Layups, Oct. 14

Sign we’re at the beginning of the season: Larry Brown is upset! He hates how his bigs are playing. Giving that he’s talking about Nazr Mohammed, DeSagana Diop, and Alexis Ajinca, I don’t know why he’s surprised. Anyway, watch him continue to complain about his bunch in Charlotte for the next little while until they start consistently playing good D, at which point he will gush about them.

Milwaukee is trying to decide whether to pick up Joe Alexander’s first option year. As Sham reminded me this morning, Milwaukee picked this guy over Brook Lopez and Anthony Randolph. This is a sad story. The guy is athletic (and damn well should have been in the dunk contest last season) and, I guess, he has some potential in him. Still, how is he going to realize it in Milwaukee? They’re not a great team, but I don’t see minutes for him. He’s a 3/4, just like Skiles’s defensive darling Luc Richard Mbah A Moute. Carlos Delfino is going to get minutes at the 3, too, and Michael Redd could as well if Skiles decides to go small. At the 4 spot, I find it hard to believe he’s going to get minutes unless one or two of Hakim Warrick, Kurt Thomas, and Ersan Ilyasova get injured. I’d say they should trade Jumpin’ Joe, but he has next to no value right now.

Finally! It looks like, after a summer of bickering to my friends and to random message-board people, I’ve found people (besides Kelly Dwyer) who actually agree with me about Marco Belinelli. Michael Grange of The Globe and Mail isn’t sold on him, as he thinks using possessions on Belinelli rather than other, more effective players is a bad idea. Mark Ginocchio of Nets Are Scorching points out that just about the only statistical thing he does well is shooting. This is what I’ve been saying for a while now. He’s a pretty damn good shooter, and he actually has a well above-average feel for the game. The problem is that he can’t guard anybody, he doesn’t take care of the ball, and he lacks athleticism. He’s skilled, but he’s quite a bit overmatched in the NBA. Point guard might actually be the best position for him, but then again, imagine him trying to stick Chris Paul or Rondo. Oof.

Den Feldman of Pistons Powered has a warning for people around the league buying into the new-coach hoopla. Very nicely done, that, although I think Pistons fans have reason to be excited about Kuester. While Curry had just a few years of assistant coaching experience since his playing days ended, Kuester has been in the coaching game since 1980 and in the NBA coaching game since 1995. This man served as Cleveland’s offensive co-ordinator last year, where he turned the NBA’s 20th-best offensive team into its 4th-best. I think Dumars chose the right guy this time.

Sekou Smith is talking about Marvin Williams’s aggressiveness in Atlanta. Here’s what I said about young Marv back in August: “Marvin Williams needs to get the ball more and he needs to be more aggressive. He’s an efficient young player, but he doesn’t assert his will on the game often enough.” It seems they’re recognizing this in Atlanta, and I really hope what they’re saying now translates into how they play in the regular season. Colour me skeptical, though, ‘cause with Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Mike Bibby, Al Horford, and now Jamal Crawford, that’s a lot of mouths to feed. If Williams is going become a bigger part of their attack, both Marvin and coach Woodson are going to have to do their parts.

Finally, if you haven’t read Adrian Wojnarowski’s excellent piece on the Warriors, you absolutely have to. This is normally where I try to add something, be it an extra piece of evidence or some criticism, but I’ve got nothin’ on this one. Just read it, he nailed it. Can’t stand seeing young talent continually wasted in Golden State.

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Filed under Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Bobcats, Coaching, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Layups, League-Wide Stuff, Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors

A Closer Look: How Things Could Go Wrong For The Raptors

This is another guest post by my buddy Julian. Like me, he’s a huge NBA fan in Toronto, so he has a lot to say about the Raptors. He’s previously written about their offense and their defense, from a bit of an optimistic point of view. Now, he’s going to take a step back and look at what obstacles stand in the way of the Raptors’ success in 2009-2010. Enjoy. Also, tell him to start tweeting again – he may as well delete his twitter account at this point.

