Don't chance throwing much money into the Toronto Raptors this season.
The Raptors are like a box of Cracker Jacks. You don't know what you're going to get as a prize. They're not the team that started last season 1-15. But they're not the team that performed as an O'Neal-sized pest to Eastern Conference contenders until Chris Bosh went down, dooming them to a 1-12 finish.
Why? Because they made so many changes during the offseason. Vastly underappreciated Bosh ranks among the premier power forwards in the NBA, but 33 points a game flew out the window with the trading of forward Charlie Villanueva and free agent defection of Mike James.
If point guard T.J. Ford plays as he did for the Bucks early last season, the Raptors won't miss James. But Rasho Nesterovic is likely not the answer in the middle. He improved his offensive skills last season in Sacramento, but took a huge step backward as a rebounder. Toronto still needs help for Bosh on the boards, and it's not realistic to expect too much from NBA top pick Andrea Bargnani this season.
Key additions: C Bargnani, G Ford, G Jose Calderon, F Jorge Garbajosa, C Nesterovic
Key subtractions: G James, F Villanueva, F Eric Williams
Player to watch: The 20-year-old Bargnani is certainly the center of the future, but the future could be a lot sooner than the Raptors would like if Nesterovic doesn't play to the standards he set a few years ago. The Raptors desperately need an enforcer at center who can snag rebounds and start the fast break. That, after all, is why they traded for the lightning-quick Ford. And since Bosh would thrive in a running game, others will be needed to step up on the boards to jump start the break. That someone might have to be Bargnani.
Outlook: The Raptors are quite unlikely to lose 15 of their first 16 games again, but don't bet on a quick start. It should take a while before the new pieces begin to fit together. Bosh and shooting guard Morris Peterson, who averaged nearly 17 points a game a year ago, will be solid contributors. Ford wore down as last season progressed after missing so much time due to injury, but he is a vast improvement as a pure point guard. The Raptors remain vulnerable inside, however, and might be forced to keep Bosh near the key defensively to scare away penetrators, at least until Bargnani shows strong capabilities.