets the disruptive defensive stats like steals and blocks. It's worth remembering that Kleiza will report to camp having played alongside incoming backup center Valanciunas with the Lithuanian national team. While that won't guarantee him minutes, for a team looking to ease Valanciunas' transition to the league, it isn't irrelevant either.
 
Also, because of the team's forward depth, all four of these players have to be considered candidates for a trade if Colangelo can use them to make a deal work. While they all have their virtues, none of the four have made themselves essential to the team. In fact, faced with the option of parking any of them at the end of the bench or moving them along for alternate assets, you have to figure a trade would be the more desirable option.

Leaving the forwards behind, the most intriguing position heading into next season has to be at centre and the arrival of the much-hyped Valanciunas. While the team would be wise to retain free agent Aaron Gray to man the starting spot (seriously, he has the fifth-best rebound rate in the entire NBA), Valanciunas will see plenty of time next year as the club looks to toss him into the deep end to get him as NBA-ready as possible after losing an entire year of NBA development playing out his last season in Lithuania.

He'll spend most of next year physically overmatched and, in all likelihood, fouling out of games. Big men have a steeper learning curve to maneuver so fans will have to be patient waiting for the center of the future to get his sea legs at the NBA level.

That said, trotting out Bargnani, Gray, Johnson and Valanciunas as post rotation could definitely be considered a playoff-calibre assemblage in the Eastern conference. While the backcourt is still a bit of a mess, Colangelo has done a good job rounding out his rotation up front thus far. It'll be interesting to see how he chooses to tackle a small forward spot that needs more attention than any other position on the roster. Next we'll be taking a look at Dwane Casey and assessing his performance after one year on the job as Toronto's sideline general.

Coming up on Wednesday: The Coach

Andrea Bargnani (Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)
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