With all of the new faces in Raptors training camp this season, there are many reasons for fans to be positive, especially considering the terrible 08-09 campaign. Bench issues have been addressed, and arguably, more talent has been added to the starting lineup. While visions of sugar plum second-rounds are dancing in many a fan’s head, it’s important to look at the multitude of ways that this season could go sideways. The eternal optimist in me says that the Raptors will have an incredible, unexpected level of success this season, but that is probably not going to happen, and there are going to be a number of reasons why. Essentially, this article is going to look at the pitfalls and perils that are most likely to hinder the Raptors this coming season.

Rebounding

Rebounding!

Rebounding is going to be a very big issue for the Raptors. They simply do not have good enough rebounders to do well in this department. Jermaine O’Neal wasn’t a great rebounder, but he was better than Bargnani, and Shawn Marion, who was an excellent rebounder at the 3, was a much better rebounder than Hedo Turkoglu. While people may mention that we picked up Reggie Evans, he simply cannot see too much court time next season. His PER numbers and TS% numbers over the past few seasons have been terrible (Career averages 11.6 PER and 50% TS%). When you put Reggie Evans in the game, you hurt yourself in a different way. He’s a useful role-player who is able to change the dynamic of the team when he is in, but I don’t think he should receive more than 15 minutes a game.

Amir Johnson has something to prove, and is also a good per-minute rebounder. He hasn’t received all that much time in his young career, and he has upside. Detroit tried to push his development along by inserting him into the starting lineup, but it didn’t go all that well. His problem was fouling at an inordinate rate, which hindered his ability to stay on the floor. The interest in Amir is that he is athletic and tall, finishes well, and can rebound. Those are talents that the Raptors could definitely use, so watch for Amir to get some time to prove that he can play. This franchise would like to see him reach his full potential, but then again, so did the Pistons.

The guard positions are not great for the Raptors either. Jose Calderon doesn’t rebound very well, even by guard standards, and neither do Marco Belinelli or Antoine Wright. DeMar DeRozan represents an interesting opportunity for the Raptors, as his college rebounding numbers were pretty impressive. 5.7 rebounds in 33 minutes is good for a guard. Projecting stats from College to the Pros is very dubious, so take that with a grain of salt.

Prognosis: The Raptors still have a rebounding problem. With Shawn Marion leaving and Bargnani playing center I don’t really see the Raptors doing very well in this regard. Expect nights where the Raps play good defence and shoot the ball well, but still end up losing due to a big chasm in the rebounding totals.

Defense

Defense!

This is something that I’ve talked about in my prior article, and many different things have to go right in order for the Raptors to be good (read: top 10) defensively in the upcoming season. Firstly, the defense at the big positions needs to be a lot better. Jermaine O’Neal was the Raptors’ best big-man defender last season, and he is no longer with the team. Bargnani and Bosh, while not absolutely awful defenders, are not “anchor” material. Bosh has made a big deal out of getting physically larger this season, and one would hope that that would translate to better defense. Bargnani has also added weight, and has been working on his inside game this off-season. Things need to get much better, however, especially seeing as the Raptors want to play both of them on the court for long periods of time, due to their huge offensive potential. If Bargnani and Bosh don’t get better, expect a lot of layups this season. When players aren’t afraid of what is waiting for them at the rim, they are much more likely to take it inside, which is obviously the worst type of shot to give up.

At the two guard and small forward positions there are also a few question marks. Jose Calderon has just come off an admittedly terrible defensive season, and has used the summer to rehabilitate his hamstring. He has never been a particularly stalwart defender, however, and he should still see 30+ minutes every night, backed up by Jarrett Jack. At the shooting guard position, there are a few options. Marco Belinelli, DeMar DeRozan, Jarrett Jack and Antoine Wright are all candidates to play the shooting guard position, and there are only 48 minutes available at that spot. Jarrett Jack is a solid defender, Belinelli is a decent defender and Antoine Wright started part of last season with the Mavericks due to his defensive prowess. DeMar DeRozan is a bit of a mystery, but he certainly has the tools to become a very good defender. At the Small forward position, Hedo Turkoglu figures to get the lion’s share of the minutes, and he is an okay defender. He is long and tall for his position, but is a little slow, especially when guarding smaller players. His defensive awareness is good as well, and rarely does he look completely overmatched by the player he is guarding.

