Over the last few months, I’ve become something of an unintentional advocate for the Toronto Raptors not tanking. While I’m not particularly dogmatic about it (for me it’s more about circumstance than ideology), as the season wears on I become increasingly compelled by the idea of trying to turn this team into something more potent today that won’t unduly hamper the club’s future after this season.
There are two areas of dysfunction that I believe are severely holding the Raptors back right now, and that is pick-and-roll play and Rudy Gay’s shot selection.
The former is an area that actually has significant ramifications on today and tomorrow. The Raptors simply do not run enough pick-and-roll action to get Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson involved in the team’s offensive sets, which is having a huge impact on their ability to run an efficient offence. Valanciunas is, oddly, being used exclusively in post-up situations or on pump-fake-and-drive isolations, while Johnson’s being forced to feed himself on tip-ins and long-range jump shots. These are two of the team’s most efficient offensive players when used correctly, yet right now both are being abandoned systematically in order to focus on isolation play by the club’s perimeter players.
While this is more of an irritation when talking about Johnson, it’s actually a problem when talking about Valanciunas. This guy is being pegged as the team’s future. To all of those that feel that the Raptors need to tank to get an A1 kind of star to Toronto, there are plenty within the organization that feel they already have that in Valanciunas. However, right now he is being treated like an afterthought out on the court rather than an integral cog that is key to the team’s present and future success.
That’s why bringing in a pick-and-roll point guard is so important for this team going forward. Kyle Lowry is having a perfectly fine year. He’s a bit off of his per-36 minute averages from a season ago, but his usage rate has also dropped to it’s lowest point since his rookie year, so that helps account for the drop-off in statistical production. Still, at his best Lowry is far more of a driver that looks for his own offence rather than a pick-and-roll tactician. He can run a pick-and-roll, don’t get me wrong, but you cannot base an offence around his ability to run effective and deadly pick-and-rolls dozens of times per game. That would not only be a strain on Lowry’s creativity as a playmaker, but it would also box him into a role that doesn’t exploit his greatest strengths. Plus, since the Raptors aren’t exactly making use of his entire repertoire of assets right now, anyway (look back at that low usage rate), it’s not exactly like they’d be losing an irreplaceable player if they were to decide to recast their starting point guard role.
Of course, you cannot all of a sudden bring in a new point guard and run dozens of pick-and-rolls with Valanciunas and Johnson each game if you still have Rudy Gay eating 19.4 shots per contest (most on the club and third-most in the NBA). Watching Gay on offence is like hopping into a time machine and being warped back to the NBA circa the year 2000. His refusal to work for good shots (for himself or for his teammates) is truly awe-inspiring. Worse still are his momentum-killing catches where he just stands there with the ball in his hands while the entire offensive machine comes to a halt to wait for him to make a decision. Then there is how shockingly careless he is with the ball… actually, you need a lot more than one paragraph to fully encapsulate the damage that Gay does to Toronto’s offence so let’s suffice it to say that 19.4 FGA per game set against a .467 True Shooting Percentage and 2.1 assists per game is not a workable combination for a healthy NBA offence.
To that end Ujiri has to get out from under Gay and his style of play. This isn’t even about his contract (well, it’s a little bit about his contract, but everything is when you make more than twice what your next highest paid teammate makes), this is about the Raptors designing an offense that puts the ball into the hands of their most effective players, one, and most important players for the future, two.
It’s not that Valanciunas has to receive all 19.4 of Gay’s shots, that would be preposterous. At this point, however, spreading those shots around to other players would almost instantaneously make the Raptors a more efficient offensive club, regardless of whom the team got to ultimately replace Gay at small forward.
Which brings us around to the question that most would people are probably asking at this point: okay, smart guy, who should the Raptors be chasing to make all these dreams come true?
