SACRAMENTO, Calif. – No more are the Toronto Raptors nervously waiting for any sign of hope. No more are they catering to their franchise star – if only because, well, they don’t have one. The greatest player in the team’s history is gone, he isn’t coming back and unless the Raptors tuned into sports radio over the summer, they likely haven’t heard much from him since he left for Miami.
Chris Bosh(notes) has left, and the Raptors say they’ve moved on. Where exactly they’re headed is the obvious question. Most league observers think Toronto will be challenged to even contend for one of the Eastern Conference’s last playoff seeds.
“We see where the prognosticators have us and we use that as motivation every day in practice,” Raptors coach Jay Triano said. “I don’t constantly mention it to them, but I don’t have to. They know what other people think about them.
“Our goal is to prove them wrong.”
Bosh became the cornerstone of the Raptors’ franchise after Vince Carter(notes) left midway through the 2004-05 season. He became an All-Star and left as the franchise leader in several major categories, including scoring and rebounding. But the Raptors also never won more than 47 games in a season with him and never advanced past the first round of the playoffs.
Still, the franchise wasn’t ready to see Bosh go. Raptors officials routinely consulted him on team matters and personnel decisions – all in an effort to persuade him to re-sign.
“Everybody in the organization, top to bottom, including his teammates, wanted him to stay in Toronto,” Triano said. “Everyone was trying to do things that they might not have done had he been under a long-term deal. I think a lot of players and staff and management tried to, I wouldn’t say cater to him, but they wanted him to stay, and they did things to try to make him stay.”
The sales pitch extended to the court, where every win and loss was measured on how it impacted Bosh’s future with the franchise.
“Sometimes when you play with a superstar or an All-Star type of guy, you tend to defer,” guard Jarrett Jack(notes) said. “I think all of us do. ‘Get it to Chris, or get it to LeBron [James] or get it to Dwyane [Wade],’ without doing your normal, instinctive, aggressive thing.
[With Bosh gone], it allows people to spread their wings, grow and see where they are as players for an overall season, which is kind of cool. We don’t have to worry about, if we don’t get him 25 shots, it’s going to be hell on Earth. It’s kind of cool being able to go out there and play.”
Bosh’s final season in Toronto ended early after he suffered a facial fracture in a game against Cleveland on April 7. With the Raptors still in contention for a playoff berth, team officials hoped he’d continue to play with a protective mask. He instead opted to miss the final five games, three of which the team lost. The Raptors finished one game behind the Chicago Bulls for the eighth and final playoff seed.
The Raptors had a good feeling after the season that Bosh wasn’t returning. Triano said Bosh’s agent, Henry Thomas, ended the suspense by calling Raptors general Bryan Colangelo about a week before free agency began to let him know Bosh would not be back. Bosh made it official on July 7 when he announced that he was joining Wade with the Miami Heat.
“I was disappointed,” Triano said. “I had been with the organization the whole time with him being drafted and helping him become a better player. That part of it hurt. At the same time, there is a reason why people go through free agency and there is a reason why they sign contracts for the ability to make change if they want. I respect that.”
Bosh’s departure not only left a sizeable hole in the lineup, it robbed the Raptors of their most marketable player. And no one’s quite sure who will become the new face of the franchise.
Gritty forward Reggie Evans(notes), currently the NBA’s leading rebounder, is now the most popular Raptor because of his blue-collar style of play. Rookie forward Ed Davis(notes) is expected to make his debut sometime this month after recovering from right knee surgery, but no one is expecting him to make an immediate impact like Blake Griffin(notes) or John Wall(notes). DeMar DeRozan(notes) is gifted athletically, but is inexperienced and still needs to develop a consistent jump shot.
That leaves Andrea Bargnani(notes), the 7-foot No. 1 pick of the 2006 draft. While he was comfortable to defer to Bosh, Bargnani now has more freedom to grow his game. Bosh’s absence has also impacted him in more subtle ways: Bargnani said he’s getting more fan requests for pictures since Bosh departed.
Bargnani’s confidence received a boost during the summer when he averaged 24.1 points and starred for Italy’s national team in qualification games for the 2011 European championships. Through the Raptors’ first three games, he’s averaged 23.3 points while making 55.6 percent of his 3-pointers.
Bargnani is also averaging just three rebounds. And during two separate possessions at the end of the Raptors’ 111-108 loss to the Sacramento Kings on Monday, he failed to get the ball for a needed 3-pointer. Still, he insists he’s ready for the pressure that now comes from being one of the Raptors’ top players.
“Why should I hide from this?” Bargnani said. “This is everybody’s dream. That’s why you practice every day and get better. Otherwise, why should you practice so much? Stay home. The pressure is a good pressure. If someone is putting pressure on you, that means you were doing good and they expect more from you, otherwise no one is going to expect nothing from you.”
The Raptors, however, still aren’t quite sure what to expect from Bargnani – which is why their coach isn’t sure who will become the new franchise cornerstone.
“I think Andrea is the guy people kind of look to, but I’m not sure he’s ready for that,” Triano said. “He’s still getting better as a player and he’s still developing. That’s what makes him the probable candidate along with the young players that we have.”
This season’s Raptors have played hard and fast. Whether that’s enough to continue to win over Toronto’s fan base remains to be seen. Bosh has moved on, and the team he left behind seems intent on building its own identity.
“People from the outside don’t expect much,” Bargnani said. “They see us as a bad team, but we have a lot of potential here.