By Scott Lepp
As we enter another exciting regular season of NBA basketball we can finally feel proud to cheer for our Canadian teams. The Toronto Raptors finished in third place in the Central division last season with a solid 45-37 record. Last year wasn’t nearly as successful for the Vancouver Grizzlies, who finished 22-60 which earned them seventh spot in the Midwest division. Both teams enjoyed a roster make-over during the off-season and are primed and ready for the upcoming camaign.
The Raptors suffered a huge blow when they were forced to make a sign-and-trade deal with the rival Orlando Magic to send standout Tracy McGrady down south. To compensate, they dealt Doug Christie to the up-and-coming Sacramento Kings in exchange for ex-Arkansas Razorback Corliss Williamson.
The Raptors’ huge weakness last season was the lack of a true starting point guard. General Manager Glen Grunwald took care of this during the off-season as well, signing aging but steady Indiana Pacer Mark Jackson to a four-year deal. The Raptors also managed to grab Michigan State star Morris Peterson with the 21st pick in the 2000 draft, which is widely regarded by experts as the steal of the draft. Possibly the most important thing the team did during the off-season was fire Head Coach Butch Carter after he ruined any chances the Raptors had to experience a productive post-season. After firing Carter, the Raptors went out and signed the most winning coach in NBA history, Lenny Wilkins.
Don’t expect the Raptors to come out winning early in the season though; give them time to get used to Wilkins’ style of play and to mesh as a team. Vince Carter is only going to get better. He added a deadly three-point shot to his repertoire during the off-season, and going to the Olympics only boosted his confidence. Look for rookie Peterson, and veteran Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues to come off the bench and provide some spark for the squad. Other players to look out for are Charles Oakley, who may be old but can still hit the 20-footer with consistency, and Alvin Williams who looks like he’s got his confidence back and should be an excellent backup to Jackson at the point. The Raptors should finish the season well and hopefully earn a second straight trip to the post-season.
The Vancouver Grizzlies also added a lot of talent over the off-season. They drafted 20-year-old Stromile Swift out of Louisiana State University with the second pick of the 2000 draft. Given time, he’s going to be a star in the League. With Bryant "Big Country" Reeves turning out to be a bust at center, the Griz traded for Isaac Austin of the Washington Wizards. The Grizzlies also got stronger in their back court by signing ex-Denver Nugget point man Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf who spent last season in Europe.
With the dynamic starting guard duo of Mike Bibby and Michael Dickerson the Griz are going to have one of the strongest starting back courts in the League. Dickerson had an extremely strong season averaging 18.2 points per game last season, while Bibby averaged 14.5 and also dished out 8.1 assists per game. Then there’s the Grizzlies cornerstone; the perennial all-star-to-be and Olympian Shareef Abdur-Rahim. After coming out of the University of California as a freshman, he had an instant impact on the team and is among the League leaders in points and rebounds. The Griz locked him up for six years.
This team has a good combination of veteran leadership to go along with their young core. The Grizzlies will most likely not make the playoffs this year; the Western Conference is far too strong. But look for them to finish in the neighbourhood of 25-35 wins and build for next season.