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.

Lessons:

  • 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.

Lessons:

  • 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.

Lessons:

  • 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.

Lessons:

  • 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.

Lesson:

  • 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.

Lesson:

  • 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.

Lesson:

  • 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.

Lesson:

  • 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.

Lessons:

  • 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.

  • mike, prague

    Great write up! The Hornets are also becoming a scary team with the Hayward signing. Depending on “The Decision 2.0″ The top of the conference will be Miami/Cavs, Toronto, Charlotte, Chicago and Washington (though I don’t see them being too successful long turn due to some crappy contracts)

    • The Brazilian KD

      what about Indy

      • afrocarter

        If they continue to play like they did for the last half of the season? Nope. Plus, they still need to re-sign Stephenson.

        • Tamberlyn Richardson

          (warning: long response/rant)

          Putting aside ALL the nasty Paul George rumors there appears to be more than just a minor issue in the locker room in Indy. I feel sorry for David West; a classy professional who deserves a championship.

          To quote my (totally imagined) best friend Charles Barkley, “you don’t wanna get in no fight with David West, he’d beat the crap outta ya”. Which makes me tend to lean towards the more than minor possibility the cancer in Indy isn’t a simple resolvable issue.

          Recently on social media, rumors circulated Indy is quietly shopping Hibbert due to his slip in performance and whom part of the George chemistry issue is with. But, truth be told even when Indy was soaring last season I felt many of the games I watched they were winning on reputation calls as opposed to effort. I only saw a handful of games where they appeared even remotely similar to the 2012-13 version and of course these games all occurred before the break.

          As eccentric and odd as Lance Stephenson is, I find him absolutely intriguing and believe he hasn’t come close to his ceiling. I mean can you seriously blame him for wanting to run to the bird nest corner to hang out with Larry Legend instead of his disenchanted team mates?

          I think Bird and company recognize George has super star potential, however I also believe the 2012-13 playoff run added a large spot light on George who got swept up in the celebrity. This is ONLY an opinion, but like the old saying goes where there’s smoke there’s fire, and in this case we’re talking bon fire proportions. it makes sense this kind of intense attention on a young man in his 20’s could have had a negative affect on and off the court.

          Let’s face it not all players are of the same ilk of Timmy Duncan or Kevin Durant. We see these young guys doing super human feats on the court and we forget most are in their early 20’s earning multi-millions and receiving constant adoration.

          Your right, this team has a long way to go because it’s not as simple as fixing pick and roll defense. It’s having to appeal to the heart and soul of players who just a year ago would’ve bled for each other.

          Like Ujiri said numerous times, it was a magical season in Toronto with such amazing team chemistry even the pensive Salmons was happy. Inevitably, in this day and age no roster remains entirely the same for even two years let alone longer. Ujiri is betting by retaining a quality locker room vet like Hayes and having Jamaal Magloire around the team can work in concert with allowing his Alpha Dogs (Lowry/DeRozan/Amir Johnson) assuming further responsibility because they’ll want to maintain the chemistry they started.

          For Indy’s part, like I said if David West can’t get you to drop it or literally knock it out of you, chances are it isn’t cracked it’s fractured.

          • Omar

            I read the whole *rant* in awe… Well said Tamberlyn. Been a big fan of yours I hope you keep up the good work!!

          • afrocarter

            Yep, I agree, and I think The Legend sees the writing on the wall as well. Indy is looking to retool as quickly and effectively as possible IMO, but it will be difficult. Who replaces Hibbert? For all his late-season faults, he was still the anchor for the best defence in the league. They NEED to re-sign Lance, which is why the 4-year deal they gave to C.J. Miles confused me a bit. We shall see what they do moving forward, but I agree that a breakdown in chemistry has them in a bad spot.

    • Tamberlyn Richardson

      Thanks. I’d agree the Hornets will be very interesting this season. I liked their draft pick-ups and they are strong defensively. It will be interesting to see how much losing McBob affects the team.