Prognosis: The team has a lot of work to do on the defensive end. They have a couple of players that can play great defense, but the problem is that a lot of them are bench players who don’t have much to offer on the offensive end.

Injuries

Injuries!

I know that injuries are very difficult to predict unless a player is chronically injured, but I don’t think I need to remind Raptor fans that the injury bug can strike at any time and nothing de-rails a team faster than a key injury to one of their top guys. There are, however, some legitimate concerns when it comes to the Raptors this season, at least in the short term. While the early reports are that Jose Calderon has completely healed his hamstring, there is a possibility that it isn’t 100% and it could be re-aggravated during the season. Bosh also has a tweaked hammy, and has a habit of breaking down as the season wears on. Hedo Turkoglu, the Raptors’ big offseason acquisition has a knee injury that is said to be minor (aren’t they always?), and is suffering from fatigue having taken very little time off this summer.

Prognosis: There are no major injury concerns with this team, and the Raptors do have much more depth this season, which should help out if anyone goes down with injury.

Hedo Doesn’t Work Out

Hedo!

A big question in the minds of some of the skeptics is whether Hedo Turkoglu will be able to duplicate the year he had two seasons ago, when he set career highs in PPG, PER, assists and rebounding. This past season was not as good as that season, as Hedo was not nearly as efficient. Hedo may be a very talented player, but there is no question that he isn’t very consistent, and his play doesn’t just vary game-to-game, but also quarter-to-quarter and season-to-season. Which Hedo will the Raptors get? Will it be the efficient Hedo that we saw two seasons ago, or will it be the 2-16 (FG-FGA) Hedo that showed up in many Magic games last season? The chemistry that Hedo had with Dwight Howard was incredible, and their pick and roll was one of the Magic’s best offensive weapons. Hedo would hook up with Howard via an alley-oop, often in spectacular fashion. Hedo also played into the Magic’s gameplan, because a lot of the time, some of the off-balance shots that Turkoglu would put off the rim would actually be “assists” to Dwight, who would get the offensive rebound and put it back in. There is always the chance that things don’t gel as well as they did in Orlando with Hedo, because Bosh, while a very talented offensive player, isn’t exactly the type of guy you can throw 12-foot high lobs to and expect him to throw it down, nor is he the dominant offensive rebounder that turns every miss into a make.

Prognosis: It will be interesting to see how well Turkoglu will work here in Toronto, because he is not the most reliable player. It seems to be feast or famine with Turkoglu; on his best nights, he is hitting shots from all over the floor, making plays and creating mismatches, and at his worst, is hogging the ball and shooting you out of the game. The Raptors need a whole lot more of the former.

Bargnani Regresses

Bargnani!

I think this is one of the nightmares many fans have going into this season. Bargnani looked incredible last season, shooting a career high 56% TS%, getting 15+ PPG, and finishing the year with 3 straight months of ~20 ppg scoring. Many fans and people with the organization believe that he’s out of the woods, and that he won’t go back to the horrific stretch of play that he had in the 07-08 season, but are we being a little too premature? Bargnani had a very bad summer for the Italian national team, where he scored a meagre 10.3 PPG on 40% shooting, including going 2/13 from 3-point range. The Italian coach was admittedly very poor, and there was a rift between the player and his coach (not dissimilar to the Bargnani/Smitch situation?), and Bargnani pulled no punches when he talked to the Italian papers about it. Bargnani seems to have some motivation issues, which can turn into morale issues, so the question is whether he can be motivated and positive enough to continue to play hard even when he has an inevitable stretch of bad games.

Prognosis: While the chances of Bargnani going back to suck-mode Bargnani that we saw in ’07/’08 is slim, the potential is certainly still there. Jay Triano still has to work his magic with the big man, and give him a clear, defined role, as well as plenty of minutes to prevent a repeat of two seasons ago.

