Just over two months ago fans begrudgingly left the Air Canada Centre following a nail-biting last second loss which ended our beloved Toronto Raptors season.
Since then we’ve joyfully watched as Canada’s young talent has begun to forge an identity of their own in the NBA, and keenly kept abreast of GM: Masai Ujiri’s off season actions. The latter producing arguably the most important free agent retention in franchise history when Kyle Lowry elected to return to Toronto, forgoing what many cited as greener U.S. pastures.
As many of our recent articles have reflected, Ujiri has continued to demonstrate deftness at offloading contracts to create cap space, draft prospects with potential and pick up youth via trades. With news yesterday Greivis Vasquez had joined Kyle Lowry and Patrick Patterson by coming to terms with the club, Ujiri has essentially taken care of all the mandated retention priorities. Now he’ll work to fill in weaknesses and add depth through free agency or trades. Note: Raptors announced James Johnson will return to the team.
With an eye to the plethora of activity already in the books, the next priority is individual player growth. It’s often said a player learns the game on court, but growth occurs in the off season when players apply that knowledge by focusing on improving the weaknesses in their game.
Without doubt each team member was given a tailored list of homework for the off season to address this objective. Considering the 29 other teams are implementing these same summer practices I pondered where the Raptors could gain an advantage over their competition.
To that end, I decided to look at some playoff teams to create a list of items the Raptors can directly apply or learn from.
Brooklyn Nets: Let’s face it, this series was about as close as it gets and the Raptors inexperience likely cost them Game 1 and definitely contributed to Jonas Valanciunas’ nerves in Game 7. Fortunately the core group now has this series under their belt and will build from it. Brooklyn definitely had the upper hand with veteran experience; however it was the play of Joe Johnson which gave the Nets their greatest advantage. In truth players like Johnson, LeBron James and Kevin Durant are oddities in the Association who pose defensive problems for any team. In my opinion the area the Raptors can learn from specifically in this series is movement. Too often the Raptors not only stopped moving the ball when Brooklyn blocked lanes, but more importantly the players stopped moving.
- A good complement of veteran experience goes a long way.
- Team drills focusing on running routes and using multiple screens
- Team drill focused on ball movement (note: see Spurs drill below)
Charlotte Hornets: While Charlotte had the fifth best 3-point shooting in the playoffs they made the fewest attempts. Ironically, though this squad produced strong defensive efforts they had the fewest rebounds in the playoffs while facing a team who boasted a small front court. Granted, Al Jefferson’s injury played into this deficiency, yet the biggest mistake Charlotte made was not fully optimizing their advantages.
- Depth is important especially when a key cog gets injured
- Make the most of your advantages
Chicago Bulls: Without Derrick Rose the Bulls were limited offensively. News Joakim Noah was suffering from an injury the entire post season coupled with their lack of overall offensive weapons explains why they lost. The fact that Chicago still made the past two playoffs and continued to battle while missing stars is a testament to their coach and the teams’ mindset. Assuming Rose returns healthy this season and Chicago lands a free agent or two expect them to contend as one of the Eastern Conference leaders.
- Commitment to excellence.
- The Raptors demonstrated last year they won’t ever give up on a game, so emphasis this season is to not let this area of focus slip.
Dallas Mavericks: Considering Dallas pushed the eventual NBA champions to a seventh game speaks to their overall quality. Vince Carter performed like a youthful version of himself winning Game 3 with an eerily similar shot to the one he missed as a Raptor in 2001. Areas the Mavericks excelled in were offense and coaching. Rick Carlisle continues to demonstrate he is the heir apparent to Gregg Popovich which is evident in his game plans, continually getting players to perform above their previous standards and his ability to make quick in-game adjustments.
- Coaching exercise: review other teams’ tapes to build quick in-game responses and examine options of how other teams resolve issues. The lessons learned from these tapes needs to be applied throughout the season so the young Raptors gain familiarity with the different methods.
- Toronto needs multiple players who can handle the ball to create their own shots: Team exercise – ball handling drill.
