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It’s all done and dusted, a forgettable campaign that started off with high expectations but ended in ruins. I thought I’d get in a take on some of the issues of the past season, a season which I thought would set us up nicely going into this summer, but instead we’re left to pick up the pieces and reevaluate everyone and everything. The Raptors also did their exit interviews yesterday and there were a couple interesting tidbits.

Chris Bosh said:

I plan on being here next year. Everybody’s being skeptical, I can’t control that. This is where I want to be, this is where I want to play basketball.

When asked whether this season changed his long-term view of the Raptors.

No, not at all.

When asked about the possibility of signing an extension this summer.

That’s a possibility. That’s something we may want to talk about. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

So this season didn’t have a bearing on his future and he “may” talk extension. The first two quotes aren’t surprising, in his Bulls post-game interview he flat out said that he believes in the current unit of players and that they’re good enough to get home-court in the East. The third one is a little more touchy-feely, I translated the “may” as meaning he’s willing to talk as long as you make him an offer he can’t refuse. In other words, max-money. You know how I feel about that, do have your opinion. Overall, the interview had too much of a casual feel for my liking.

Jose Calderon said:

I’m 100% right now…I don’t like excuses but it’s been tough for me this season. It was my first year as a starting point guard and it’s been tough and I couldn’t play like myself for a while. I take part of the responsibility for everything, I thougth I could’ve played better but I couldn’t.

When asked what his biggest weakness is:

I don’t know. It’s been tough, I couldn’t play like myself for three months. I couldn’t play defense at all or turn the corner or create for my teammates. But I can compete against anybody if I’m healthy.

If the Raptors ask you not to play for Spain, what would you say:

No play.

No kidding, as if Garbajosa wasn’t enough of an example. The Raptors should thoroughly evaluate him and allow him to play for Spain if they feel it would benefit his game, for example, help his conditioning. Even then I’d much rather he come into training camp 100% fresh. He’s too proud to acknowledge that he was a crappy defender for most of the year but it’s good seeing him hint at some of his shortcomings this year, at least he knows his failings and will work on them. One thing about him that I like is his confidence, the man believes he can play with the best and you always like that.

When asked whether he’ll return Shawn Marion said:

It’s definitely an option. I’m going to keep my doors open….I want to win a championship…I think the potential is here. It’s a matter of putting the pieces together and having the intensity level there…We’d be in the playoffs right now if I was here all season…Hopefully [I get] a long-term contract.

He says he’s looking for a title and let’s be honest, it ain’t happening in Toronto. This means that for him to stay we’ll have to give him a few million more good reasons which means overpaying him. It’s not so much the money as the length of the deal that’s in question here, we don’t want another Kapono-contract on our hands in a year’s time. His game is all about quickness and athleticism which are the first two things to go and we need to be very careful about the package we offer him. I’m prepared to lose him, Colangelo’s real challenge will be to find a replacement.

Parker, Bargnani and Triano were also interviewed. Back to my thoughts.

The high expectations coming into the season hinged on players displaying qualities and attributes that they either never had shown or had shown only in glimpses. Take for example Kapono and how we were relying on his playoff form against the Magic to continue into the regular season. Or Bargnani, who we thought would return to or even surpass his rookie year production. There were expectations that Moon, after a year’s experience, would elevate his game to fill out the small forward position and there were even high expectations of role players like Graham and Humphries, who were in their fourth and fifth years respectively, and were counted on to show improvement. Humphries didn’t play enough games and although Graham showed improvement, it wasn’t nearly enough to compensate for the glaring hole the SF was before Marion got here.

In hindsight, we were hoping for too many things to go right, not the least of which was O’Neal gelling with the team. Compensating for athleticism at key positions by shortening the rotation was always going to be challenging, but when the key unit you counted on to pull the weight for others couldn’t pull their own, it was only a matter of time before things came undone. I underestimated the black-hole effect of O’Neal and how it pushed Bosh out of rebounding position, and vice-versa. I was counting on them to provide great defensive rebounding but it just didn’t happen, you can attribute it to their individual style of play or the coaching, it hardly matters. The lesson learned is that you’re better off having a designated defender/rebounder aka Pops than a guy you’re asking to both score and defend. Also, good knees help.

