Nielsen on Raptors: Mixing the ingredients

October 1, 2012, 10:05 PM

An NBA coach is somewhat like a chef.

He has to take all of the ingredients that are at his disposal, mix them together and try to piece together the best dish possible.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey got rave reviews after his first season as head coach in Toronto as he squeezed 23 wins out of a team that contained more broccoli than Grade A steak.

Sure they weren’t a playoff team but they gave many better teams fits and it was the effort that impressed.

This season will be an even bigger challenge for Toronto’s bench boss as expectations have risen and he will attempt to take a young team that is adding three rookies to the roster and mold it into the playoff contender.

The Raptors held their annual Media Day on Monday in Toronto before catching a flight to Halifax to get down to business.

Along with the rookies, there are a few other new faces on the roster, and other than Andrea Bargnani, Casey said that no one is guaranteed to start or receive playing time for that matter.

Be it the off-season’s top acquisition Kyle Lowry, heralded rookie Jonas Valanciunas or respected veteran Jose Calderon, almost everyone will get a shot at times as there will be several interesting training camp battles to keep an eye on over the next couple of weeks.

“All of those positions are going to be competitive as far as the minutes. I like that,” Casey said. “I think it is going to make us a better basketball team — especially on the offensive end. Those decisions will be the toughest that we’ve got to make and we’ll do it as a staff.”

Taking a gander at the roster and one of the most intriguing competitions for minutes will be in the backcourt between Lowry, Calderon and John Lucas III.

Many believe that Calderon will begin the season coming off the bench but Casey refused to declare that to be the case.

“He may be better suited coming off the bench,” Casey said. “We’ll see. We are going to find out this week.”

Calderon has been here before. Over the years he has battled T.J Ford and Jerryd Bayless among others for the starting nod and seems to be taking it all in stride.

“I think you’ve got to compete to get better,” Calderon said.

Casey said Bayless actually may have outplayed Calderon last December but inserted Calderon into his starting line-up because he was a better fit.

“It’s not about who is the best player but who fits the first unit and who fits the second unit,” Casey explained.

He hopes his team will be able to avoid the drop-off from the first unit to the second unit that plagued the Raptors last season.

While many will be focused on the point-guard battle, there is plenty of intrigue in other areas as well.

On the wing, DeMar DeRozan is one of the incumbent starters but he will have to outplay a few bodies to hold his spot in the pecking order. Linas Kleiza returns and former New York Knick Landry Fields and rookie Terrence Ross have been added to the mix, although they can be considered small forwards as well but DeRozan needs to improve if this team is to climb the standings.

“We anticipate good things from him going forward,” Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo said of DeRozan.

For his part, DeRozan will need a big year as he is entering into an important contract period. Colangelo said he has held discussions with DeRozan’s agent on a new deal of late.

Prior to the summer, DeRozan said he was going to focus on getting better on his own end of the floor and he had some extra help in that regard.

“I had a lot of good chances to work on (my defence) this summer,” DeRozan said as he was a member of the USA Select Team which practised with and scrimmaged against Team USA in July.

The Raptors guard was forced to guard Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant on a daily basis and said he learned a lot by seeing how they approached the game.

Odds are DeRozan will start when the season tips off on Halloween but who will start for the Raptors at centre on Oct. 31 will likely be Casey’s toughest decision as it may be the team’s deepest position.

Valanciunas is certainly the team’s future at the position but Aaron Gray and Amir Johnson return and Casey said there are no guarantees for the young Lithuanian at the moment.

“JV will get his playing time because he deserves to be there not because we’re called to develop him,” Casey explained. “We’re going to throw him in the fire, not to get him experience but because he can help us win.”

By the end of last season Gray had moved past Johnson into the starting line-up, although the latter said he played through injuries most of last season and spent the summer resting and getting healthy.

Casey will have a better understanding of his team by the time they return from Halifax on the weekend as he finally gets a real taste of all of the ingredients he has to work with.

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