I have in me a love of the open seas, and do not mind in the least, traveling careless upon them in a gallant yacht or a simple canoe. Both are the same to me, but there is one aspect of travels that I insist on: a destination. It is this the destination of the Raptors that I am confused about, more specifically, what the goal of next season is and what my expectations should be. I don’t have delusional expectations of title contention like teams like LA, Boston, Orlando and now, the Heat, nor do I expect us to challenge the second-tier of the NBA contenders – San Antonio, Dallas and the like. As much as I would enjoy seeing a team rise from the ashes using nothing but home-grown talent, rookies and a free-agent or two, I know that it means losing 50 games which is not of any pleasure. At the same time, getting eliminated in the first round after collecting 40 wins has also gotten old.
There are those who tell me that next year’s team will be “exciting and fun to watch”, but the contradiction in that statement lies in the openness of its interpretation. What some might consider up-tempo, loose, exciting three-guard basketball can be seen as an undisciplined approach destined to fail in fourth quarters and the playoffs. The only underlying agreement that seems to be present is that the team needs to follow an upward trajectory, something that wasn’t the case the last two years as the Raptors awarded heavy contracts to players on the decline.
With the infusion of young talent in the form of DeRozan, Weems, Davis, and Johnson, the slope of this trajectory will no doubt be positive and Colangelo needs to be given credit for assembling the talent, even though it hasn’t proved itself to be great, only serviceable. The question we have to ask ourselves is how much latitude should be allowed to these players to finally get to where we hope they can get. If DeRozan is our next McGrady, Weems our next Carter, Johnson our next Davis and Davis our next Bosh, there has to be some sense in accelerating their development so that the overall suffering is shortened, even if the degree of suffering will be heightened in the short-term.
It is also important to understand that, as Scott pointed out, this is a business and seats need to be filled in order for the experiment to continue and the franchise to survive, so it is being very unfair to Colangelo to expect him to drop everything and dedicate this team solely to developing its young talent. Business sense and capitalism dictates that we put out a team that is very possibly mediocre but draws the casual fan, thus keeping the life and blood of the franchise moving along. From a basketball purists point of view, this is almost sacrilege, but this is not a world for purists.
Adding a 30-year old Matt Barnes last year or the year before that would have been seen as a sound decision across the board. The team was looking tighten the defense, contend, and convince Chris Bosh to stay. Adding a veteran like Barnes would have been ideal at the time and it’s not a surprise that he went to a contender that appreciated his talents. The Raptors making a 2-year play for him now is still a good move, but because of a very different reason – a need to fill out a position which allegedly has a depth of one. For seven year, Barnes has been a perennial second-unit player having started only 36% of the games he’s played; if signed by the Raptors he could easily be penciled in as the starter and probably do an adequate and unspectacular job. I have nothing against this signing whatsoever, except I’d like to point out that if Triano plays his players by position, Barnes would surpass his career 21mpg and will be stretched, thus compromising his effectiveness. His grit factor is great, but deep down I have to question a player who almost signed for a team that has zero chance of contention over a team that can offer deep runs into the playoffs. It’s all a moot point now, but I felt I had to say it.
As tumultuous as the summer has seemed thus far, the only free-agent or trade addition has been Linas Kleiza, a man who wasn’t in the NBA last season, and Barbosa, an injured tweener whose best could be behind him. This summer has seen the team build through addition by subtraction more than anything. Kleiza also stands to be the only legitimate small-forward on the club, which most architects of merit will tell you, is a dubious decision. His foot-speed, positional confusion and poor three-point shooting begs for him to be considered a rotating piece which one can plug a hole with for a few minutes here and there, not a starter who has a full-time responsibility to score and defend. Colangelo has already tried adding depth to the position by targeting Barnes and Diaw, both moves that are open to questioning and praise, but failed to seal the transaction. There’s little doubt he will try again and there’s even lesser doubt that he’ll split the Republic down the middle, as evidenced by the recent Adam Morrison interest. It shouldn’t come as a surprise because if Colangelo has proven to be an architect of any sort, it’s one that will go to great lengths to find the material he has complete faith in, regardless of what his peers, critics or common sense might dictate. If the sciences insist upon a marble stone and Colangelo believes that granite will do, he will ignore all advice and rest his faith in granite, even if the great Howard Roark himself said otherwise.
My opinion in this matter is simply to ignore this supposed need and shift Sonny Weems and his 6’6″ frame over the three. After all, if he was two inches taller nobody would be shopping for a small-forward on the ESPN trade machine every other minute. Weems has shown he can defend, often with conviction and rarely with diffidence. He’s going to be entering a contract year and we may as well find out just exactly what the limits of his talents are. He may not be a defensive-stopper right now but does have the tools to be one; on offense, being guarded by a taller player could hamper the ease of which he finds the space to release his jumper, but if he expects to get the same looks he got last year, he’s sadly mistaken. His drive-game will need to significantly improve because the book is out on him, and putting forth a challenge for him will serve him well. Since we are in the process of gutting the building down without removing the steel frames, it would be good to know just exactly what the strength of one of the key girders is.
The man that should be zeroed in on next year is the foundation of the house – Andrea Bargnani. No other. Not DeRozan, not Weems, not Johnson, but Andrea Bargnani. We need to see returns from him in the worst possible way. Other than a rookie season where he caught everybody off-guard with his unorthodox play at center, he has been a disappointment. Unless you’re impressed by 16 points a game on a non-playoff team, I’m sure you agree. The strides he’s made haven’t been significant enough to matter, and he’s even forced his most devout followers to acknowledge that he might not have what is needed of a centerpiece player. His lack of instincts on defense are so apparent that even Colangelo has acknowledged that he needs to work on them, but unfortunately, instincts can’t be taught because by their very definition they are a natural and innate impulse, not a lesson that can be learned in a textbook.
Bargnani needs to have a prodigious offensive year and should become the unquestioned go-to player on offense, not Weems or DeRozan. An All-Star game wouldn’t hurt him either, and could “announce” his arrival as the dominant offensive player that he’s spoken off so passionately amongst his support. We can fall head over heels after a 5-0 summer league record all we want, but we know it means little unless Bargnani, the man who will play 35 minutes at center next season, produces like he’s paid and framed. In his fifth year, Dirk Nowitzki averaged 25.1 points and 9.9 rebounds, both better figures than his MVP 2006-07 season. Now that the excuse of “Bosh holding him back” is gone, it’s time to see what our prized possession can do. I for one am waiting, with bated breath.