It’s not a surprise that the bottom 10 teams in the NBA also happen to rank in the bottom of opponents field-goal percentage, a stat that I highly value. The Raptors allowed opponents to shoot close to 47% which would be acceptable if our defense had the ability to tighten up when need be. However, our fourth quarter point-differential was 8th worst which meant we rarely found an extra gear when we needed it the most. Other than the effort, intensity and a desire to play defense, we were also lacking technically, the way we handled pick ‘n roll and high-screen situations was deplorable and an Achilles’ heel of sorts, especially when talking about dribble penetration.

Before we even touch on dribble penetration, I need to rewind to the end of the 06-07 campaign when it was crystal that our #1 need was perimeter defense and rebounding. How did we fill this need? By adding Jason Kapono. A terrible move that’s still hurting us on the floor and in the cap. The chance to correct this mistake, or at least try to finally fill this need came about last summer but we inked Hassan Adams and Will Solomon instead of a legitimate athletic defender. More pain followed. Jose Calderon took the reigns from T.J Ford and everybody underestimated how bad of a defender he really was which added to the perimeter problems.

There’s two components of guarding a wing who is looking to penetrate your defense. The first is what the defender on his own can do to stop him, whether he has the the lateral quickness, strength, maneuverability and desire to keep his man in front of him. The second is the strategy and technique involved in helping the defender cope with the problem, whether it be hedging, zoning, trapping or what have you, whatever it is the communication must be ever present. We lacked in both areas, and as we already knew coming into the season, our wings lacked the sheer ability to keep their checks in front of them and to make matters worse, our defensive policy of providing help and dealing with dribble penetration was consistently poor.

It’s easy to blame Jose Calderon and Anthony Parker for the dribble-penetration woes but that’s only part of the story. The role of the PF/C in high-screen scenarios was also played poorly by Bosh, Bargnani and O’Neal pointing to a lack of preparation and understanding of the situation. The way of how to handle these situations must come from the coach more than the players thinking on their feet and I thought both Mitchell and Triano were far too detached from the decision-making here. Instead we relied on Calderon and Bosh to read the action and respond accordingly but their communication was poor which meant nothing could possibly work. Further confirmation of this was provided when Marion was acquired and he pointed to the deafening silence present in the Raptors’ defensive sets.

Bargnani was the highlight of the season for me, at least his 2009 was. As well as he played and as great as an improvement he showed from the previous season, I’m still not ready to say he turned the corner until he plays this way from start to finish. Unlike many of you, I’m open to the idea of trading him, then again I was also open to the idea of trading Vince Carter in 2002. Right now our two major trade baits are Bargnani and Bosh and there’s little reason to trade Bargnani unless you’re getting at least two ideal pieces which you fully believe will fit perfectly with Bosh. Bosh has publicly said that the season didn’t have an impact on his view of Toronto and he wouldn’t demand a trade, however that doesn’t mean he’s not going to demand a max 6yr/130M contract and that could end up being the only reason to trade him. If that is the case then Colangelo has to change his philosophy and see what he can get for Bosh which would fit with Bargnani. One thing is for sure: Having the “Will Bosh re-sign?” question looming over us next season is unacceptable and a recipe for disaster.

Back to Bargnani’s game, he’s strictly become a “toe rebounder” who reaches for the ball instead of jumping for it which isn’t ideal for a rebounder. But I’ve accepted that he will never be the rebounder a 7-footer should be and that’s okay as long as he brings the rest of his game. His man-defense was good last year and it was even better this year, he’s one of the few players in the league that gave Dwight Howard trouble in single-coverage and that’s mostly because of his superb discipline. I like how he lets his size to the defending rather than picking up fouls trying to make a play, it’s a sign of maturity and confidence. He’s learned how to stay on the court by not picking up that cheap second or third foul and the stats reflect that – he reduced his PER 48 fouls from 5.4 to 4.7. We must give Triano a lot of credit here, if for nothing than for letting him loose and instilling some confidence in him.

