Despite a rough start to the preseason and the struggles of individuals, alas, the team as a whole, to get in regular season shape, Raptorland remains afloat with optimism. Of course, we have all been here before. For the past half decade, the fan base has levied large expectations on rosters and situations that may not have been worthy of such pre-emptive praise. I, myself, was worrisome that we would do the same this year as well. When Bryan Colangelo dropped the “50 win” bomb, I couldn’t help but feel a familiar pull to the over-optimistic.
But I have done well in tempering my expectations. I find 50 wins to be lofty, but am supremely confident that we are watching the molding of a top-5 team in the East. It certainly hasn’t been the presence (or lack thereof) of Turkoglu, the (lack of) health up and down the roster, inspired team-first offense from Marco Belinelli (uhh…), or the apparently pointless-in-game-situations added bulk to Bosh’s frame.
Instead, my expectations have remained buoyed on the life raft of Jay Triano. Long considered one of the top assistants in the league, Triano was largely respected by players and the basketball community alike for his work with Team Canada and then with the Team USA Selects. Handed a rag-tag roster at the end of a lost season, we saw little of what Triano was capable of last year.
Already this preseason, though, we’ve heard and witnessed things from a coach the good fans of the Raptors aren’t used to. Defensive focus that is more than lip service, the understanding of how to utilize role players, and the understanding that coaching is equal parts strategy and psychology.
Kevin O’Neill couldn’t handle the psychological part, and Sam Mitchell deferred the strategic to his staff of assistants. Triano seems to grasp the balance well, while bringing his unique vision of both to the forefront of Training Camp 2009. With zero results that could be described as positive in his career, Triano’s demeanor, approach, and basketball intelligence are all I need to convince me that this roster, which is the best top-to-bottom we have enjoyed in many years, is every bit as good as we are collectively expecting them to be.
There are a few key examples of what I mean that stick out, not the least of which is Triano’s insistence that rookie DeMar DeRozan will have to earn his playing time. It sounds simple, but most times franchises will force rookies into a role or minutes that they haven’t earned, or do the complete opposite and give them no chance to succeed. With the addition of Antoine Wright, Triano has a tool at his disposal to push and teach DeRozan. As he has indicated many times, the luxury of having Wright is that Triano can pull DeRozan at any point to coach him, without losing anything on the floor with the Wright substitution. I have seen far too many cases of coaching done by yelling from the sidelines or being left for the post-game, neither of which is an immediate nor effective teaching tool, it seems.
In addition, Triano seems to have a pretty sound grasp of how to run a training camp already. Whether it be bringing players along slowly, building from defensive basics upward, or bringing in notorious shooting guru Dave Hopla over a span of three non-game days, Triano appears to have found a balance between defense, offense, down time, and mental preparation. It sounds as if the amount of video time and “basketball study” is more than we’ve ever expected in Toronto, and it has me hopeful that this will be the most basketball-intelligent installment of the Raptors yet.
Of course, I shouldn’t have to convince you of Triano’s credentials. Coach of Team Canada, Coach of Team USA Selects, author of “Basketball Basics,” confidant of Steve Nash…the list of qualifiers goes on. Triano is without a doubt a great basketball mind. So far, it appears as though he’s doing a great job transferring that knowledge to his players, fostering a team vision that rewards defensive intensity, basketball intelligence, and a willingness to sacrifice for the good of the team (see Amir Johnson’s attitude on limited minutes, for a good example).
Whether this translates to Wins when the NBA season gets underway next week is yet to be seen. We’re all obviously on guard for a slow start given the training camp and conditioning troubles of the team, but a complete culture overhaul cannot be evaluated in just a few weeks anyway. At the very least, we’ll soon know if handling adversity and making adjustments is another skill to add to the lengthy list of Triano coaching qualities.