Conclusion

I believe that there are a number of ways that the Raptors could self-destruct this season, but that doesn’t mean that they WILL. There will be many things that will go right for the Raptors, and those things may be able to cancel out, and overtake some of the weaknesses of the club. Also, some of these weaknesses may not even be weaknesses at all! Hedo may work just fine, and Bargnani could have a stellar season and there could be no significant injuries to any of the star players. This is simply a list of the most likely things that could hamper the Raptors’ season. At the end of the year, if the Raptors fail to make any significant progress, I think that at least a few, if not all of these factors will have come into play.

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Filed under A Closer Look, Guest Posts, Toronto Raptors

Layups, Oct. 05

  • Miami is going to start Michael Beasley at small forward. I get it; they want to start their best 5 players. Plus, if they’re going to go after Carlos Boozer or Chris Bosh this summer, they’re not going to want Beas playing the 4. Still, I’m a bit worried about this plan. As I said in my Heat preview, one of the biggest goals this season has to be Beasley’s development. He was actually very good offensively last year, but wasn’t given the minutes or touches to really show what he can do. It’s in the Heat’s long-term best interest to raise Beasley’s stock around the league. Plus, they need his scoring. If you ask me, putting him at the 3 for long stretches of time might hurt his offensive numbers. He’s more valuable offensively on the post than he is on the wing. Plus, on the defensive end, multi-talented 3s will routinely expose his weaknesses. At the end of the season, the Heat need people to be talking about what Beasley can do rather than what he can’t, and, in my eyes, he needs significant minutes at the 4 for this to be the case.
  • The Toronto hype machine is saying that Andrea Bargnani is much improved at everything. Most notable is that his defense is supposedly better – apparently, his anticipation has improved and so has his understanding of team defensive principles. Still, even though I defended his contract extension, I am wary about buying into this. Who exactly is he defending, with Chris Bosh sitting training camp out? Rasho Nesterovic, Patrick O’Bryant, and maybe a bit of Amir Johnson, that’s who. I’m going to wait and see what Bargnani does in a real game, because, as much as I want to believe he’s made a big leap on D, the objective side of me tells me this kind of story is meaningless.
  • Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer is saying that the Bobcats offered Ray Felton a long-term deal for about $7 million a season and HE TURNED IT DOWN. Whaaaa? Isn’t this team trying to shed its long-term deals? Don’t they want to develop D.J. Augustin? You don’t give $7 million a year to a guy who hasn’t shown any improvement in 4 seasons. Yeah, it seemed like Felton had a lot of potential coming out of UNC, but since arriving in the league he’s been a below average player. He doesn’t score efficiently, can’t shoot the 3, and the only reason his stats look decent is that he plays upwards of 37 minutes a game. Bill Simmons is wrong about this one. If there’s truth to this story, both sides are crazy
  • Brandan Wright will be out 4 to 6 months because he will require shoulder surgery. Don Nelson is upset because Wright “might be the best player in camp” and “it’s quite a loss for us”. So, Nelson’s saying he was finally going to give Wright a shot then. Really? He only let Wright play 9.9 minutes a game in his rookie season and 17.6  in his sophomore season, so why should we believe him? Both seasons, there wasn’t much consistency in the minutes department – he was jerked in and out of the line-up like all other young players tend to be in Golden State. All the while, he’s put up very good per-minute stats, making us dorks who care about such things wish that he will be given an opportunity to showcase his skills somewhere else. I’ve felt bad for this kid the last two years on the Warriors’ bench and feel really, really bad for him now that he’s hurt. Hope he returns at full strength.
  • Spurs blog 48 Minutes of Hell is speculating that DeJuan Blair might end up putting up the best per-minute stats of any rookie. While I’m not ready to fully jump aboard that train, I’ve got to say I’m excited about the guy. It’s unbelievable that a guy who rebounds like he does slipped so late in the draft. How well does he rebound, exactly? Well, his offensive rebounding rate last season was better than some entire teams’ rates. The guy is a monster. I’ve said it many times before but it bears repeating: The Spurs off-season has been mind-bogglingly good. Without a ton of cap room or a high draft pick, they’ve added a ton of rotation-worthy players and put themselves into title contention once again.