Indiana Pacers: When I was young I remember my Grandfather telling me “You can study perfection, but you can learn more from your mistakes.” Perhaps the Pacers were the best example of this in the post season. While the Raptors benefited from team chemistry, Indiana, who was earmarked as the likely Eastern Conference Champions, completely fell apart as soon as the locker room became dysfunctional.
- No amount of money or star players can guarantee a championship, but one malcontent can spread like cancer.
Miami Heat: I said all year Miami would not three-peat and whether you believe it’s a personal dislike, luck or an educated guess the fact remains they were ousted. Miami had arguably the easiest path to the finals facing a hobbled Bobcat team, a tired veteran Brooklyn team coming off a tough series vs. Toronto and an Indiana team conducting their own oil and vinegar test. Facing the Spurs we experienced déjà-vu as James looked like he was back in Cleveland. More apparent was the disappearance of Bosh’s post game and Dwayne Wade’s inability to provide consistent scoring each game despite his curtailed regular season schedule.
Okay, so you’re asking yourself how exactly this translates to the Raptors; simply put its consistency. There were a number of games this season where Toronto gave up big leads or had to fight back from huge deficits. It was repeatedly pointed out the Raptors needed to provide a consistent 48-minute effort and this series earmarks why. By mastering this skill it allows the bench more playing time which leads to their growth, on court gelling and comfort level while also allowing for the starters to get valuable rest.
- A 48-minute effort will reap benefits in growth, health and on-court chemistry
Oklahoma City Thunder: Had Serge Ibaka not been injured and out the first two games of the series the Thunder could just as easily be this years champions. Although the Raptors have pinpointed blocking as a specific area requiring improvement, this series demonstrated how much that basic fundamental can affect wins and losses.
- Specific drill for all players on mastering the mechanics and timing of shot blocking
Portland Trailblazers: Damian Lilliard’s last second game winner and series clincher pointed out a key lesson for all young teams. Although the box score shows 20 personal fouls each, the Rockets were getting the benefit of some questionable calls, especially late in the contest. The worst call came when Lillard grabbed a rebound in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter and the refs whistled him for being out of bounds (replays showed he was clearly in bounds). Terry Stotts was able to calm his troops who buckled down on defense to get the last shot and for me what ranks as the best shot of the playoffs.
- As much as we all get annoyed by the zebras at times, the only way a young team can break through is to play through adversity via consistency. It’s a given some players and teams have earned their reputations, so until you’ve earned yours the only way to succeed is through maintaining composure and consistent effort.
San Antonio Spurs: The NBA is a trendy association, so just like many teams shifted to small ball and looked to feature multiple stars following Miami’s success, expect to see teams attempting to adopt the team ball success of San Antonio this season. Something that stood out for me in the post game championship celebration was Tony Parker discussing a passing drill the Spurs do in practice (the ball must move 12-times before a shot is taken). Given the Raptors success paralleled games where they had high assist totals this would be an excellent exercise for the team. The other specific area Toronto can adapt from the Spurs is their offensive player movement.
Overall this finals and the Champion Spurs produced what should be considered mandatory viewing for every Raptor; it was an offensive clinic on fundamental basketball and quite literally a thing of beauty.
- 12 passes before shot drill
- Drill stressing player movement
- Repeated viewing of the series by all coaches and players (learning through osmosis)
Tomorrow the Vegas Summer League begins and we’ll get our first opportunity to see the Raptors top draft pick Bruno Caboclo and fellow Brazilian teammate Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira in action.
In addition the tournament will showcase several Canadians making their NBA debuts:
- Andrew Wiggins and Dwight Powell (Cleveland)
- Tyler Ennis (Phoenix)
- Nik Stauskas, Sim Bhullar, Nick Wiggins (Sacramento)
- Khem Birch (Washington)
- Myck Kabongo (Toronto)
- Melvin Ejim (San Antonio)
- Jordan Bachynski (Charlotte)
- Brady Heslip (Minnesota)
Enjoy the Vegas action and if you’re suffering from basketball withdrawal remember training camp is less than three months away.