I don’t know how much to read into our late season successes. It’s probably the result of a combination of a few things: 1) Easier schedule, 2) Jose Calderon’s health, 3) Pressure-free games, 4) The post-deadline unit gelling. What weights each of these carry is debatable, but we can take a few things out of it. First, if Marion is to be part of this team we need to be a true high-tempo, high-energy team with Jose Calderon playing a style of basketball that isn’t entirely natural to him. Whether he’s capable of that is not yet known, all we’ve seen is glimpses and that’s not enough to conclude anything, the overwhelming evidence says no but players can change styles. Second, it’s better for the team if the primary option on offense isn’t Bosh.

Chris Bosh is most effective when he’s let loose on the offensive end, asked to crash the boards and is playing as a pseudo garbage-man. If we give him the ball at the start of the possession or as the first option out of a high-screen, the result is predictable. It’s either a jumper which may or may not be preceded with a wastage of the shot-clock. Am I generalizing? Yes, but I find this to be generally true. In contrast, when our offense runs through our wings, i.e: Calderon finding Bargnani, Marion and Parker who are slashing East-West, it makes for more movement and better shots. This does not mean Bosh is reduced to a better version of Humphries, it means the offense is not focused around him, but instead to our hopeful strengths – wing movement, passing and quickness. What does this mean? We need to get a wing who fits the bill, I’m not keen on Anthony Parker returning and would much rather have a high IQ college player in his place.

I’ve liked what I’ve seen out of Ukic, I love his aggressiveness and effort on defense but as I said in yesterday’s post, without a jumper and a tighter handle he’s a liability for us. Last summer we counted on Bargnani to improve and this time around it’s Ukic who we’re counting on to make Marcus Banks obsolete. We haven’t seen enough out of Quincy Douby to say what he might give us and it’s safer to expect nothing from him, the last thing we want to do is repeat the mistake of assuming production out of an unproven player. I like Ukic’s size, his defense and if he could only develop a shot we could even flirt with him playing the off-guard. Colangelo is in a tough position, does he sign a backup PG or not given that he’s already got a couple on the roster? I would advise against it unless he manages to off-load Banks in a trade, otherwise the redundancy would be too great. I think we need to make a decision on Ukic and if we believe in him, we stick with him, acquiring a PG in the draft or free-agency is sending a “you’re not in our plans” message to him.

I’ve said all season long that I’m fine with blowing this operation up and piling up on draft picks but I don’t think things have come to that. We’re a good shooting-guard and another good athletic wing defender away from being a respectable unit in the fluctuating Eastern conference. Signing Marion to the right number is key, we can’t afford to overpay for a 31 year old who is on the decline and might have one great year left in him. The last thing we want is a bad contract to replace Kapono or Banks’ whenever theirs comes off. As pointed out in earlier articles, there’s varying talent to be had in the draft at the wing positions and we need to weigh that against what we have in Joey Graham and potentially Carlos Delfino.

I like Triano and I want him to succeed but I have mixed-feelings about his control of the team. Most of those feelings stem from the lack of effort shown by the team when the games actually meant something. He hasn’t impressed us with his coaching ability but he’s avoided doing the dumb things which Mitchell had made a routine of. His protect-the-paint philosophy could actually work if we had wings that were quick enough to recover so I’m not going to criticize that. Substitutions wise, I thought he should’ve handled the Calderon injury situation much better and given more time to Ukic. I would prefer an experienced coach but I realize that it would come at a high price and since we’re already paying Sam Mitchell, it’s not likely to happen. His major downside is that he’s Colangelo’s puppet.

Finally, a Bosh trade could change everything. Golden State will come calling and so will other teams, the decision to accept or pass an offer will undoubtedly depend on whether Bosh can be signed to an extension. You’re not going to get a dollar-for-dollar value in a trade and if one has to be made, you try to get a young player with potential and a couple picks to go along with it and hope that Bargnani is the answer to the star-power.

There’s no Raptors basketball for 6 1/2 months. The NBA summer is very long and even more so if you’re not in the playoffs. Lot’s more to talk about in the summer ahead.