The Last WordRaptors fans fed up with the lack of direction and lack of enthusiasm coming from the head coach need no longer worry. Kevin O'Neill is no Lenny Wilkens.
By KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun
Kevin O'Neill was out of his chair at the sound of the whistle, ready to dispute the call.
At the far end of the court, Vince Carter was looking askance at the official who had fingered him for a foul but O'Neill was already stating his case loudly from long range.
A fan seated just behind press row at courtside during Tuesday's Toronto Raptors pre-season game couldn't believe his eyes or his ears.
"Was that a Raptors coach I just saw showing some emotion?" said the fan, voice dripping with sarcasm at the contrast between O'Neill and the man he replaced, Lenny Wilkens.
Yes folks, this is not the same old Raptors coach and this will not be the same old Raptors act.
Where O'Neill can take this bunch remains to be seen. He has some veteran leadership to go with one prized rookie and a cast of new characters of uncertain pedigree. And, oh yeah, he also has Carter, by his own account healthy for the first time in at least two years.
What all that adds up to is anybody's guess but it's time, at least, to give the fans in Toronto their money's worth after serving up nothing but misery the past couple of seasons.
Wilkens became the lightning rod for the carnage but it's unlikely that Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson or any coach you can name could have survived the succession of injuries that befell most of the Raptors' key players.
That said, Wilkens was the wrong man in the wrong place, to be sure. His coaching style is no longer suited to an NBA where success is mined in the overtime spent pouring over game film, working with the young players, designing plays to combat specific opponents and generally getting the most out of the entire roster.
O'Neill couldn't be more different, both in demeanour and attitude. He's a 16-hour-a-day bundle of energy with a reputation for wearing his emotions on his sleeve and for knowing more about his opponent than the opponent does.
That in itself will be a welcome sight for Toronto's remarkably persistent fans. In a town not steeped in basketball tradition, Raptors fans have become some of the most vocal and loyal in the entire league, in spite of the team's meagre recent output. The atmosphere at the ACC has remained as intense and electric through the doldrums as it was three seasons ago.
Visiting players and coaches all know that when they come to Toronto, the energy level in the arena will be as high as it is anywhere in the league. But without something legitimate to cheer for, how much longer can the team expect these people to stay interested?
If, somehow, the Raps can kick the injury bug that has plagued them the past two years, they may just be competitive this season. It is not a good sign that starting point guard Alvin Williams is ailing but this guy always gets a purple heart for playing in pain.
Milt Palacio will be the first guard off the bench and he will give the team a different look when he's on the floor. He's a high-energy player who can alter the tempo of a game.
The past two seasons have been a revelation to Carter, who was knocked off a pedestal with some force. In addition to the knee injuries, he has been a target for anyone who wanted to take shots at the team.
"I think Vince is one guy who needs to have a big year," O'Neill said. "He's a guy who wants our team to have a big year. They are going to go hand in hand. The guy is about winning first, which is really important."
Nine-year vet Michael Curry is acknowledged as one of the NBA's great leaders in the locker room and will be a valuable addition.
If Antonio Davis is motivated -- and he's too much a professional not to be -- then he will be a steadying influence. A healthy Lamond Murray will give Toronto a much-needed second scoring option behind Carter.
Chris Bosh will get a chance to prove he belongs in the rotation very quickly. It may be a tough assignment for a 19-year-old but, by all accounts, he has what it takes to become a superstar.
Accountability, a concept missing in recent Raptors teams, is near and dear to O'Neill's heart and any players unaware of that fact will learn quickly.
When it's crunch time and O'Neill calls a timeout to diagram a play, he will expect to see a reasonable facsimile of his directions play out on the floor. If not, he'll be in somebody's face. Could be fun.
Did I mention that these are not the Lenny Wilkens Raptors anymore?