Meaningless game #45 is upon us and the entertainers visiting the ACC are the 21-23 Memphis Grizzlies, who the Raptors have lost four straight to (once this season). Memphis sit 9th in the as-usual tough Western conference, 3 1/2 games back of a playoff spot. The Raptors are 13th in the East, 4 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. Playoffs? What’s that you ask? It’s that tournament they play at the end of each season where the top eight teams from each conference get to participate in. Your memory can be forgiven because it’s been a while since the Raptors have been there, and the odd time they do manage to sneak in, they’re prone to get kicked out of it faster than Linday from rehab.

Respite might come in the form of an easier stretch where the Raptors play 7 of 8 games against competition sitting outside the playoff bracket, they face the Bucks twice in this span so could make up for lost ground. Other teams ahead of the Raptors are Charlotte, Indiana, Detroit and Washington (yes, we’re worse than the Wizards), all of whom I’d put money on making the playoffs before the Raptors. The playoffs would be a nice little reward for the team’s efforts in a rebuilding year – and they still might happen – but be rest assured that at the going rate, there will be more “rebuilding” years to come.

Please don’t confuse the tone of this post as bitter, far from it, I was just reflecting over my Raptors “fanhood” of the last five seasons under Bryan Colangelo and I believe today marks the lowest of his regime. Not because of anything particular, but because of the general clusterf**k that this team has become and how it devastates the enthusiasm of even the most hardcore of supporters, which Raptors fans are to their very core. With only one winning season and two whimpering first-round exits under his belt, Colangelo will enter contract talks with the Raptors about a possible extension. I’m sure he’ll get one, not because of anything he’s done on the basketball court, but because of what he might have been able to provide the accountants with. I’m not privy to that, I can only speak to the product on the floor which is about as craptastic as crap can be.

It’s not for lack of spending that the Raptors are losing either, the investment to keep the casual fan thinking that MLSE is serious about winning has been there. The Raptors have been 15th, 8th, 16th and 16th in the league over the last four seasons in terms of payroll. Ironically enough, the “successful” 2006-07 team had a payroll ranked 28th in the league. This isn’t championship-commitment investment, but surely it’s a competitive one if the GM is up to it, no? Instead of strategic team building, we’ve seen mid-level exceptions blown on Jason Kapono, Jarrett Jack and Linas Kleiza, and a year each wasted in Hedo Turkoglu and Jermaine O’Neal. So when I hear rumours that the Raptors are searching for a star, it makes my heart sink because rarely are stars acquired via trade, it’s through the draft which that happens.

Glen Grunwald was fired after two seasons of missing the playoffs, the last of which the Raptors went 33-49 in, and this was right after leading the team to it’s best-ever run of three straight playoff appearances and a series-win in 2001. Rob Babcock was also fired after two straight playoff-less seasons, the last of which ended with the Raptors going 27-55. You could say that Babcock was fired for mismanaging the Carter trade, but isn’t Colangelo even more guilty of neglect in the Bosh saga? The Raptors are on course for fewer wins this year than the final year of any of those two GMs, yet MLSE will not even entertain the subject of discussing Colangelo’s future elsewhere. “We like Bryan. I still believe we have two of the best general managers in hockey and basketball (in Leafs GM Brian Burke and Colangelo). I wouldn’t trade either of them for anyone, and I know my way around the leagues,” said Richard Peddie last October. Yes, Richard Peddie knows his “way around the leagues” as evidenced by his teams winning jack-squat in recent memory.

Peddie is a businessman by large, he doesn’t even view these teams as entities that are supposed to compete, as long as they’re making good coin. “We have really reduced our dependency on playoffs,” Peddie said. “At one time, in the pre-cap era, we averaged almost six playoff games a year, and when you do the math on that, that’s a healthy dollar amount. We took that out.” That’s a business man talking, when there’s no playoffs to be counted on, what you do is build a trendy sports bar, premium office-space, sold-out condominiums, and a hotel. Who cares as if the Raptors are getting blown to shreds on a nightly basis, as long as the books are balancing. I’m just glad he’s leaving MLSE, in this case any change is good change – for the fans.

Woah, that was quite a diversion. Let’s try and focus our energy towards some of the good relatively good things happening with the Raptors. DeMar DeRozan’s play on the roadtrip has caught the eye, after his 7-point stinker in Washington where Nick Young lit him up, he’s netted 23, 28, 16 and 30 points, while shooting 47% in those four games. DeMar has finally realized that this is anybody’s team to take over, and since Andrea Bargnani doesn’t seem too interested in it, DeRozan’s gone about his business making sure that his name is called by the commentators every other play at the very least. His shot-variety has also improved and he doesn’t let a failure on one possession affect the next. He’s gone into a mode where he’s recognizing that he’s one of the better players on a bad, bad team. And it’s also never too early to start putting up numbers with an eye to an extension, something our current GM loves to give.