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Filed under Charlotte Bobcats, Golden State Warriors, Layups, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors

Looking Forward Roundup

I’ve finally finished the Looking Forward series, where I took a look at each team in the NBA in terms of how they did in 2008-2009, how they improved (or didn’t) in the off-season that has just now come to a close with the start of training camp, and what to expect out of them in 2009-2010.

I wanted to put them all in one all in one place, and since I started this in July I felt it was appropriate to provide brief updates where they are necessary. Here we go.

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

Boston Celtics – Added Shelden Williams. If he ends up in the rotation, it probably means Garnett is out, so let’s just hope we don’t see much of him this year.
New Jersey Nets – Roster-wise, nothing’s changed. But there’s a new owner in town, making the (Brooklyn) Nets a much more attractive free agent destination next summer.
New York Knicks
Philadelphia 76ers – Brought back Rodney Carney, plus they’ve got Stromile Swift, Primoz Brezec, Sean Singletary, and Dionte Christmas on their training camp roster. Expect one or two of them to make the team.
Toronto Raptors – Signed and traded Carlos Delfino to Milwaukee along with Roko Ukic, in exchange for Amir Johnson and Sonny Weems. Johnson seems like a great acquisition, as he is capable of playing multiple positions and adds some much-needed athleticism and rebounding in the frontcourt.

Central Division

Chicago Bulls
Cleveland Cavaliers – Good thing they signed Anthony Parker, ‘cause nobody knows exactly what’s going on with Delonte West right now.
Detroit Pistons
Indiana PacersRod Benson is on their training camp roster, which is awesome. Shame they arleady have Troy Murphy, Solomon Jones, Tyler Hansbrough, and Josh McRoberts at the 4, though.
Milwaukee Bucks

Southeast Division

Atlanta Hawks – Added Joe Smith and Jason Collins to the frontcourt. The former should receive playing time. Mike Wilks, Juan Dixon, and Aaron Miles will compete in training camp for an emergency guard reserve spot.
Charlotte Bobcats – Flip Murray was a bargain, but he’s just short-term help.
Miami Heat
Orlando Magic – Could actually warrant another post now, since they’ve kept on spending and this piece was technically before I started “Looking Forward”. Kept Gortat, signed Matt Barnes, Jason Williams, and Linton Johnson. Absolutely stacked, fans better thank the ownership. Rashard Lewis is out for the first 10 games for failing a drug test, but they should win almost all of them.
Washington Wizards

Western Conference

Southwest Division

Dallas Mavericks – As always, Kris Humphries is impressing in training camp. I have high hopes for Tamm Llorac, too.
Houston Rockets
Memphis Grizzlies
New Orleans Hornets – Shockingly made a good basketball trade when moving Chandler for Okafor (it’ll cost them money in the long run, but Okafor makes less than Chandler for the next two years). Should be improved, a bit, but they have to stop giving Peja so many minutes.
San Antonio Spurs – Signed Theo Ratliff and Keith Bogans. They needed another shot-blocker and they needed another backcourt shooter. Nice.

Northwest Division

Denver Nuggets – J.R. Smith is out for the first 7 games because of an old reckless driving incident, but they’re still good enough to win most of those games. Also, they let Linas Kleiza join Josh Childress and Von Wafer at Olympiakos and acquired more athleticism in Joey Graham and James “Flight” White.
Minnesota Timberwolves
Portland Trail Blazers – Signed Ime Udoka and Juwan Howard to fill out the roster. Both are heady veterans who will not see much court time unless the team is hit by injuries.
Oklahoma City Thunder – Added Ryan Bowen, Michael Ruffin, and Kevin Ollie. Vets who will challenge the young guys in practice and are capable of spot minutes if there are injuries.
Utah Jazz

