Raptors should be a better team

BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:15 AM ET

The general manager of the Toronto Raptors speaks:

"We believe we've taken the necessary steps to get our franchise back on track."

The coach of the Toronto Raptors speaks:

"We need to focus on the future. The players, like myself, are ready to play, no matter who it's against."

Confident words. Just one problem, though.

Those comments did not come from the mouths of new GM Rob Babcock or new coach Sam Mitchell, whose Raptors will open their 10th NBA regular season tonight against the Houston Rockets at the Air Canada Centre.

Rather, those were the words of former general manager Glen Grunwald and former coach Kevin O'Neill, spoken just prior to last season. The Raptors went on to dazzle the NBA by snow-shoeing their way to 33 wins, and both Grunwald and O'Neill were fired, in that order.

CYNICAL

And you wonder why everyone is so damn cynical?

Babcock and Mitchell must look at each other sometimes and ask themselves why they keep getting asked questions about all the baggage this franchise is carrying. It's as if they ran into some trouble at security when trying to check in for a flight on Raptors Airlines.

Mr. Babcock, did you pack those bags yourself?

"No."

Mr. Mitchell, have those bags been out of your possession for any length of time?

"Nine years."

Babcock and Mitchell might then make the unusual request that their bags be lost on purpose. But like it or not, they now own the matching luggage. It came with their job titles.

Nonetheless, there are a few reasons to feel a little better about the Raptors this season:

- First of all, even when the Raptors lose, which could be often, at least they'll score some points. And this is a sport, right? With actual athletes? They're supposed to run and sweat, aren't they?

Coaches always will say that a loss is a loss, but when you're in the entertainment business, that's just not true. Simply put, fans rather would see their teams lose 110-100 than 70-60, and the Raptors had their share of the latter under O'Neill. Mitchell, thankfully, prefers a more up-tempo style.

- Second of all, the Raptors have a real gem in 6-foot-10 forward/centre Chris Bosh, who is embarking upon his sophomore campaign.

Marquee player Vince Carter made a public trade request before training camp and that could bubble up again, especially if the Raptors can't overcome their tough early schedule and get off to a poor start. But even if the Carter situation turns messy, at least Raptors observers can revel unreservedly in watching the dedicated Bosh develop.

"Aaaah, I'm not scared of Yao (Ming)," Bosh said yesterday, displaying an air of confidence, but not cockiness, when asked about the 7-foot-5 centre the Raptors will face tonight. "He's just a guy you have to work hard against."

Luckily for the Raptors, that is Bosh's attitude toward just about everything.

- Third of all, despite the acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal by the Miami Heat, the top-heavy Eastern Conference actually got weaker overall.

That's because the New Orleans Hornets, who were regular if unspectacular playoff participants in the East, got shifted to the West. Taking their place in the East is the expansion Charlotte Bobcats, which presumably means there's one less playoff contender for the Raptors to worry about.

The Raptors went a miserable 33-49 last season, missing the playoffs by three games. We're predicting some mild improvement: Say, a 36-46 record, which will be enough to earn them the eighth seed in the post-season.

That won't make nine years of baggage disappear. But for Babcock and Mitchell, the trip has to start somewhere.


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