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The Sixth Man: Raptors finally focusing on a future

The Toronto Raptors have really only had two signature players since entering the NBA in 1995, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh.

Economic realities and exchange rates have always put the Dinos behind the 8- ball when it comes to luring and perhaps more importantly keeping players north of the border. And since both Carter and Bosh seemingly started plotting their exit from Toronto days after arriving, the Raptors have always been labeled as one of the NBA's "have-nots," whether they were playing well or not.

These days, the United States economy has been in the tank for over four years and the playing field has at least leveled a bit when it comes to the money side of the game, but the Raptors are still stuck in the post-Bosh rebuilding mode.

You can almost consider this a fact-finding year in Toronto as Dwane Casey, Rick Carlisle's former lead assistant in Dallas, was brought in to help mold the team around former No. 1 overall pick, Andrea Bargnani, as well as athletic swingman DeMar DeRozan.

Transitioning the gifted Bargnani out of the pivot to power forward full-time was of paramount importance for Casey as was focusing on defense, historically a big trouble spot for the Raptors.

Results have been sketchy and heavily hampered by Bargnani's strained left calf that cost the 7-footer 26 games in what was already a truncated 66- contest campaign

Casey projected the Italian product as a star if Toronto let 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 since his shaky defense and mediocre rebounding skills would often offset any scoring acumen.

In Casey's mind, Bargnani, despite his height, was just not a fit in the middle and was tailor-made for a Dirk Nowitzki-type roll. And while that's a lofty comparison, understand Bargnani was coming off a 2010-11 season in which he averaged 21.4 points per game.

"He's one of the best shooters in the world and we want to make sure we utilize that," Casey said earlier this season. "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."

DeRozan is the one other player on this roster who could turn into a long-term building block. The USC product is wildly athletic and has the length to be a difference maker at both ends if he develops more consistency on defense along with a mid-range jumper and the ability to stay away from the bad shots that plague so many young players.

In fact, Casey is so enamored with DeRozan's skill set that he thinks the youngster could be one of the few real crunch-time scorers in the NBA.

Toronto still hasn't recovered from losing Bosh but is showing signs since getting Bargnani back, the latest of which was destroying the Sixers in Philadelphia, 99-78, on Wednesday.

Casey took advantage of a few size mismatches when Doug Collins went small, using Bargnani to torture Thaddeus Young and DeRozan to do the same to Jodie Meeks, while Ed Davis handled the dirty work on the boards.

Bargnani and DeRozan combined for 42 points while Davis had 14 rebounds in just over 25 minutes of action. Still, Casey was most impressed by his defense, which allowed just seven points in the fourth quarter and 22 total after intermission.

The Sixers missed 13 straight shots at one point in the final quarter and the seven total points were the fewest they've scored in any quarter in Wells Fargo Center history as well as the least in the shot clock era, dating back to 1954-55.

"It was just an excellent team effort," Casey said. "Guys stayed together. We had every excuse in the world coming in on a back-to-back. This team beat us by 30 last time, a motivating factor, but again we have got to build consistency."

The Raptors still will have to spend another year looking in at the postseason picture, but the worm may have finally turned.

Bargnani, who is locked up through 2014-15, is settling in and averaging 25 points over his past five games. Meanwhile, when he starts with DeRozan, center Aaron Gray, point guard Jose Calderon and either James Johnson or Alan Anderson at small forward, the Raptors are a solid 6-2.

That may be small sample size but it's also a start, and unlike Carter or Bosh, DeRozan for one wants to stick around to see the finish.

"Things will definitely be fun because it's a chance to give the city something that they want and something that I want - that's making the playoffs," DeRozan said. "We're definitely going to make a run next year."