Ed Davis is also starting to carve his role in the rotation, he averaged 8 points and 6.8 rebounds on the 0-5 trip and looks very much the part of a good substitute. The time he missed from injury has given him fresher legs and it’s nice to see him compete out there. You can tell that the losing really bothers him which you love to see. Given his work-ethic and commitment, I can see him incrementally improve himself into a consistent double-double threat as early as next year. He’s already averaging 10/10 PER36 minutes, and given his opportunistic game which doesn’t rely on touches should get him there. If you’re into win scores, he’s second on the team in WS/48 behind Amir Johnson.

Jerryd Bayless has also returned from injury and is showing signs of getting back into the thick of things. With StojakovicWTF gone, the backup point-guard is the lone remnant of the Jack trade, and is playing with a sense of enthusiasm despite the losing. Unlike Sonny Weems, he understands that he’s getting a shot at staying in the NBA in Toronto and he’s not going to let it slip. He’s one of the players I enjoy watching the most because he plays both ends, and is wanting to prove that he belongs. His drive-and-kick game can be very effective once he fully understands the players around him, not to mention that the lack of perimeter shooters tends to discourage a point-guard from passing back out, and instead you sometimes see him take very contested shots at the paint.

You’ll notice there’s no mention of Andrea Bargnani in this post until now because I dread talking about him. He’s had a terrible week on both ends of the floor, further solidifying the now well-accepted theory that unless his offense is flowing, he’s not going to give you much otherwise. I attribute his poor defensive play to lack of effort first, and then lack of basketball IQ/technique. Offensively, a jump shooter has bad weeks, pure and simple, no point complaining about it over and over again because that’s not going to change. And don’t let Devlin and Leo fool you into thinking that Bargnani is being more aggressive this year because he’s not taking as many threes, he’s just making up for it by taking long twos. Specifically, he’s taking 0.6 less threes this year, but he’s also talking 1.4 more shots between 16-23 feet. Not that I give a sh*t either way as long as they go in, just saying that he’s not exactly taking high percentage shots. To me, if he can’t get high-percentage buckets and put consistent pressure on the defense through his scoring, the next option is to draw fouls. To his credit, he’s increased his FTs from last year (2.9 to 4.8), but that’s still too little. If DeMar DeRozan, a guy with no handles and no jumper can put 5.0 FTs worth of pressure, I’m sure an experienced big man with an apparently vast assortment of offensive skills can do more than 4.8.

His game is predictably inconsistent. There is nothing surprising when he has a great 32-point game or a 4-14 stinker with 3 rebounds. Over four years, his strengths and weaknesses have been well-documented, the impact of his defense on the team is well-known, and his potential value on offense is also apparent. The disheartenment stems from his inconsistency and it’s perfectly normal and expected for the Raptors to fall to 29th in overall defense during Bargnani’s worst defensive stretch. In his defense, he does appear to be hampered with injuries. “[Bargnani] has been battling with the knees,” said Jay Triano. “They have been bothering him and I think it’s the schedule with as many games as we have had in a short period against tough teams, I have had to extend his minutes.” Fair stuff, but if this is a development year, why risk further injury and why not throw Solomon Alabi out there so he can, you know, develop?

Oh yes, there’s a game today isn’t there, the Grizzlies, right. Barbosa, Weems, Kleiza and Dorsey were all unavailable on Saturday, with Barbosa a week away and Weems out indefinitely. Jose Calderon rolled his ankle on Saturday night so his status right now is unknown. Kleiza or Dorsey are questionable. As for the actual game, the Grizzlies lead the league in points in the paint thanks to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and Lionel Hollins is not keeping any secrets. “That’s our game,” Hollins said. “We lead the league in points in the paint. We led the league last year in points in the paint. That is who we are. We try to find ways to attack the paint.” Last time out their big men didn’t get going till the second half when they finally pulled away, this after the Raptors had built a healthy first quarter lead. Expect Memphis to go where they had success against the Raptors – inside.

Raptors have lost seven straight and start a three-game homestand with games against Philadelphi and Milwaukee also coming up. If you’re on the lottery-watch, we’re 5th worst.

Enjoy the game and fear not, Alexis Ajinca is coming.