Pacific Division

Golden State Warriors – Still have the same talent, but this is a mess. Captain Jack wants out, Monta says he can’t share the backcourt with Stephen Curry, and I can’t blame either of them.
Los Angeles Clippers – Coach Dunleavy has stated that Blake Griffin will come off the bench, which almost made me punch a wall. On the plus side, Baron Davis came into camp in shape.
Los Angeles LakersIt’s a bit of a circus, but the Lakers are good with that. Still the favourite.
Phoenix Suns
Sacramento KingsUgh, they signed Desmond Mason. Kings fans are thrilled.

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Looking Forward: Utah Jazz

The 2008-2009 Utah Jazz had the 8th best offense in the league, the 10th best defense in the league, and finished with a record of 48-34. That’s what you call a very good team. They were never really seen as championship contenders, though. With Carlos Boozer only playing 37 regular season games, and with Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko, and Mehmet Okur struggling through injuries at various points in the season, this extremely consistent franchise was fielding a team that lacked… consistency. Boozer came back to unseat Paul Millsap with a couple of months left in the season, but this wasn’t enough as they ran into the eventual champion Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. It’s tough to say if this team underachieved last year – you could definitely make the argument that this team should have finished with more than 48 wins in the regular season, but, as good as they were when at full health, they weren’t going to win a 7-game series against the Lakers.

This is the part where I normally dissect the team’s off-season moves, but there’s not much to say here. The only additions to this squad are their rookies – Eric Maynor and Goran Suton. Maynor should fit in nicely as Deron Williams’s primary backup; this is a very good pick-up for a team picking 20th in a weak draft. Suton is still unsigned at this point and it is unclear whether or not this 24-year-old rookie will make the roster, especially one with a frontcourt rotation as crowded as this one. Let’s move on.

The biggest story in Utah, going into the season, is how the Carlos Boozeer/Paul Millsap situation will unfold. After expressing his desire to be moved to Chicago or Miami and stating that he couldn’t see himself back in Utah, the fans in Salt Lake can’t be too pleased with him. He’s back, though, at least for now, and he probably won’t be traded unless the Jazz get an offer that makes sense from a basketball perspective. The only way they were going to ship him out in the summer was to save money this season, by trading him into another team’s cap space. They needed a trading partner that a) had the cap space and b) had confidence that Boozer would re-sign with them when he hits free agency next summer. No teams fit this criteria, so here we are. Recent Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Sloan has stated that Boozer will have to compete with the re-signed Paul Millsap for the starting job and Booz isn’t having it. Let’s see how this goes. My gut tells me everyone will get over it, Boozer will start, and both will get reasonable minutes in what will be the Duke alum’s final season with the Jazz. Who knows, though? Maybe the right deal comes along and they can trade him for a solid wing player. That’d certainly be a way to make a leap in the standings.

Even if everything remains status quo, roster-wise, the Jazz should improve on last year’s mark if they can just remain healthy. No doubt they were successful last year given the circumstances, but the previous season they won 54 games and that’s the kind of mark we should expect from them this year. No, they’re not at the level of the Lakers and they’re probably not up there with the Spurs, either. Still, don’t discount them. People didn’t think the Orlando Magic or Denver Nuggets were elite squads a year ago and, if a few things go their way, these Jazz could have similar success. They’ve got an elite PG, competent wings, and a very above-average frontcourt, especially offensively. They’ve also got one of the best coaches in the game, a guy that ensures his team comes to play every night on both ends of the floor. Not much has changed here, but sometimes that’s a good thing.

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A Closer Look: Raptors Defense

This is another guest post by my buddy Julian, who writes the blog Comedy Landfill. Like me, he’s a huge NBA fan in Toronto, so he has a lot to say about the Raptors. His post on the team’s offense remains the most-commented piece in this blog’s history and now he’s going to look at the other side of the floor. Enjoy. Also, tell him to start tweeting again – it’s been over a month now.

