At the start of last season we had 5 new faces to the roster, two of whom included Will Solomon and Nathan Jawai with the major cog being Jermaine O’Neal. As the team struggled to start the season many of us (including me) felt that more time was needed in order for the team to ‘gel’ and show its true capability. Turned out that we just plain sucked and it had nothing to do with gelling. This year we have 7 new faces who will all be having a significant role on the team – Belinelli, DeRozan, Evans, Jack, Turkoglu, Wright and Nesterovic. Throw in the possible return of Delfino and you’ll have assembled a team that is about as familiar with each other as the Survivor cast.

Delfino and Nesterovic have played here before but the rest of the team has changed so much that their previous experiences don’t count for much. Question is how much gel-time does this team need? Consider that included in our first 18 games (through November) we play Cleveland, Orlando (twice), New Orleans, Dallas, San Antonio, Phoenix (twice), Denver, Utah and Boston, it’s not hard to imagine us struggling out of the gate only to hear the ‘gel theory’. It’s a shame because stretches like these will tell you exactly how good your team really is and we’re going to be heading into our first one with a ready-made excuse. Take for example last season’s miserable record against good teams and the way we beat the sloppy ones towards the end. You end with a feeling that you’re good enough to beat the worst but lose to the marginally good. Not a good feeling.

If ever there was a vital training camp this is going to be it. The effort dispensed during our pre-season last year was terrible and it’s no surprise that we ended it at 4-4 with whoopings at the hands of the Lakers, Denver and Philadelphia. The feel every single fan got out of the pre-season was that the team looked no better with each passing game. In other words: we got nothing out of it. Sam Mitchell’s post-game press-conferences spoke of development, players finding their niche, improved fitness and all that good stuff but as November wore on, we saw just how incoherent the team was. A big part of this sorry tale was the fact that our practices were tame, there wasn’t enough talent on the B-team (or the A-team for that matter) to actually test each other out so we went to battle with a false sense of accomplishment. Parker was scoring on Ukic in the post during practice and felt he could do the same against Joe Johnson. Not happening.

Training camp and pre-season is extremely important for any club which has gone through high turnover and the Raptors are one of them. A good feeling that I have is that since we have more talent on the team, we can have better practices, more competitive scrimmages and increase the lever of competition and intensity behind closed doors. Hopefully that can better prepare us for what we face in game situations. Jay Triano apparently lights up the Team USA scrimmages when he’s in command and maybe under the security of a new contract, he can bring that fiery attitude to pre-season and light up what lays dormant in the Raptors’ hearts.

A little quote about the Raptors from a recent John Hollinger ESPN Insider article :

“It’s easy to split the difference and say they’ll be a .500-ish team, but I don’t think that will be the outcome. I’m expecting either a brilliant success or a spectacular failure, and I’m really not sure which.”

That’s the same feeling I got about last year’s team who’s Achilles heel turned out to be rebounding, something nobody anticipated. I’m not sure what the major weakness of next year’s team is going to be, some might say SG production, rebounding or bench-scoring but it’s all too early to tell. Training camp will yield answers about DeRozan’s NBA readiness, Belinelli’s usefulness, Rasho’s fuel tank, and perhaps most importantly, whether Bargnani and Bosh can, with the help of the other three, finally figure out how to play together without compromising the defensive glass. Last year the most used Bosh-Bargnani lineup cleaned up 42% of available rebounds, the number increased to 46% when Marion came over. With Jermaine O’Neal gone, those two will be playing even more minutes together and we have to sort out our defensive rotations and help-defense mechanics right out of training camp in order for the rebounding to have a chance.

Unlike last year we can’t be using the first 20 games of the season as gel time because 1) It’ll put us in a big hole and 2) We’ll lose our confidence since we weren’t able to beat any of the top-tier teams.

On to some luxury tax talk. Skip next season and move to 2010-11. We have $65.4M in committed contracts and that doesn’t include the raise Bosh is likely to get. He’s got a player option of $17M for the season and if we assume a raise of $3M which he’s going to hold out for, it’ll take us to $68.5M. This is going to be over the luxury tax since ESPN is projecting it to be around $65M. With no major contracts endings that summer, life in the luxury tax is almost a certainty and something MLSE should be prepared for.

Quick note about Bosh from Sam Smith’s blog:

“Toronto’s Bosh has been the other big name. But there are increasing indications he will remain in Toronto given an aggressive summer of acquisitions, including Hedo Turkoglu.”

I’m a little different because I wouldn’t be devastated if Bosh got traded, in fact, I would look at it as a great opportunity to get something for someone when their value is at their highest. If Colangelo’s moves have done one thing, it’s that they’ve quieted the Bosh rumour-mill to the point where they are completely silent. Unless the upcoming season is a failure (meaning no playoff victory), I just don’t see Bosh leaving because Colangelo’s going to shell out the cash. Why he hasn’t done this already is a little confusing and the only explanation I can think of is that he himself hasn’t valuated Bosh and is waiting for him to play a full year with a solid supporting cast.