I’m trying to figure out reasons why the Raptors have won five straight. Jose Calderon’s momentary resurgence has a lot to do with it, and to some extent so has Alan Anderson’s return from injury. Of course, the public furor is also a product of the Raptors missing Andrea Bargnani and Kyle Lowry, two players who you would argue were the #1 and #2 offensive options heading into the season. Improved three-point shooting, something I’ve always felt has been lacking for some time here, is a possible reason for the revival. The Raptors are shooting 36% during their winning streak, which is up from 33% before it started. Three percent may not sound like much on paper, but it’s good enough to be the difference between the current 11th and 27th ranked teams in that category. The ensuing confidence that made threes results cannot be discounted and can yield more points – before their winning streak the Raptors took an average of 7 threes a game, and in their winning streak they’re taking 10.

The absence of Bargnani, a 32% three-point shooter who takes 4.5 threes a game, can be cited as a cause for this percentage improvement as simply more capable three-point shooters are taking those shots. The deeper reason though, is a general one: the floor is being spaced really well. A well-spaced floor is more than players spread across evenly, it’s about the players being in positions that cater to their strengths. The strongest evidence of this happening has to be the extended playing time received by Ed Davis, and more importantly, how it’s affecting Jose Calderon.

Empirically, there’s always been a certain synergy between Jose Calderon and Amir Johnson, and if you go some ways back, between Rasho Nesterovic and Jose Calderon as well. Calderon has never been a great drive-and-kick point guard, but he is excellent at working with his big men in pick ‘n roll situations. Essentially, Calderon being paired up with Ed Davis caters to him much more than Bargnani simply because Calderon`s strength is working with big men in close quarters. I’ve pointed to some stats in the recent post-games that speak to just how much of Calderon’s assists go towards big men that roll to the rim: Valanciunas, Davis, and Johnson. Of course, this alone does not a five-game win streak make, but a jump from 20.39 assists per game to 24.4 during the win streak is very significant. In NBA rank terms, that’s the difference between the 2nd ranked and 24th ranked team in that category!

The quality of opposition has obviously been a factor with four of the five games at home. Detroit, Cleveland, and Orlando are games that you would’ve penciled the Raptors to have a chance in under any circumstance. The Dallas and Houston wins were a nice surprise, the latter is to date Houston’s worst performance on the season (they destroyed the Knicks the next night at MSG). There is no doubt that the group that’s playing out there right now functions better than what was there before, even though I don’t share the opinion that Lowry’s play is problematic. However, the upcoming three-game road trip against San Antonio, New Orleans, and Orlando, combined with the home date with Portland, is apt to tell us more about the capability of the current unit than the last five games. If the Raptors are able to compete with this group over the next four games, then you seriously have to ponder, if you haven’t already, just where Bargnani and Lowry fit on the team.

That elusive core the Raptors have been searching for and which has gone through several iterations is now standing to be DeRozan, Davis, Valanciunas and Ross. Everything else is supplementary. If Colangelo decides that fostering these four players is best done through Jose Calderon, then there shouldn’t be any issue with that given how the team is performing. The other approach is to parlay Calderon along with Bargnani into something else of use, and instate Lowry as the unquestionable starter. Raptors fans, more or less, are debating between which of the two options to pick from. The easiest thing to do and one that won’t be put to question is to retain both point guards until the end of the season and see where the wind takes you.

The bench remains thin for the Raptors with Alan Anderson, Linas Kleiza, Terrence Ross and Amir Johnson headlining the substitutes. My long-standing belief that adding Bargnani to the reserves will be great for all parties is still held, even though the general feeling around town is that his time here is done, especially with trade rumors circling (smoke/fire). The good news for Colangelo is that he’s going to have a decent sample size of varying lineups to evaluate what works and what doesn’t. With Bargnani out indefinitely and Lowry already missing 12 games, he’s going to have enough empirical and statistical evidence to see what course this rebuild is going to take.

To recap, questions whose answers are currently pending:

  • Calderon or Lowry, who is the point guard that facilitates the rebuild? Long-time question this one, just replace Lowry with T.J Ford and Jarrett Jack, and you we’ve seen this before. Obviously, Colangelo has picked Calderon the last two occasions, will he do it a third time?
  • What to do with Bargnani? As evidenced by the poll on the site, we know what the fans think. It’s a question of whether Colangelo agrees, and more importantly, what’s available for Bargnani on the open market. It would be rather embarrassing to flip him for a second-rounder. Then again, if the Knicks can make Amare available for free, there shouldn’t be any shame for Colangelo to do the same with Bargnani.
  • What exactly is Landry Fields’ role? If he continues to shoot a horrific percentage, then you have to wonder just what his value to the team is, especially given we have a cheaper option in Mickael Pietrus. Is Fields more than a residual of the Nash saga and actually a viable option at the three long-term? It’s a serious question to be asked because it influences what the Raptors seek in a potential deal. My belief is that he’s a bench player at best, and possibly a fifth starter on a good team.
  • What is Ross’ long-term role? This isn’t an urgent question but needs some thinking. Do the Raptors see him as a starter, and if so, at what position? There’s some room for maneuvering between DeRozan and Ross at the two/three, and if we’re testing out either player at the small forward spot just to see what their future position might be, now might be the time to do it. According to 82games.com, DeRozan’s PER at SF is lower (14.8 vs. 12.4) but he’s also conceding a lower PER defensively (16.3 vs. 12.9). Something to think about.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from everyone at RR!