Higher expectations

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:22 AM ET

With only three days left before the start of the Raptors' regular season, Sam Mitchell was spotted on the practice gym floor at the Air Canada Centre, hunched over and in pain.

Someone cracked that the Raptors head coach was fine, that it was just the weight of the team's expectations on his shoulders causing him to walk like a 90-year-old man.

As it turns out, Mitchell did hurt his back during practice, demonstrating defensive positioning to rookie forward Andrea Bargnani.

"That's the last time I do that," Mitchell said, grumbling, as he prepared to take questions about the upcoming NBA regular season, a season that undoubtedly will make or break his career as an NBA head coach.

Mitchell is in a precarious situation, to say the least. The third-year head coach is in the final year of a contract that the new GM, Bryan Colangelo didn't sign. It's the classic lame-duck scenario.

The Raptors haven't made the NBA playoffs for four consecutive seasons, two under Mitchell's tenure, and the club's loyal fan base is becoming increasingly impatient.

In order to save his job and reap a new deal, Mitchell needs his club to make significant strides this season. While no one is predicting a run deep into the playoffs, the new-look Raptors are expected to improve dramatically from their disappointing 27-55 campaign last season.

"We've got the chance to be a pretty good basketball team," Mitchell said. "We just have to come and play with intensity, play smart, play the way we're going to play every night."

The question is though, how much will this team improve? It's pretty certain that the club's 7-1 record in the pre-season will not translate into a similar record during the regular season.

But there are a number of factors which suggest that the 2006-07 Raptors will play at a higher level than last year's team.

You could start with the fact that all-star forward Chris Bosh has another year under his belt. Many Raptors observers feel that the franchise took a first step towards respectability by hiring Colangelo, a former NBA executive of the year, away from the Phoenix Suns. Fair enough. But it was Colangelo's first major order of business that set the table for the team's turnaround from a perennial dud to a rising powerhouse, and that was the signing of Bosh to a three-year, $44 million US contract extension.

Without Bosh, Colangelo would have had to build from the ground up and the ACC faithful would have been looking years down the road for a sniff at the playoffs.

After signing Bosh, the dapper Colangelo stitched together an improved roster by making some daring and perhaps risky moves, beginning with the trade for lightning-quick point guard T.J. Ford. Mitchell plans to play an even more uptempo style this year and the former Milwaukee Buck is the right man for that job. To get him, however, they had to give up last year's all-rookie forward, Charlie Villanueva.

Colangelo also traded for veteran centre Rasho Nesterovic, a decent centre who will provide the team with some toughness and improved defence in the frontcourt, while taking some pressure off Bosh.

Even more impressive, Colangelo managed to rid the team of the underperforming Rafael Araujo and acquired a useful power forward in his place, Kris Humphries.

The new GM also has signed a pair of veteran swingmen, Fred Jones, from the Indiana Pacers, and Anthony Parker, formerly of the Maccabi Elite, to complement veteran Morris Peterson and sophomore Joey Graham.

Throw in second-year point guard Jose Calderon and fellow Spanish international Jorge Garbajosa, and Mitchell has a starting five and a second unit that clearly is an upgrade from last season's roster.

A lack of depth arguably was the main factor in Toronto losing many close games last season, especially late. One of the most telling statistics in terms of where the Raptors struggled most was the club's 1-9 record in overtime games. Simply put, starters Bosh, Peterson and Mike James were often exhausted by the time OT rolled around.

Toronto's bench has already stepped up and won a couple of pre-season games this month, a luxury Mitchell certainly didn't have often last year.

"That's what our bench is trying to do," Jones said this week. "We're not looking at ourselves as bench guys, we're looking at ourselves as extensions of the starters."

A key component off the bench will be Jones, who fully expects to improve on his career NBA numbers, 7.7 points and 23.4 minutes per game. In eight pre-season games with Toronto, Jones has averaged 14.5 points and 27.8 minutes, and expects that to continue.

"I expect to have the best year of my life," Jones said. "Of course, I'll have more responsibility, with more freedom, on this team, and I relish that and want to take full advantage of it."

Stated simply: "If I don't have a career year, it's been a bad year."

Another area where the Raptors must, and should, improve is on defence. Last season, Mitchell's high-scoring outfit averaged 101.1 points per game, fourth best in the NBA. At the same time, the Raptors gave up 104 points, second-worst in the league, allowing the opposition to shoot a league-high 49%. Improving team and individual defence has been a priority at training camp this year.

Mitchell also has vowed to whip his players into the best-conditioned outfit in the NBA. Indeed, after finishing the pre-season at a surprising 7-1, Mitchell declared that his troops are still at only about 75-80% fitness. At least for his liking. This team will run like never before.

However, just like last year, the Raptors face a very difficult start to the regular season, with 19 of the first 31 games on the road, a schedule that also includes two West Coast trips.

Last year, his young troops were overwhelmed with the schedule, starting 1-15 to dig themselves into a huge hole.

Mitchell, however, hates to hear about his club's supposedly tough early schedule and refuses to use it as an excuse.

"I promise you this," he said. "Every trip that we go on, all 29 other teams have to go on the same trips, so you can't worry about it. Last time I checked, (NBA commissioner) David Stern ain't changing it for nobody. It is what it is. You play the games as they come and just worry about your team."

That is also his attitude concerning his future with the Raptors. Mitchell fully expects his club to step up this season and, if everything goes according to plan, he is confident that Colangelo will reward him with a new deal.


Videos

Photos