What are your expectations for the Raptors this season? What is a realistic goal for this team?
As every Raptors fan knows by now, the expectation for the team this year is to be a force in the East. We all acknowledge that the Lebron-led Cleveland Cavaliers and rejuvenated Chicago Bulls appear destined to duke it out for the 1-2 seeds. But the feeling persists that the Raptors are not far behind. They don't have an MVP-caliber player, and they don't have the attention of the broader international media, but they do have an undeniable chemistry and the strength of continuity. A realistic goal? I'm envisioning a 52-30 season, an Atlantic division title, a run into the playoffs and a tough loss in the second round to the aforementioned Bulls. It's not a championship, but after many years in the NBA wilderness, it'll be fun to believe again that the Raptors can win at a higher level.
This summer Dion Waiters and John Wall argued over who had the best backcourt in the East. They conveniently left the Raptors out of this conversation. Do you think the Lowry-DeRozan backcourt is the best in the East? If so, what makes them more dangerous than Irving/Waiters and Wall/Beal?
I really enjoy the phrasing of this question. The Raptors seem to always be "conveniently" left out of the conversation. It's been literally encoded into the branding of the team; the whole #WeTheNorth campaign is a direct response to Toronto's outsider status. Anyway, ceiling-wise, the Wall/Beal combo is probably the best backcourt. Wall is capable of some truly jaw-dropping moves on both ends of the court, and Beal looks ready to shoot the lights out. They're still young and only getting better. Irving/Waiters is definitely the lesser backcourt. As many have noted, Irving is a dynamite offensive player with no defensive prowess; does he have the will to get there? As for Waiters, he ultimately projects to be a super sixth man; will he ever accept that role, particularly on this Cavs team? I put Lowry/DeRozan in between the two pairs. Lowry is extremely capable and hardworking, he's a steady hand to lead the team. He's also the oldest guy we're talking about here, so that's working against him slightly. As for DeRozan, I'd definitely want his multi-faceted game over that of the gunning Waiters, and right now he is better than Beal, but I'm not sure it will stay that way forever.
The Hawks traded Lucas Nogueira, affectionately known as Bebe, to the Raptors this summer. Some fans and bloggers thought he would be a useful piece for Atlanta down the road. What has Toronto's experience with Bebe been like? When and how do you expect him to contribute down the road, if at all?
Let me just say that Raptors fans are ready to embrace Bebe as a folk hero. Some context: Toronto is known (particularly in the hockey world, obviously) as being very welcoming to diligent players who are willing to grind out plays. Bebe fits that mold. His preseason debut against the visiting Israeli team Maccabi Haifa really told the story. The Raptors gave up a huge lead and were down by five until a lineup featuring Bebe gradually turned the tide. His eight points were appreciated, but it was his effort – flying everywhere around the court, getting a hand up to try and block every shot – that was noticed. I don't expect him to play much during the season (not with Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Patrick Patterson, and even Tyler Hansbrough in front of him), but he could definitely grow into a rangy rebounding and shot blocking machine down the road. And really, that kind of player will always be valuable.
From the perspective of a Raptors writer, what are your thoughts on the Hawks this season? Do you think they're a dangerous team in the East or do you see them as inconsequential conference filler?
The Atlanta Hawks of the last decade always seem to be just hanging around. They've had (and still have) talented players, they've mixed it up in the playoffs recently, but they never seem able to make it over the competitive hump. As a Raptors fan, I can commiserate. On the bright side right now for the Hawks, they have that nifty core of Millsap-Horford-Teague-Korver, and Mike Budenholzer is a really good coach. So, as has been the case the last couple years, they'll be punchy and ready to compete. On the down side, that core (to say nothing of their bench; I see you Elton Brand) doesn't have enough firepower to push them higher up the threat chart. They're a sixth seed at best. It's also a touch disappointing that the intense attention paid to the franchise lately came because of the Danny Ferry management controversy of the off-season. At least Hawks fans can be proud of their team as it eventually snakes into the playoffs again and goes down fighting. This version of the team definitely has more spirit than those Joe Johnson-Josh Smith rosters, right?