Last year, the Raptors had the 22nd best defensive rating in the league at 110, down from 107, or 13th in the league the year before. On average, the Raptors conceded 110 points for every 100 possessions of basketball, which isn’t very good. To get a look at how important defensive rating is for a team, take a look at which teams were in the top ten:

1. Orlando (59-23)
2. Boston (62-20)
3. Cleveland (66-16)
4. Houston (53-29)
5. San Antonio (54-28)
6. Los Angeles (65-17)
7. Charlotte (35-47)
8. Denver (54-28)
9. New Orleans (49-33)
10. Utah (48-34)

The only red herring in that list was Charlotte, which finished outside of the playoffs. The rest read like the who’s-who of the best teams in the NBA. For reference, here are some of the teams that settled around Toronto:

19. Indiana (36-46)
20. Oklahoma City (23-59)
21. Memphis (24-58)
22. Toronto (33-49)
23. New York (32-50)
24. New Jersey (34-48)

Not the prettiest picture is it? Defense certainly has a lot to do with winning games, and bluntly, the 2008-2009 Toronto Raptors were not very good at preventing other teams from scoring.

There were a couple of defensive problems for the Raptors last season, and I will break down who I believe were the largest offenders for the Raps.

Bargnani replacing Jermaine O’Neal at center

Pau killing Bargs

Firstly, as anyone who watched the Raptors last season knows, Andrea Bargnani took over the center spot from Jermaine O’Neal last season after O’Neal sat due to chronic injuries. On the offensive side of the ball, Bargnani looked brilliant, ending the season averaging almost 20 points per game in the last three months. The problem was, however, that Jermaine O’Neal was one of the Raptors’ best defenders. He was intimidating in the paint, and could body up against the larger players in the league.

Bargnani on the other hand had a rough time learning the ropes, especially when it came to help defense and rebounding. While he wowed people on offense, on defense he was often out of position, and didn’t add the sort of fearsomeness that the center spot demands. Bargnani has struggled throughout his career, and in my opinion, a lot of that had to do with the coaching of Sam Mitchell. The two never really seemed to connect, and even when Bargnani recieved minutes, he was playing different positions and yanked when he made a mistake.

As much as that seems like an excuse to some, I believe that the results showed themselves when Jay Triano took over. Bargnani simply played better in almost every facet of the game. Can Triano continue to work with Bargnani to turn him into a reliable defender at the center spot? I think that every Raptor fan would hope so, simply because in order to succeed, Bargnani needs to play better in that area and I don’t think it’s out of the question.

Bargnani certainly has the physical tools to be a better defender at the Center position. He is quick on his feet, he has the height and he has the length to contest shots. What he needs to do is continue to add strength, and take more responsibility in guarding the basket.

Jose Calderon’s injury

Bibby beats Caldy
First, let’s square away that Jose Calderon has never been an excellent defender (happy birthday!). He has never even been a particularly good one, in fact. However, statistically, Jose Calderon had a poor season in 2008-2009 on the defensive side of the ball even by his standards, as he recently admitted. If you look at his DRating, this is what Calderon’s defense looks like:

2005-2006: 115
2006-2007: 108
2007-2008: 109
2008-2009: 112

As you can see, Calderon had a down year on that side of the ball, even though he was still one of the Raptors best offensive players by far.

Jose Calderon took the entire offseason off, rehabbing his injured hamstring. If Calderon can go back to being a so-so defender, the Raptors will be a much improved team. That is the strange thing about team defence; it has a ripple effect. One teammate not defending adequately puts pressure on teammates who have to overcommit in order to cover your errors. If you have multiple poor defenders, then you have a system that can be broken down. Switching is an inevitability in the NBA, but when you force teams to switch multiple times in one play, there are going to be openings to exploit. Passing lanes open up, and players become open on the perimeter.

Here is an example of one of the dreaded help defense schemes, referred to as “doubling down” that teams used to regularly exploit Jose Calderon’s defence:

1
2
3
4
5

This really needs to stop, or only be used some of the time next season, because teams were abusing Jose Calderon’ inability to recover after the post man passed the ball back out, as we did that on virtually every play.

