SPORTS

Expectations low for Toronto Raptors in compact 66-game NBA season

12/22/2011 05:32 EST | Updated 02/21/2012 05:12 EST
TORONTO - The predictions are in and they're not pretty.

The NBC Sports website predicts the Toronto Raptors will finish in last place this season with just 18 wins. The CBS Sports website has Toronto in the basement in its NBA power rankings. SI.com was slightly more kind, ranking the Raptors 29th in the 30-team league.

Drop five dollars in Las Vegas on the Raptors to win the championship and you'll cash out for a cool grand if they actually did it.

To say expectations are low for Canada's only NBA team would be a grand understatement. This is a club that plans to give its young players as many minutes as possible with its eye firmly locked on the future.

New head coach Dwane Casey will have his work cut out for him in what has already been declared a rebuilding campaign — or as he and general manager Bryan Colangelo like to call it, a "building" season.

In previous years, stars like Damon Stoudemire, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh were the feature players on the club. This season, there is no easy choice as the face of the franchise.

The roster is a collection of youngsters with potential and some decent veterans who will be counted on to provide guidance on court and in the locker-room. A team-first mentality is in place with a focus on strengthening the club's foundation.

"It's a group effort, it's not a one-guy show," forward James Johnson said in a recent interview.

Expect youngsters like DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Ed Davis to see plenty of minutes and crunch-time action as they soak up as much experience as possible. They're considered key building blocks for the Raptors, who are coming off a weak 22-60 season.

Andrea Bargnani provided some offensive spark last season with a career-high average of 21.4 points per game. However, his blocks (46) were down significantly and he had 150 fewer rebounds than the previous year.

The pressure will be on the No. 1 pick from the 2006 draft to deliver under Casey's defence-first philosophy. Toronto native Jamaal Magloire may not see a ton of minutes but he'll give the Raptors some much-needed toughness under the glass.

Young players like forward James Johnson and guard Jerryd Bayless haven't had starter's minutes for a full season. They could blossom if given the opportunity.

The 66-game schedule may actually help the Raptors, who have plenty of young legs to handle the many back-to-back games throughout the compressed season. Casey will likely experiment with different lineups over the first few weeks as he gets a feel for the players.

"To me everybody is a starter," Casey said this week. "You've got to prepare as a starter and think that way — just because of the packed-in games and the rapid-fire games that are coming."

Expect Bayless to start the season as a backup to veteran guard Jose Calderon, who tied a career high with an average of 8.9 assists per game last season.

Guard Leandro Barbosa could provide some spark off the bench, although he has been saddled with injuries in recent years. Barbosa was limited during training camp with a sore knee.

Colangelo recently filled out the roster with the additions of guard Anthony Carter, centre Aaron Gray and forwards Rasual Butler and Gary Forbes.

"Everybody is going to have to earn their minutes," Casey said. "I'm not trying to be a dictator or anything like that, but guys will determine the amount of time that they have when they're on the floor."

One player who will start the season on the bench is forward Linas Kleiza. He's likely a few weeks away from a return as he works his way back from right knee surgery last February.

The Raptors used the No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft to select centre Jonas Valanciunas, who will spend the season playing in his native Lithuania. Toronto will likely get another decent selection next year in what should be a very deep draft.

By then Colangelo expects to have even more financial flexibility and a stronger foundation. For this season, however, the chances of the Raptors returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 are slim at best.

Toronto opens play Monday night in Cleveland before welcoming the Indiana Pacers at Air Canada Centre two days later.

MORE:cpSports