Defence key for Raps

Toronto Raptors GM Rob Babcock talks to the media on June 24, 2004. (SUN/David Lucas)

Toronto Raptors GM Rob Babcock talks to the media on June 24, 2004. (SUN/David Lucas)

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:34 AM ET

It's kind of sad. Everyone and their brother seems to be picking the Raptors to finish at the bottom of the NBA Atlantic Division.

ESPN NBA writer Marc Stein figures the Raptors will be the worst team in the league this season, ranking them 30th overall, behind the sad-sack New Orleans Hornets, a team that won't even be able to play at home this season.

How's that for a kick in the teeth?

General manager Rob Babcock was being honest when he told the Toronto Sun last month that the team would be hard-pressed to win as many games as last year (33). That's a reasonable assessment given that the team's best scorer off the bench, forward Donyell Marshall, has left and has been replaced by a couple of rookies in Charlie Villanueva and Joey Graham.

Job 1 this year for head coach Sam Mitchell and his crew will be to tighten up the club's weak defence.

Despite averaging a franchise-high 99.7 points per game last season, the Raptors lost 49 games. Why? Because they gave up 101.4 points a game. Any improvement in that regard could have a profound effect on the team's record.

So what's Mitchell to do? Well, for starters, he has to get Jalen Rose, the team's top scorer, to play both ends of the floor. He also has to figure out a way have Morris Peterson step up on the road. He averaged an impressive 15.1 points per game at home on 46% shooting but could manage only 10 points and 37% shooting on the road.

Improvement in those two areas would be a major boost to this team.

The other key is to figure out a way to keep starting point guard Rafer Alston thinking clearly, staying calm and distributing the ball more effectively. Alston, who is tied up with the Raptors for five more seasons, had a solid year statistics-wise, posting career highs in pretty well every offensive category. But his tendency to self-destruct caused major headaches for Mitchell and Babcock.

Another key is Eric Williams. The 11-year veteran forward did not give the Raptors what they had hoped for when they acquired him on Dec. 17 in the Vince Carter deal with the New Jersey Nets.

Williams carved a niche for himself in the NBA by playing tough, tight defence and by being a leader. Unhappy over the trade, he brought none of that north of the border, instead asking to be dealt out.

But Williams supposedly has told both Mitchell and Babcock that while not particularly thrilled to be in Toronto, he will give the team everything he has this year.

With two NBA rookies and two sophomores on this roster, the Raptors need all the leadership they can get.


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