A Tale of Two Cities

Last night’s win over the Pistons shows how different these two once-similar teams now are.

Over the last few years, the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors have wandered the desert of NBA obscurity together. Their draft picks, rosters, free agency rejection due to cold weather city status and win-loss records eerily mirrored one another. In 2010-11, the Raptors went 22-60, the Pistons 30-52. 2011-12 Raptors 23-43, Pistons 25-41. 2012-13 Raptors 34-48, Pistons 29-53. It seemed like things looked the same in Detroit as they did four hours east along the 401 in Toronto. That is, until this season, where the Pistons are a familiar 25-39, but the Raptors are now 35-27 after putting up a win last night that showed just how different these two recently similar teams have become.

The difference between these two teams was clear on the court. It wasn’t talent; Detroit can hold their own against almost anybody in the league on that note, probably even more so than the Raps. But that’s hardly helped them. Detroit is a group of curiously assembled individuals who play like curiously motivated individuals on the court. Toronto is a group of players who fit together well as a team, and they play team oriented basketball. That was evident last night, when their simple execution of two-man pick and rolls and ball movement picked apart the Pistons lazy, disorganized defence at will. On the other end, Detroit’s offence was largely composed of Jennings, Monroe, Rodney Stuckey and Josh Smith getting the ball, struggling to get position against Toronto’s team defence and then putting up a bad-mediocre selfish shot. Smith and Stuckey in particular must have had the four Pistons fans still following this team pulling their hair out with the almost sociopathic disregard that they put up atrociously unnecessary long jumpers. Brandon Jennings was equally guilty of this sin as well, except that he was inexplicably hot in his good Jamaal Crawford impression last night, making the bad shots defensible.

The roster choices of the two teams have been very similar between these two teams up until this most recent summer. How it is that Joe Dumars managed to make similar, probably even worse, choices as Bryan Colangelo and still keep his job is a fact that seems at odds with the very fabric of logic and reason. Last night’s game offered a good matchup of how those similar roster choices have panned out for each team.

DeMar DeRozan worried me as a Raptor’s fan pretty much right up until his stretch of markedly improved play in the last six weeks of last season. The reason why? I thought he was Rodney Stuckey. Rodney Stuckey is a player that, while the NBA community surely agrees is very talented, nobody really wants a part of. He’s bad on defence, but that was supposed to be ok, because he’s a scorer. The problem? He’s a woefully inefficient scorer. Stuckey’s career per game averages are 42% fg, 28%3p, 13.4 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 steal on 11.2 fg attempts. Those are numbers with enough to them to make it clear that he’s an NBA player, but they also make it clear that if he’s a primary player on your NBA team, you won’t be a very good one. Now, for those of you already angry that I’m comparing DeMar to Stuckey, take a look at DeMar’s career per game numbers. 44%fg, 26%3p, 16.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals and 13.4 fg attempts. Upsetting close, aren’t they? DeMar’s third season, 2011-2012, and Rodney Stuckey’s third season in the NBA, 2009-2010, are almost the same statistically. Stuckey’s steals and assists are the only differences, and they’re much better for Stuckey than they were for DeMar. Coming in to last season, I thought that DeMar was Rodney Stuckey, and with good reason. That did not make me happy. Flash forward to last night, where it was clear that, even in a game where he struggled at times with his shot, DeMar made it clear that he’s a difference maker in the league, while Stuckey made it clear that he isn’t a starter. The difference is that Stuckey’s third season in the league were the best his numbers have ever been, trailing off a little each year since. DeMar’s game started to change last season, and has developed so much so far this year that his career stat line no longer reflects what you see from him on a game-by-game basis. DeMar DeRozan is no longer Rodney Stuckey. Rejoice with me, Raptors fans.

The more interesting player comparison in last night’s game is Jonas Valanciunas and Andre Drummond. Raptors fans have maligned the team’s passing on Drummond with the 8th pick of the 2012 draft, taking Terrence Ross instead. But it isn’t fair to compare Ross with Drummond . The team didn’t pass on Drummond because they liked Ross more, but rather because they had already drafted Valanciunas the season before. Since coming in to the league together last year, Drummond has made much more noise than Valanciunas. He’s been unstoppable in the pick-and-roll and on the boards, putting up more double-doubles this season than anybody in the league not named Kevin Love. But last night, Valanciunas reminded everyone why the Raptors were happy to stick with him instead. Valanciunas outplayed Drummond, who went quiet for long stretches last night when his teammates went into ‘imma get mine’ bad basketball mode around him. Valanciunas was also left conspicuously alone on offence by his teammates last night. The difference was that he didn’t disappear when that happened. Instead, he hammered the offensive glass and hounded the rim on defence. Valanciunas found a way to contribute to his team’s game, and thus stay relevant in it. Drummond fought for some boards, but it felt more like he was waiting his turn to get to play offence than anything else. The point was emphasized late in the game, when Valanciunas was whistled for a preposterous offensive foul while handing off the ball to Lowry in the defensive zone. Jonas had that flabbergasted ‘what can I do?’ look on his face that he’s been getting this season when he’s been getting called repeatedly for the kind of fouls that the Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnetts of the world commit on every single possession and never get called for. On the following possession, Valanciunas was fighting for position in the post and clearly pushed by Drummond, right in front of the ref. No call. What happened next felt like a big moment for Jonas coming out of his shell and finding some confidence. Instead of pouting or fouling back in response, he fought for a great offensive rebound and put back, followed by screaming in celebration and pumping his fists. The sudden burst of emotion and intensity came again when Valanciunas finally drew a foul from Drummond the next time down the court. That kind of intensity and determination is all that’s been holding Valanciunas back from putting up the same kinds of numbers as Drummond, and he showed that last night.

The Raptors proved last night that their 3rd seed compared with Detroit’s lottery quest is no fluke. Detroit tried time and time again to infect the game with their selfish, ugly and disorganized style of play. The Piston’s style of play is like a bad basketball STI, and it can infect the games it plays in with that kind of tough to watch brand of basketball for both teams. But this Raptors team is no longer the type of team that slums around with that type of partner. They refused to get sucked in to Detroit’s style of play, instead executing a solid team game and demonstrative win. Things are trending along very different paths for these once similar teams. For Raptors fans, that’s a good thing.

Plus we got pizza. All is well with the world.

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