The State of the Raptors

No matter where you stand on the optimist-pessimist spectrum one thing is undeniable: so far this season has been a massive disappointment. If you were wise enough to predict what has transpired so far, good for you, you’ve earned a right to say, “I’ve told you so”, just don’t rub it in every time. If you’re in the other category, the category which thought that this team just might have what it takes to progress in the playoffs, this season has been a total letdown peppered with disheartening losses that invalidate anything you might have believed in.

Raptors fans are often called bipolar because of they way they react to the team’s successes and misfortunes. A lot of that criticism is warranted but it is also bred by the fact that we seem to know all too well just exactly what we have in this team. We lose to the good ones, we beat the bad ones and we go .500 against teams that are on par with us. It’s a massive generalization but it is a correct one. After two years of humbling playoff exits it is perfectly natural to want more and so far this team has done little in showing that it can do any more than the last two versions. That is simply not good enough. Raptors fans would rather see a plan in place that strives towards attainable and sustainable success rather than see the GM assemble a team that hopes rather than plans for success and is impervious to the flaws in the product assembled.

We’re 31 games into the season and have seen both the possible heights this team might rise to if all is going well, and the depths that it can fall to if cogs in the wheel aren’t functioning at a high level. Either way, we’ve seen enough of this team to know what is right and what is wrong about it, what its limitations are and what its strengths are and more importantly, what the probabilistic outcome of the season is going to be if the current roster is left untouched. This piece isn’t advocating a trade or a major shakeup, it’s merely pointing out that certain decisions need to be made and relayed to the fans so they can be on the same page as the management to avoid misaligned expectations and results.

Decision #1: Tweak or not?

Since winning a playoff round would be considered a successful season, Bryan Colangelo needs to decide whether the current roster is good enough to get to the playoffs and win a series once its there. If he thinks it is and is simply waiting for Triano’s coaching to kick-in and for under-performing players like Parker, Kapono and Calderon to shift into a higher gear, then he doesn’t need to do anything. Judging by what we’ve seen so far it’s hard for anyone to pick this team as even a mild threat in the playoffs (if it makes it there). If Colangelo feels that only a tweak is needed, then the trade assets at his disposal are Graham, Humphries, Parker and Kapono. Kapono’s a specialist which teams would like to have but his contract, which runs beyond 2010, makes him hard to move. The rest are fringe talents that won’t yield much in the open market. Realistically, these aren’t great bargaining chips and any trade involving these components will add very little to the team, if anything.

Decision #2: Start from scratch or major shake-up

Assuming tweaking is not enough – as the results and play suggest – the next thing is to figure out the size of the shakeup. If Bosh is still deemed to be the centerpiece of the franchise then we need to surround him with wing players that reciprocate his talent. To acquire said talent we’ll need to give up more than Joey Graham et al, we’ll need to part with something other teams value and looking up and down this roster the three players that fit the bill are Bosh, Calderon (BYC) and perhaps Bargnani, assuming we find a GM who sees hope in him. Given Bargnani’s form and Calderon’s inability to leave a mark on this team, both should be considered tradeable commodities, especially given Calderon’s trade value. If a deal to bring a defensive-minded point guard and a top-tier wing can be swung Colangelo should look long and hard at it, even if it means giving up a draft pick, something he’s not good at using anyway. The perimeter defense has been a problem since 06-07 and the dire need for a slashing wing still hasn’t been addressed.

The option just mentioned assumes Bosh is the guy you’re trying to build around. If that isn’t the case and Colangelo’s eye gauges that he’s likely to bolt, then he needs to take action now. There’s no point in going through the motions of “competing” over the next two years with results like we’ve been getting only for Chris Bosh to pull a Tracy McGrady – that’s the last thing this franchise needs. I’m not going to speculate what we can get for Bosh, I’m simply suggesting that it’s an option that Colangelo will need to keep an eye on if he’s not planning on shaking things up and is simply hoping things get better, because if they don’t Bosh is out. O’Neal’s gargantuan contract will become a lot more tradeable next year but if Colangelo can find a buyer who is willing to give up young talent this year, it needs to be explored.

