Raps' rotation a juggling act

UMAR ALI, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 11:52 AM ET

TORONTO -- It was not long ago the Toronto Raptors were plagued by a rash of injuries that saw four regular contributors out of action for significant time. As each has slowly returned to the line up, however, the Dinos are met with a new conundrum - what's the new rotation?

With Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon, Sonny Weems and Jerryd Bayless all out with injuries over the course of the past month, the Raps have had to adjust in their absence and developed a tight rotation.

The return of the guards are of little concern in terms of playing time, as each has a designated role - Calderon the wily veteran starter and Bayless the young apprentice off the bench. More specifically, how Jay Triano juggles the minutes of his already crowded front court may determine whether this team can regain the cohesiveness it began to show in recent weeks.

Of course, the addition of leading scorer Andrea Bargnani back into the starting line up came as no surprise to Raptor fans but partnering Il Mago alongside journeyman Joey Dorsey to open the game against Sacramento was unexpected to say the least. This, after Bargnani was paired with Amir Johnson in his first three games back.

With a sample size of only four games it's still too early to tell which approach will heed the best result, but both surely have their benefits.

Starting Dorsey allows Toronto to bring Johnson in to run its offense from the high-post with the reserves, something he is better suited for than any other forward on the team, as his adept passing and shooting touch make him triple- threat. Also, it would keep Johnson from getting into early foul trouble, a problem that has plagued the 23-year-old throughout his career, and allow him to play more aggressively on the defensive end late in games.

The major benefit in starting Johnson is it simply gives the two big men a familiarity of playing beside one another, important as that is, seeing each figures to be a major part of the Raps future going forward.

Yet, determining playing time for the big men won't be the head coach's primary obstacle, what to do with the wings certainly is.

Since Dec.15, Sonny Weems has been sidelined with back spasms and in his absence two players have made it abundantly clear they're ready to fill the void.

Since moving into the starting line up, Linas Kleiza has done an admirable job being a complementary scorer amidst all the injuries, averaging 15.2 ppg and 6.3 rpg since taking over the starting gig. Though the Lithuanian's defense has been called into question at times, the Raps may have found the athletic perimeter defender they have so desperately sought.

At first, Julian Wright appeared to be just a throw-in from the trade that brought Bayless and Peja Stojakovic to Toronto, playing sparse minutes in only a handful of games, if at all. But then Weems went down and the Raptors needed another wing to bring off the bench - enter the revelation of Wright.

Given the opportunity, the former Kansas Jayhawk has provided Toronto with intangibles that don't always appear on the stat sheet but once he's inserted in the game, rest assured, the 23-year-old makes his presence felt.

Though the minutes are still inconsistent, Wright's emergence will only make it harder for Triano to decide what to do with Weems, who is set to return in the coming week.

Kleiza provides a scoring touch that Weems has lacked all season and Wright has been a high-energy guy off the bench, supplying defense and hustle, something Weems seems to have lost from a year ago.

If the Raps do decide to go with their new found wings, one thing the Arkansas native can look to as his saving grace is his close connection to the Raptors fast emerging sophomore star DeMar DeRozan.

DINOS' DYNAMIC DUO

With its leading scorer sidelined for six games, Toronto turned to its 2009 first-round draft pick, DeRozan, to carry the offensive load and he responded, averaging 21.8 ppg on 51.6 per cent shooting from the field.

Yet, it remained to be seen if the production could continue with the return of Bargnani or if Double-D would resort to his passive ways deferring to the big Italian.

In four games since Bargnani arrived back to the line up, it appears the 21- year-old is up to the challenge, as DeRozan's production hasn't fallen far from where he was without Il Mago, averaging 19.8 ppg on 53 per cent shooting, all while the Italian native found his groove averaging 23.8 ppg on 50 per cent shooting.

If this is a sign of things to come, the Raptors possess a unique duo with a twisted outside-inside threat, as the seven-foot Bargnani devastates defenders from the perimeter while the shooting guard DeRozan punishes players by getting to the rim and the foul line. For the NBA's second youngest team, such a combination could provide the spark fans have been looking for since the departure of its former franchise player.

Toronto will rely on its exceptional pair after the next two matchups in the friendly confines of the Air Canada Centre, when it hits the road for a five- game road swing where the opponents will get tougher with every passing contest - starting in Washington then moving west to New Orleans and San Antonio before heading back east to Orlando and ending in Miami.

How the Raps respond may reveal if they're ready to take the next step, into the playoffs, this season.


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