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picketfence

First of all, I want to thank Blake and the rest of the Raptors Republic crew for bringing me in from the blogsphere hinterland and into the bosom of the TrueHoop Network. I look forward to sucking on the teat of…okay, enough with that analogy.

For those who don’t know me, I started the blog, The Picket Fence, back in 2009, where I infrequently wrote about the Raptors and the NBA in general.

I started playing and following the game back in the mid-80’s, but instead of jumping on the Celtics’ or Lakers’ bandwagons (which was the norm at the time), I looked to nearby (at the time- I moved to Vancouver after university) Detroit to hitch my wagon to. My fandom culminated in them winning back-to-back titles in 1990 and 1991. The very next year, I watched in person (well, I watched Game 5 in person) as the Blue Jays won their first of back-to-back World Series titles (and then a year later, moved to Vancouver in the wake of their FIRST Stanley Cup riots, but that’s beside the point).

So unlike many long-suffering Leafs fans (I never, ever followed hockey), I never had a cynical outlook when it came to professional sports teams. To me, the ultimate, and achievable, goal of any professional sports franchise should be to compete for, if not win, a Championship.

Which brings us to the subject of my first column for Raptors Republic. (Note: For readers of my own blog, this article will be recycling material from some past posts, but it’s necessary for part two.)

In PHDSteve’s podcast from last week, he talked about two possible futures for the Raptors. He said the Raptors could either blow up the team, firing the GM, coach and trading all the players, or grow internally and moving ahead with the pieces you have. He felt the best course of action was to continue along the path they’re on and develop the talent they have.

I wonder what talent he’s actually looking at, because I don’t see it. Or perhaps his goal for the team is different from mine.

Believe me, I understand the desire not to go through any more losing. In their 17 years, the Raptors have only had 4 winning seasons. Four. Raptor fans have not had a lot to cheer for, over the years. But that doesn’t mean you settle for mediocrity. And that’s exactly what you’ll get if the Raptors stay the course.

Speaking of mediocrity…

Bryan Colangelo, in his 7 years on the job, has given the team 6 losing seasons, just 2 playoff appearances, none of which resulted in the team getting past the first round. He lost the only All Star the team had, gambled for 7 years and lost by stubbornly hitching the team to Andrea Bargnani, and now has a borderline playoff team with a ceiling of a 2nd round team (best case scenario) that’s close to the luxury tax. Plus, he’s given out some of the worst contracts in the league, proving time and time again to be a poor judge of talent.

I find it mind boggling that ANYONE would consider picking up his option, let alone extending his contract. If he was any other GM, for any other NBA team, he would have been fired two or three years ago. There is simply no good excuse to keep Colangelo on.

On his podcast on Tuesday, PHDSteve expanded on why the Raptors need to stay the course, talking about the need for consistency, but I’m not sure I see the point when your general manager has proven over the course of his tenure that he’s simply not a very good one.

Coincidentally, I happened to be rereading Bill Simmons’ famous Atrocious GM Conference he wrote back in 2006. I’ve lifted a few selected passages from the article, and I want you to see if you can see how they relate to Colangelo.

 “It’s always better to make good picks in the draft — this way, your fans can become attached to them, then you can trade them for inferior guys with bad contracts. Plus, it throws the media off your scent a little bit. I would much rather draft a decent guy, then trade him down the road, or overpay him with a crazy contract that makes no sense or kills my cap space. If you’re openly tanking draft picks, it’s too obvious.”

“You gave Allan Houston $100 million when he couldn’t have gotten more than $71 million anywhere else. You gave Charlie Ward $28 million. You traded Marcus Camby and a lottery pick that could have been Amare Stoudamire for Antonio McDyess and his bum knee. By the time you got canned, they were a lottery team.”

“To me, that’s the beauty of what Isiah has been able to pull off. Casual hoops fans can look at the Knicks’ roster and say, “Wow, we have Marbury, Eddy Curry and Jalen Rose?!” Diehard fans can look at the roster and say, “This is just crazy enough that it might work,” or “Maybe we can package some of these guys for a superstar.” So there’s a little bit of hope there, even if it’s misguided, ridiculous and inane.”

Change a few names here and there and they could be talking about Colangelo. Probably NOT a good sign.

Obviously, Colangelo is ultimately responsible for the entire team, including the coaching staff. And the current version of the team is not a compelling argument for Colangelo to keep his job.

Last season, Dwane Casey helped a team with little talent overachieve but has struggled to help a more talented team take the next step. It’s not that Casey is a bad coach, it’s just he’s not a particularly good head coach. And like all coaches, he has his strengths and his weaknesses. He’s a good motivator, and good defensive coach, but he’s not good at rotations, offense or, apparently, developing young players.

More troubling, however, are the mixed signals he sends to players (and fans). He claims he holds players accountable and players have to earn their playing time, but that was obviously not the case with Bargnani. And Ed Davis only played when there were no other options available despite playing hard and well at the beginning of the season. And then when Bargnani came back from injury, he was again inserted into the starting lineup without deserving it. Whether this was a directive from Colangelo is beside the point. It’s ultimately the coaches responsibility who plays and who doesn’t.