Decision #3: Jay Triano

Is he the coach of the future or is he just another scapegoat card waiting to be played if the team continues to struggle? Common sense suggests the latter. If Colangelo has a coach in mind he needs to be brought in immediately so that he can have as much time as possible behind the bench. Pretty soon we’ll have to be thinking about next season and it’s much better for a new coach to be acclimated with the players before training camp rather than use the first 20 games of the season to indoctrinate a playbook. If this season gets out of hand we need to use the remaining games as preparation for a new direction and system under the real coach. Let’s iron out these issues without further delay. If Triano is auditioning for the head coaching job and Colangelo’s playing the wait-and-see game of whether to hire him on a permanent basis or not, then he doesn’t have a real plan for the team, he’s just playing it by ear.

Decision #4: Style of play and personnel

The style of play needs to match the personnel. Triano’s style of play is great but he doesn’t have the horses to pull it off. The protect-the-paint-and-scramble-to-close-out-shooters approach works great on paper but needs solid defensive-minded guards and small-forwards to be executed properly. The Golden State game was a prime example of this. On the other hand we have personnel that don’t match the system: Jason Kapono’s shot attempts might have increased under Triano but the quality of the attempts remains poor. Enough isn’t being done to peel defenders off of him and he’s forced to get his shots through trailing, quick transition setups and by running off excessive screens. He’s a catch-and-shoot player who isn’t catching and shooting. Jose Calderon’s a pick ‘n roll point-guard and has basically run one play in his entire NBA career, asking him to find cutters, throw lobs, pick-out players in transition channels, drive ‘n kick might be asking too much. Although he’s made recent efforts to get better at the things he’s bad at, you wonder if he’s a guy who can play his position to a considerable advantage any given night. Even his great statistical game against Golden State was easily offset by rookie C.J. Watson’s uncontainable dribble-penetration and outside shooting.

Decision #5: Profitability or progression

If this team manages to stay under the luxury tax, sneak into the playoffs and get two or three playoff home games, the fans will come back. As long as Leaf season ticket holders are still buying Raptors tickets and there’s enough false hope in the air, the franchise will continue to turn a profit. The fact of the matter is that winning is not a prerequisite for profitability in Toronto and although that’s great for ownership, it doesn’t motivate the board in vying for meaningful success. Colangelo’s stated that he’d ask the board to cross the luxury tax if he finds a suitable player and Richard Peddie in his business-speak has also been open to the idea. Whether all this is just politically correct speak or not remains to be seen. A successful franchise doesn’t start from the players, it starts from the owners and unless tangible playoff success is mandated by the owners and the board, it will never come and if it does happen to swing by, it’ll be through fluke and chance and will never stick. We saw this with Vince Carter. If Colangelo is serious about building an Eastern Conference contender in Toronto he’ll need to make the owners swallow some hard pills and it means going over the luxury tax, at least until O’Neal’s salary remains on the books.

As a man who has an unhealthy addiction to Raptors basketball I want to see the team go in the right direction. If the right direction means going through a couple 10-win seasons where we develop true young NBA talent and play the game the right way, I’m all for it. As we stand right now we have one All-Star caliber player that has to be looking out the window, zero young talent to look forward to unless you count Bargnani, and such a supporting cast of players (Parker, Graham, Solomon, Moon, Adams, Jawai, Voskuhl) that the best thing you can say about them is that they’re no longer under contract after this season.

We have an opportunity to rebuild and if we cross luxury tax, we have an opportunity to re-tool, both are completely agreeable options. The thing that is not acceptable to a die-hard fan is the status quo because we know all too well what this leads to – total mediocrity. And we’ve seen enough of that.

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