I’m not going to play the trade machine game, here. I’ve got two names, don’t worry, and they are both ‘gettable’ and on realistic contracts, but I’m not going to go through the machinations of designing trade scenarios that could make them happen. Over the last few years I’ve been so consistently gobsmacked by the players that have been included in trades (even as cap ballasts or sweeteners) that I’m not going to bother guessing what they could be here because a) It just creates message board fodder and b) any real trade involves a greater depth of knowledge of a team’s future plans than anyone outside a team’s management has access to. So, for that reason I’m just going to throw out my names, justify them and then open myself up to a little Monday morning savaging.
The first up is Goran Dragic, Phoenix’s former point guard of the future before Eric Bledsoe arrived on the scene. Dragic is a skilled pick-and-roll point guard (partly tutored by one of the best to ever do it, Steve Nash) and it is only a matter of time before Phoenix sends him packing since the aforementioned Bledsoe has done enough early to ease any fears that he can be a real NBA starting point guard. He makes $7.5-million this year, next year and in 2015-16. Now, that’s not an onerous salary for a starting point guard (though it is for a secondary point guard, a role he plays in Phoenix), but it does limit one’s overall flexibility somewhat, and that is worth taking into account.
However, he’s just now entering his prime (he’s 27) and he plays a style that blends much better with Valanciunas, Johnson and even DeMar DeRozan if he can keep hitting that corner three. It’s a shame that his own three-point shot has disappeared from his game, and that’s a real sore point in today’s NBA, but so long as he can punish people with a pull-up in pick-and-roll situations to keep defences honest he’d be a fine asset in a revamped Raptors offence.
The other player is one that I think the Raptors should make a real push for, and that’s Luol Deng.
Deng is not a crazy exceptional player in any one regard, but he is as steady as a metronome and could really help increase the level of basketball maturity of the Raptors. He can hit open shots, play noteworthy defence, keep the ball moving on offence and act as the leader that this club still lacks on and off the court.
It’s actually that aspect that intrigues me most about Deng. Look at the credit David West is given within the Pacers organization for solidifying their recent resurgence and realize that at some point the Raptors will have to inject a similar level of maturity into their operation. That sort of dependable, veteran savvy from a guy that can still play and play at a high level (remember Deng is only 28, he has lots of basketball left in him) is something that the Raptors haven’t had since Antonio Davis was around (most will reflexively think of Charles Oakley, but Oakley was on a definite downward trend when he arrived in Toronto).
Now, exactly how gettable Deng is is debatable right now. With Derrick Rose out for the season you could argue that a one-year deal like the one possessed by Lowry might be a solid starting place for trade talks, but Deng is a Tom Thibodeau favourite and even if he’s a free agent at the end of the season that Chicago is hesitant to pay, there might be larger ramifications within the organization if he is sent packing. Plus, even though his contract is ending, his $14.3 million price tag is not the easiest to wedge into a trade.
Still, watching this Raptors team play you can see how badly they need that kind of steadying force. They need that key cog that won’t drive into double coverage and then shoot a pull-up jumper at a key moment in the game. Someone’s who’s play on the court demands a certain accountability by all of his teammates. It’s not like Deng (or someone like him) has to come in and dominate the ball club. They “simply” have to be a model of dependability, resilience and maturity, someone who shows his teammates with his preparation and play how a team achieves that next level of consistency. There is a reason Thibodeau plays Deng more minutes per game than any other player in the NBA; it’s because good things happen when he is on the court.
Yes, acquiring players like this takes the Raptors out of the running for Tankapalooza 2014. However, it doesn’t handcuff them financially in any significant way and they can use pieces like these to improve their play internally while climbing another wrung on the ladder. If you subscribe to the theory that the Raptors could actually get bad enough to have a real, serious chance at landing a top pick, then none of this can (or should) be the least bit appealing to you. If, on the other hand, you don’t see a clear path to a top pick next spring, then taking calculated steps towards being a little bit better tomorrow than the club is today makes sense – especially with the East being as putrid as it is this season. I’m not advocating that the Raptors make these moves so as not to tank, I’m just saying that I don’t think tanking is a realistic option and so here is one possible alternative to act as a stand in.