For the first time in team history, the Raptors will open up a season as the defending Atlantic Division champs … and I think they’ve got a legit shot at defending that title.  Granted, the division formerly-known-as the “Titanic” has done a 1-80 in less than 6 months … but Toronto still has one thing going for them that Boston, New Jersey, New York and Philly maybe can’t claim:  Chemistry.

Yes, Garnett, Pierce, and Allen have looked sharp in Boston during the pre-season.  Yes, Kidd, Carter, and Jefferson (along with Magloire, Nachbar, and Kristic) help form a pretty solid core for Jersey.  But neither team compares to the Raptors in my eyes — and I’m not even going to bother throwing the Knicks or Sixers into the mix.

Toronto’s greatest asset this season may be their familiarity.  Carlos Delfino, Jamario Moon, Maceo Baston, and Jason Kapono are fresh on the scene for the Raps … but the guts of this team are the same.  One year ago we all were wondering how TJ Ford would look on his new team; if Anthony Parker could bring his Euro success back to the NBA; and how newcomers like Jorge Garbajosa and top-pick Andrea Bargnani would adjust to life (and basketball) on this side of the pond.

However, this season it’s different.  We’re now talking about division championships and 50-win seasons?  We’re talking about guys knowing each other’s games.  Players know their teammates’  tendencies and likes and dislikes.  And maybe more important than anything else … Sam Mitchell knows his players – knows their strengths – and he understands that he can lean on his guys to take some personal responsibility themselves … knowing what the coach wants, what he expects, and what has become the style of play for the Raptors to live by.

Basically, the foundation has been built.  The mission statement has been written.

And with a potent starting 5 – Kapono, Chris Bosh, Bargnani, Parker, and Ford – teams should be scrambling to figure out how they’ll slow down this quietly-building storm.

E. Smith

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