Proper Positions & the Raps' Dilemma (Doug Smith's Opinion - Post 37)
I've been thinking a lot about the value of players playing in their proper positions. Basketball is a beautiful game that, while allowing individual players to really dominate, shines brightest when it is played as a team game, and, importantly, when that team game is played according to proper positioning. I think, to explain ball to someone unfamiliar with the game, it's best to start by listing the five positions and their respective roles, while also mentioning that each position can be referenced by a number 1 through 5. The numbers, to me, highlight the strategic nature of the game. Play by the numbers, plan out the game, understand the nuances and techniques and become a master. Position-by-number facilitates this. The 1-5 designation underscores a system of relativity of each position upon which the game thrives, in comparison to the more atomic "Shooting Guard," "Point Guard" or "Center" way of looking at the game.
The Raptors, as they have it seems since at least when Colangelo came in, have been so frustrating because they refuse to acknowledge this most fundamental aspect of basketball. With Bosh and Bargs, the Raps had 2 PF's who were being played at the same time. Two 4's, in other words, and no 5. The Raps, with Bargs, were fielding 1, 2, 3, 4, 4. That might work for stretches, and it did, but you can't play the game consistently like that. The corollary of this was that ever since Bargnani came in, the Raps have not really felt the need to go grab a starting 5, or even a quality back-up 5 (with apologies to Rasho. No question of his value, but the Raps needed someone younger. They needed a future at the 5) because in their mind, they had two 4's who could also play the 5.
This is also exemplified by the insane fielding of Jose, Jack and Turk. When those three were on the floor with Bosh and Bargs, the Raps were fielding an effective line up of 1,1,1,4,4. Pure, unadulterated madness. The only reason it makes sense to field such lineups is if you think your players at their positions aren't better than the other team's players at those positions. You play 1,1,1,4,4, in other words, because you don't have confidence that your 1,2,3,4,5 lineup is better than the other team's 1,2,3,4,5, and you try to play according to mismatch instead. By playing unorthodox, you cede the upper hand: weaker teams create match up problems. The better teams play basketball. By playing an unorthodox style, the Raps were tacitly admitting they were weak.
So who do the Raptors have now? Jack, Calderon, Barbosa, Weems, Kleiza, Derozan, Bargnani, Johnson and Davis. Also they have Banks, Wright, Evans, Dorsey, Anderson and Alabi. The Raps have a ton of talent that runs 9 players deep, but what they're lacking is a focal point - someone who causes problems for the other team, someone the other team needs to plan against, and try to create a mismatch for. In response they must place a bigger emphasis on team play than usual, and they must as much as they can play solid, fundamental basketball. If they were contending, they'd be excused for trying to play the mismatch game. However, they're rebuilding, so they might as well rebuild according to proper basketball technique. That is, 1,2,3,4,5. This will help the players get used to playing the right way - the way basketball was intended to be played - and it will improve their overall basketball IQ.
The above back court groups provide two effective and complementary units that should be played together, each player in a position in which they can excel. There are three issues, though, and each position has one. These issues are Jack's weak skills as a primary playmaker (as a 1); Barbosa's size/combo nature (really a 1.5) and Derozan playing slightly out of position as a 3. The issues, in my opinion, I've listed in descending order of importance. Playing Jack and Barbosa together mitigates each others weaker playmaking, while keeping them in their natural positions. This double-combo-guard lineup - which is admittedly playing around a bit with the pure 1 and pure 2 ideal - is made more appealing by the Playmaking/Playfinishing unit of Calderon/Weems/Derozan who can come on in relief. I have no big problems, really, with Derozan at the backup 3, given the players on the roster as is. With Kleiza, they can switch in and out according to the match up, one being highly athletic and mobile, the other being a banger with shooting skills. The reason i would start Kleiza over Derozan is the veteran nature of Kleiza and the stability he would provide the starting lineup. This is where the match up game should be played: not, as was stated above, in turning 4's into 5's, or 3's into 1's, but in recognizing which 3, or which 1 ought to be on the floor at a given time.
The real problems begin when you look at the front court. Bargnani, Johnson and Davis are all 4's. Bargnani is big enough to play the 5, but doesn't play like one. Johnson and Davis can play like a 5, but neither are big enough to be effective. Like under the Bosh era, the Raps - other than Alabi - have no one to play the 5. No matter what, the Raps will be fielding a 4,4 frontcourt. Again.
Bargs should really be starting at the 4. This creates a big problem, though, in that Johnson and Davis both need a lot of minutes. Davis in particular. So Bargs by default becomes the 5. Eventually, honestly, if Davis plays the way he can when he was a projected top 3 pick, I think Johnson has to be traded.
Johnson, as good as he might ultimately be, is the odd one out of the three, as his skills would be largely redundant when Davis is taken into account. His contract is too large given the needs at other positions and the plethora of 4's currently on the roster. Portland has Camby, Oden and Pryzbilla at the 5, but no one nearly as good as Johnson to back up Aldridge, who can also play the 5. I would trade Johnson in a heartbeat for any one of Portland's Centers, and I think Portland would have to think twice about turning down an offer with that as a base. Obviously, this can't happen until December (or whenever the date is) when Johnson can actually be traded, but it's something I think would greatly improve the Raps. Other 5's need to be looked as soon as possible if those don't happen, so that the Raps' players can get used to - as soon as possible - playing together, as a team, in their natural positions. No sense in waiting until the next offseason to make adjustments, given the rebuilding that is necessary.
If you're going to rebuild, it is crazy to rebuild around improper positioning. It's like replacing crutches with a wheelchair. It may look different, but ultimately you still need help moving forward. This means no Barbosa at the 1. No Weems playing the 3. No Bargs at the 5. That is unless you're in the middle of the game and adjusting according to the flow. But these are contingency plans and bonuses that good teams can fall back upon, not primary plans upon which they are dependent.