      As for James one has to wonder if the additions of what appeared to be a broken Danny Granger & McBob will lure James back or if he’ll leave to join buddy Kyrie Irving and Canadian rookie Wiggins. I tend to think there is legitimacy to him returning to Cleveland especially when you consider his legacy. He’s had four seasons in Miami alongside two players who are still considered among the league’s top but managed just two championships (Not one, not two, not three…).

      The fact an aging Timmy Duncan has taken two of three finals from James (and should have had all three) I believe probably didn’t sit well with James, so his return home might provide a better storyline for his legacy.

      • afrocarter

        If I were James the choice would be an easy one: I’d rather play with a ridiculous amount of young, high-cieling players than a random assortment of veterans far past their prime. If James goes to Cleveland, that team could have a stranglehold on the East for the next 5 years at least.

    • keith

      well, Hayward was signed to an offer. Utah is most likely going to match it, meaning Charlotte will still be looking for shooting help.

      and you left out Indy who will still be a contender with George on that team and I think Atlanta is grossly under estimated. I would actually put Atlanta and the Nets over Washington. Also would watch out for Milwaukee (if Kidd could use all that talent and Parker is what we think he is) and Boston will be a tough team next year. That team is deep now.

      • mike, prague

        Boston, 76ers and Milwaukee are still 2 years away from being two years away, lol. But seriously I don’t think they’ll be making any noise this year, maybe next year. Cavs are also interesting.

    • afrocarter

      You’re forgetting about Atlanta. With the moves they’ve been making, along with Horford coming back from injury, they’re going to be a team to worry about. Enigmatic, for sure, but they have the potential to be terrifying. Certainly scarier than the Hornets, in any case.

      • mike, prague

        I forgot about Horford, yeah good point. I think they’ll be second-tier along with Toronto, Washington, Charlotte and maybe Indy if they pull their act together.

  • Ioan Popescu

    Skimmed through your article. Miami didn’t play Washington in the play-offs, they played the Nets.

    • Tamberlyn Richardson

      Oops

      • Ioan Popescu

        (Y)

  • AHWELL

    Nice write-up. Quick comment about Melvin the Edge making it to San Antonio’s Summer team. Ejim seems like the perfect Spurs guy. Nothing special on paper but he has all the intangibles of an over-achiever and a complete team player. Hopefully he will be a regular in the NBA at some point in his career. I really feel we lost out by not picking him with our last draft slot. Best Canadian that didn’t get drafted (no disrepect Khem). But in Masai I trust so…

  • afrocarter

    I’m all for them watching tape of the WCF and NBA Finals. If you have the opportunity to learn something from the Spurs, YOU DO IT.

  • IceManLikeGervin

    Chad Posthumus (Morehead St/Winnipeg) is with the Bulls summer league team.

  • IceManLikeGervin

    Remember only 9 franchises have won the NBA title since 1980- Celtics, Lakers, Spurs, Rockets, Mavericks, 76ers, Pistons, Heat & Bulls….and in 2014-15 it will be one of those 9 franchises that wins again.

    • mike, prague

      76ers are gonna go for the steal this year!!!

      • IceManLikeGervin

        It’s operation tank mode in Philly as the 76ers are seemingly tanking in 2014-15 once again…..

    • noname

      I got a spurs repeat. Who ya got?

      • IceManLikeGervin

        Heat if LBJ returns, if not, Rockets.

        • noname

          hmph…the first one is pretty bold assuming he does, but I think he’s going to cleveland anyway.

          Another prediction (cuz why not): If cleveland gets lebron, are they 1st seed in the east? And who’s 2nd.

          • IceManLikeGervin

            Riley is about to rebuild the Heat overnight once, if, LBJ signs…

            Depends on where Melo and everyone else goes and who else Cleveland trades/signs for. If LBJ goes to Cleveland they won’t be in the 2014-15 NBA Finals..