And Jonas Valanciunas’ absence during the fourth quarters of games even when he plays well would make more sense if the team didn’t consistently play poorly at the end of games. His insistence on playing small ball at that time too often leaves the team vulnerable on the inside and on the boards, and far too dependant on outside shooting, which they are not very good at. Not only is Casey’s insistence on sitting Valanciunas late in games hurting Valanciunas’ development (he has to learn to play then by actually playing), it has hurt the team.

I have no problem with being selective with minutes for young players and making them earn playing time, but when he’s played well against an opponent all game long, I’m not sure of the logic of sitting him when you need him most, and when he’ll learn the most.

Casey is obviously not the coach most Raptor fans hoped he’d be after last season. The best organizations stick with their coaches and create a system that inhabits the entire organization. But first you need the right coach. And however much I appreciate the good things Casey does, he’s not it.

Of course, without the right talent, even the best coach isn’t going to succeed. And while the Raptors certainly have some talent, it’s rather flawed talent.

Now, honestly, I was going to go into some detail about each player, talking about their strengths and weaknesses, but then I watched the game against Miami and realized it was a microcosm of what is what is wrong with this team.

First Rudy Gay.

Through the first three quarters, we saw exactly why Colangelo has been enamoured of Gay and why the Raptors are so desperately trying to sell him as an elite player. He scored inside and out, rebounded the ball in traffic and made one absolutely spectacular pass to (I think) Terrence Ross on the fast break. He shot 11-16 from the field and was a big reason why the Raptors had tied it up at 77.

Then the other Rudy Gay took over.

In the fourth quarter, he went 0-4 , without one shot attempt closer than 14 feet. At least in the Charlotte game he went inside more in the fourth quarter, but still shot 1-5. For a guy that is billed as a closer for the Raptors, he’s actually a poor shooter in clutch situations. It’s great that he has hit some big last second shots, but if he shoots poorly until then, it doesn’t actually help the team win.

And while he actually shot fairly decent (for him) from behind the three point line in the games against Miami and Charlotte, he continues to launch 3 pointers at a high rate (3.3 per game, 4.1 since the trade) while shooting 28.6% for the season, well below the league average. That’s simply not good judgement.

In a lot of ways, he reminds me of a post-injury Vince Carter (Raptors version) where he falls in love with his jumpshot, coasts way too much and doesn’t seem to want to use the physical and basketball skills he’s blessed with. Do we really want to go through THAT again?

Like with Andrea Bargnani, Colangelo is enamoured with what Gay CAN do, rather than what he ACTUALLY does do on a consistent basis. Gay is a very good player, but if he’s your best player, or even your second best player, your team is going to be mediocre, at best. And unfortunately with him making more than $37 million over the next two seasons, Gay will remain the team’s “best” player for the near future because his contract (as well as those of DeRozan, Bargnani and Fields) will limit what the Raptors can do to upgrade the roster.

DeMar DeRozan is the team’s second leading scorer, and, like Gay, he’s inefficient offensively, takes WAY too many long twos and has major problems on the defensive end. While I like DeRozan’s work ethic, a lot of his statistical improvement is simply due to more minutes than actually doing things at a more efficient rate. For example, his 4.1 rebounds a game mark a career high, but his rebounding percentage of 6.5%, a much better indication of rebounding, is actually slightly below his career average of 6.6%.

And while he’s gotten to the line more as the season has gone on, his field goal percentage has actually declined every single month and he is shooting just 40% for March. In other words, despite what everyone seems to be saying, DeRozan has NOT played better since the Rudy Gay trade. He’s gotten to the line more, but his scoring is about the same and his field goal percentage has gone down.

Any team dependant on Gay and DeRozan as their leading scorers are simply not going to be efficient enough or score consistently enough to be anything more than a mediocre team.

Kyle Lowry hasn’t exactly been the player Raptor fans had hoped for, either. Like Gay, he’s inconsistent and gambles too much on defense, and while he’s a willing passer, he simply doesn’t have the same ability to deliver the right pass at the right time that Jose Calderon did. And, again, the game against Miami was the perfect example of Lowry’s flaws.

He’s be the perfect example of the difference between an instinctual point guard and a reactive point guard. An instinctual point guard makes those around him better and understands where and when to move the ball without even thinking about it. Watch Lowry over the course of a game and you’ll see how guys have to reach for his passes, rather than have them delivered where they can shoot it in motion. The offense will grind to a halt far too often with him on the floor, and he doesn’t always see the open man.

And the thing that makes Lowry such a fan favourite, the way he plays with a chip on his shoulder, can also be one of his biggest weaknesses. Like Gay, he takes a lot of bad shots early in the shot clock, especially in crunch time.

With the Raptors current roster, you’ve got the top 2 scorers (three, including Bargnani) as very inefficient, the top two ball handlers as bad decision makers, and your three perimeter defenders as inconsistent, at best.

The team is not without it’s bright spots, thankfully.

