There’s a point to this season, right? That’s what I keep telling myself, that this season was a necessary step in getting to where the Raptors want to be. Nobody’s quite sure where that is, or when it might happen, but conventional wisdom and history says that things usually get worse before they get better. How worse? 60-losses worse. That’s where the Raptors are headed, with four surefire defeats on the schedule it’ll come down to games against Milwaukee and New Jersey to avoid that dubious mark. Sixty is only a number, and doesn’t even bother me that much, except that it screams “We suck!”.
And maybe suck was what the doctor had ordered this season, except that suck didn’t seem to bring much in terms of positives along with it, DeRozan and Davis’ mild development being an exception. Sonny Weems didn’t quite take the step the fans or the Raptors marketing department hoped he would, Andrea Bargnani didn’t prove himself to be any better or worse without Chris Bosh, and Amir Johnson projected out to his increase in minutes. The pre-season playoff talk didn’t hold water to begin with, and as the reality of losing set in, it became evident that there’s lots of work to be done and that work includes finding out who the “core” is.
There isn’t a player on this roster that could be labelled untouchable, and I’m glad that that’s the case. This franchise wasted plenty of years trying to build around a shoddy “star” in Chris Bosh, and repeating that mistake could be fatal to basketball in Toronto. Greatness was thrust upon Chris Bosh in this city and the experiment ended up in shambles, doing the same with Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan is setting up for failure. As of this day, none of the players on the roster have shown that they can be a future Top 20 player in the league, there’s been glimpses of greatness here and there, but if you watch enough NBA basketball, you know that scrubs everywhere have 20 point games on a nightly basis.
At the same time, a team can’t afford to overhaul every summer, and the reality is that the Raptors will take forward the core of DeRozan, Davis, Johnson and perhaps Bargnani into next year. So what do you with these guys next year? If there is going to be a season, the target for next year has to be 40 wins. That’s a number that signals that a team is good, but lacking a piece or two to take them to the next level. That’s the number where fans can get excited about the future, knowing that they have a stable base. It’s the number that the Raptors have to get to which will signal that they’ve overcome the loss of Chris Bosh and have started anew.
How do you get to 40 wins? Improve defensively. You know the stats, you’ve seen the games, the Raptors are a terrible defensive team (dead last in the NBA for the second straight season) with problems ranging all the way from schemes to personnel to attitude to accountability and the list goes on. There is no hope for this franchise if they don’t become, at the very least, a middle-of-the-pack defensive team by next season.
Personnel-wise, to get there you have to find an excellent defensive point guard, and a center that can serve as an anchor. As nice and cozy of a person and player Jose Calderon is, and as much as he leads the team in steals, he has to vacate the starting point guard spot. I also don’t see any way Andrea Bargnani can become even a passable defensive starter at this point. I’ve watched every Raptors game this season and that too with great detail with a pen and a pad in my hand, and let me tell you that he is easily the worst defensive starting center in the league. I’ve given him plenty of chances to show me that he’s slightly capable of holding his own and being counted on defense. Nothing. Don’t get me wrong, he’s far from the problem, but the position he plays pulls him into sharp focus when the overall team defense is bad.
And the coach, of course. Jay Triano’s pulling of Jerryd Bayless against the Clippers in the fourth left me scratching my head to the point where my scalp was bleeding. Forget about X’s and O’s, his blown last-minute plays, and the game-management for a second, he’s been here for close to three full seasons and cannot get these guys to play any defense. Last year we made fun of Marc Iavaroni for failing us, this year maybe P.J. Carlesimo gets the burn, but the constant in all of this is Jay Triano. He has not gotten the job done. I’m not a hard man to please and would accept even an inkling of defense, however, he has delivered nothing on that front.
It’s become all too predictable as well, Triano goes to the zone in the second quarter to get the team back in the game by throwing the opponent offense off. In the third quarter he tries the same zone again which doesn’t work because teams adjust, and by the fourth quarter the Raptors are out of ideas and energy. Don’t let the mid-ranked offense fool you, the Raptors clutch scoring has been highly suspect; the NBA is still a league of runs and increasing the intensity when it counts, and when teams do that against the Raptors, nobody has been capable of stepping up.
James Johnson has had a nice end to the season, and is in line to be next season’s Sonny Weems of this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if raptors.com features him in their season ticket promos. Having said that, I’ll take him over Linas Kleiza who falls into the category of player contributing to the Raptors’ defensive demise. I have no clue if there were any takers for Leandro Barbosa, buf if they were, Colangelo is a fool for not trading him. While I didn’t want Reggie Evans traded at the deadline because of his expiring contract, it pains me to see him on the court at the expense of Ed Davis, or even Solomon Alabi for that matter.
The draft is an interesting problem. The theory goes that if a team has as many holes as the Raptors, it’s better off trading down or out, and filling two or three holes by trading away an overvalued high pick. The danger is that you’d be gambling with potential NBA has-beens instead of suckling on new blood. It comes down to how well the Raptors have scouted the draft. Is Kyrie Irving the answer at the point? Very debatable, in my opinion it’ll take him a couple years to become a half-decent point guard in the league. Harrison Barnes? Another year of school is what he needs. The tournament raised Derrick Williams’ stock and I love his aggressiveness, but we have a power forward, no? Play him at the three? If the Raptors fall out of the top four, the choices at point guard become the likes of Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight, players with weaknesses aplenty.
I would not be surprised if the Raptors traded their pick. Why? DeRozan and Davis are 21, Jerryd Bayless is 22, Amir Johnson is 23, James Johnson is 24, and if he’s around, Sonny Weems is 24. I’m not even counting players like Alabi and Ajinca, both under 23, and Bargnani who is 25. There is plenty of youth on the roster, it’s underwhelming youth but youth nonetheless. Colangelo could argue that another 19-20 year old isn’t exactly what the Raptors need, instead he could shift his focus on players like, and this is only an example, O.J. Mayo. A guy who’s got some experience, has gotten the hang of NBA travel and practices, and is looking for a permanent starting job.
If you want to fast-forward the rebuilding, trading the pick might be the answer. If not, then add another rookie, play him 35 minutes a night, and gear up for another 60-loss season. Either way, we’ll be watching because we’re Raptors fans and as much as I hate what this team does on the court, I do still love them.