Consider this a fact-finding year North of the Border as Dwane Casey, Rick Carlisle's lead assistant in Dallas, takes over quite a rebuilding project with the Toronto Raptors.
Casey plans to focus on defense, historically a big trouble spot for the Raptors, along with transition basketball, while utilizing the skills of some of his more athletic players like DeMar DeRozan and the newly-signed Gary Forbes.
Transitioning the gifted Andrea Bargnani out of the pivot to power forward full-time is also of paramount importance for a team trying to get its head above water again after a dismal 22-win campaign.
2010-11 Results: 22-60, fifth in Atlantic; Missed playoffs
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
FRONTCOURT: Jamaal Magloire, a 6-foot-11, 265-pound mountain, will hold down the center spot along with another free agent signee, Aaron Gray, as well as Amir Johnson. Magloire, a former All-Star, hasn't played consistent minutes since 2006-07 so expecting him to log anything more than 20 minutes or so a night is probably folly. That said, Magloire is a smart player that can use his body to dissuade people on the defensive end and set the occasional teeth- chattering pick for the Raptors' wings.
Bargnani, a former No. 1 overall pick projects as a consistent star if the team lets him focus strictly on the power forward slot. He has always shown flashes of brilliance but has been unable to get it done on a consistent basis largely because of his defense. Bargnani just can't handle the pivot so it was smart for Casey to move him over and let him play more of a Dirk Nowitzki-type game. That's a tall comparison but understand Bargnani notched career highs in points (21.4) and minutes (35.7) per game last season.
"He's one of the best shooters in the world and we want to make sure we utilize that," Casey said of Bargnani. "I know a lot of people don't like that (Nowitzki) comparison, but I know how those sets turn out and how they work. We'll have a lot of sets for him. Inside-outside, because he has that great skill-set."
James Johnson, a former No. 1 pick of the Bulls that was acquired last February is penciled it at small forward. A skilled athlete, Johnson averaged 9.2 points and 4.7 rebounds in 25 games with Toronto last year and should show marked improvement this time around at he settles in.
BACKCOURT: Jose Calderon is a great floor general with the ability to get the ball to people in the right spots but really gets exposed at the defensive end. On the other hand, Jerryd Bayless offers more of a defensive mindset and get things moving on the break but will have trouble in a half-court set and needs to show more composure. Either player could get the starting gig with the more natural leader, Calderon, getting the first shot in camp.
DeRozan is the one guy besides Bargnani on this roster that could turn into a full-fledged star. The USC product is wildly athletic and was the only Raptor to appear and start in all 82 games last season, his sophomore campaign. DeRozan increased his scoring average from 8.6 to 17.2 last year. Developing a consistent mid-range jumper and staying away from bad shots could be the keys to the next step for him.
BENCH: The bench may end up being Toronto's strength with a number of solid options including Leandro Barbosa, Johnson, Linas Kleiza, Forbes and the loser in the Calderon-Bayless battle.
Barbosa, who has been struggling with a balky back, remains one of the best sixth men in the league and is a perfect fit for the up-tempo style of play Casey wants to implement. "The Brazilian Blur" is one of the fastest players in the NBA, offers solid perimeter defense and excels in the transition game.
The Raptors gave Johnson a big deal a year ago and he responded by averaging career highs in points (9.6), rebounds (6.4), minutes (25.7) and starts (54). Johnson will be asked for minutes at both the four and five and expected to be top-tier rebounder and a solid defensive presence. Meanwhile, the big-bodied Gray and second-year forward Ed Davis will also be expected to get in the mix up front.
The Lithuanian Kleiza returned to the NBA a year ago and was playing well until arthroscopic surgery on his right knee prematurely ended his season. An excellent three-point shooter, Kleiza will be expected to help space the floor in order to create lanes for the Raptors' other wing players. He's also an underrated post player.
Forbes was signed away from Denver as a restricted free agent and will be asked to be the team's lockdown defender on the perimeter. He brings the type of shot-changing physical play that will help Casey set the tone he wants.
Veteran Anthony Carter, a dogged defender is also around but has a partial ligament tear in his shoulder and will likely miss a few games.
"If it's not a matter of days it's not going to be a mater of weeks," team president and general manager Bryan Colangelo said when asked how long Carter would be on the shelf.
COACHING: Casey, who served as an assistant in Dallas from 2008-09 through last year's championship season and has head coaching experience with Minnesota, is all about defense and transition basketball. He's got some pieces here but will probably take the year to evaluate some of his younger talent and figure out who he will hitch his wagon to for the future.
OUTLOOK: Toronto still hasn't recovered from losing Chris Bosh and will spend another year looking in at the postseason picture. The team flaunts impressive perimeter shooting ability but remains extremely soft defensively. Moving Bargnani to power forward on a full-time basis was an astute move by Casey and DeRozan should take another step forward as a player this season. That said, it's likely the Dinos will be battling the New Jersey Nets again at the bottom of the Atlantic Division.