Amir Johnson has probably been the team’s MVP over the course of the season, has averaged a double-double as a starter, is in the top ten in the league in field goal percentage, has become a viable, although moderate, scoring threat and has, for the most part, kept his fouls in check. Best of all, he’s equally as good coming off the bench or starting. Basically, he’s every coaches dream. You can plug him into any team, he’ll do whatever is asked and will play hard no matter what his role. I thought it ridiculous, a while back, when people were talking about possibly amnestying Amir, and I’m thankful those times are gone.

In Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors have found a two-way center who has a chance to be an All Star down the road. He’s an incredibly hard worker, has a good feel both offensively and defensively, and should develop into a better player than any of the current Raptors.

I really don’t think he’s got the talent to be a franchise center, but I do think he’s the most important Raptor on the roster. In a league devoid of legit two-way centers, Valanciunas holds the key to the future success of the team. But he’s surrounded by players that don’t compliment him. And Colangelo is overpaying his players so much, just to build a .500 team that by the time the Raptors will need to give Valanciunas a new contract, they won’t be able to afford him.

Next year, the Raptors are on pace to have the 6th highest payroll in the league, and the year after that the 5th highest, and that doesn’t include whatever they offer Kyle Lowry. Colangelo’s pay structure isn’t sustainable and if he continues to run the team, it will kill any flexibility the team will need to be anything more than a borderline playoff team.

Speaking of which, this notion that being a .500 team, which the Raptors have been since trading for Rudy Gay, as being such a good thing is a complete fail to me.

The first problem with that argument is that from the time Bargnani was injured (on December 10th) to the time Rudy Gay was traded for (January 31st), the Raptors went 12-12. And since then, the team has gone 10-12. I’m not suggesting the team is not better with Gay, because they are, but the improvement is fairly marginal. Again, this is not a good sign if you’re arguing he’s an elite player.

Secondly, the goal of this team should be more than simply being .500 and making the playoffs. That would be fine if there was an indication that there was plenty of room for growth beyond that, but with this team there’s not. At this point, the team’s best case scenario looks more like the Joe Johnson-led Hawks teams that couldn’t get past the second round, than anything else. And I’d say even that’s a reach, because at least Johnson was a perennial All Star.

As I said at the beginning, the goal of any team should be to, at least, contend for a Championship, and this team is not built for that. You need an elite player for that, at the very least, and the Raptors simply don’t have one. And you can’t even say they have several All Stars, because that’s not even true. If Valanciunas becomes a perennial All Star, and Gay becomes an All Star (in the weak East), then what you’ve got is a 45-50 win team that will compete but won’t be in anyone’s conversation for contenders. And, again, this is a best case scenario. And far too many of Colangelo’s decisions have been based on best case scenario, rather than the likely scenario (see Bargnani, Andrea).

More likely, the team will flatline at 45 wins, spend way too much money on mediocre players, and have to start cutting costs, which means losing talent. This is the likely road the team will take if they stay the course. And I’m not fine with that.

Next up, what the Raptors SHOULD do

AROUND THE LEAGUE

– Related to my article, I’m really getting sick of Leo Rautins talking up how great being a .500 team in the East is because it means the possibility of being a middle seed in the playoffs. Great, the East is so bad that even a mediocre team will make the playoffs. And that’s supposed to be a good thing.

– Why is it that Charlotte was able to acquire their backup point guard (Jannero Pargo) with just a 10-day contract, whereas Bryan Colangelo had to use a 2nd round pick to get the Raptors one?

– Depending on how long Kobe is out, this might actually help the Lakers because Nash will actually have something to do other than stand around at the three point line and passing to Kobe whenever he’s open. Yes, the Lakers have miraculously gotten back into the top 8 in the West, but their offense looks AWFUL. Asking Steve Nash to play off the ball and defer to Kobe EVERY TIME is like casting Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Oakland A’s coach in Moneyball and then giving him absolutely nothing to do. It’s a waste.

On a side note, I did love Moneyball, but please give Hoffman more to do than to look vexed.

– Three years ago, Washington decided to give the 23 year old Andray Blatche a 5 year, $35 million extension based mostly on potential, and Blatche rewarded them by showing up out of shape and playing horribly when he wasn’t suspended for being out of shape. Eventually they decided to amnesty him, which allowed him to pick where he wanted to play without worrying about money. Then he goes out and says this:

“If I get a lot (in my next contract), yeah, it’s going to take pressure off the Wizards, but that’s why I’m not going to do that.”

Bitter much?

– Did you hear about Indiana Pacer, George Hill going off over most of their home crowd cheering for the Lakers in the recent tilt against them?  George Hill is an Indianapolis native who played three season in San Antonio, where I’m guessing fans never cheer for anyone EXCEPT the Spurs.

As a resident of Vancouver, for more than a decade and a half, I find it a little sickening that Indianapolis has the second best team in the East, one of the best young players in the league, and they’re near the bottom of the league in attendance. And apparently those that attend don’t always cheer for the hometown team.

I’d say George Hill has a legitimate gripe.

And if Pacers fans don’t want their team, Vancouver will take it.