Anthony Parker’s decline

Parker gets dunked on
Anthony Parker, for the two years leading up until this past season, was one of the Toronto Raptors’ top defenders. He would draw the most difficult wing assignments, and consistantly do a pretty good job of defending them. This past season was completely different. Anthony Parker started to show his age. Here are parker’s DRatings over the past few seasons with Toronto:

2006-2007: 108
2007-2008: 108
2008-2009: 111

I think that the reality was a little more stark than the statistics suggest. Parker’s defense seemed to fall off a cliff last season. The number of instances where his cover would blow by him with the ball rose dramatically, and while this has nothing to do with defense, his offensive abilities seemed to suffer signifigantly as well. When your best perimeter defender starts to lose a step, your defense isn’t going to be as impressive.

With Calderon and Parker on the perimeter allowing players into the lane more and more often, the secondary defense (i.e. Bargnani and Bosh) were left to clean up the mess, and were definitely not up to the challenge. Calderon and Parker, while pretty poor on the defensive end last season, were definitely not the biggest offenders on that side of the floor. Enter one of the most universally hated Raptors of all time:

Jason. Kapono.

J-Killa tries to stay with Rip

Yes, Jason Kapono. Any Raptor fan who watched even the smallest peppering of games last year knows that Jason Kapono was a very painful, yet head-shakingly comedic player to watch. Clutch travelling turnover in the fourth quarter? GET IN THERE JASON! Need a bit of “The guy I’m defending just blew past me into the paint, so I guess I’ll just follow him”? J-Killa is the man you need. And don’t forget an extra sprinkle of never, ever taking a 3 point jumper when there is even a single person in your area code.

Jason Kapono was like the bad movie that all of the movie critics secretly want to review, because it allows them to unleash their inner sadist. Jason Kapono was like the Keystone Cops last year, bumbling around like there were invisible banana peels on the floor. In case you need a bit of evidence of how bad he was, Kapono had an absolutely brutal DRating of 115 last season, making him the worst defender on the Raptors by a mile.

Another equally scary thing to consider about Jason Kapono is that he played the 5th most minutes on the team last year. Almost TWO THOUSAND minutes of NBA basketball. Nearly two thousand of the possible twenty thousand minutes that could possibly be played by all players that played basketball on the Raptors last season, or around 10% of ALL minutes played. Chris Bosh played about three thousand minutes, for comparison’s sake.

That’s a lot of minutes of turnstile defense being played, and it hurt the team badly. If three of the players playing major minutes at your 3 perimeter spots are poor defenders, you’re going to have a bad defense. That’s just how it’s going to work.

Moving Forward

As we all know, and as I have mentioned on this blog in the past, the 2009/2010 Toronto Raptors are a much different beast than last year. Gone are Anthony Parker and Jason Kapono, in are willing defenders Reggie Evans, Rasho Nesterovic and Jarret Jack, as well as Jose Calderon’s two functioning hamstrings. Jay Triano now has a training camp to implement the type of defense that he wants to see played. Unfortunately, gone is the able defender Jamario Moon, who, while doing things that infuriated many a Raptors fan, was actually one of the team’s best defenders.

Hedo Turkoglu also makes an appearance, and he is and has been a relatively solid defender. Some would say (including the guy who runs this blog) that he’s a mediocre defender who got to play with Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard his whole career. Still, if he can eat up minutes that would have otherwise gone to non-defender Jason Kapono, things can only look better.

In a sense, the team looks to improve this season defensively, but to what extent? It’s this blogger’s opinion that it will depend on the success of the defensive system that is employed, and how successfully it can hide the shortcomings of this particular Raptors squad. This harkens back to the last blog that I created, which showed the effects that coaching can make on how a team performs. How many spots can the Raptors rise (or fall) this season? Stay tuned, because we will see very shortly.

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Filed under A Closer Look, Guest Posts, Stats, Toronto Raptors

Looking Forward: Phoenix Suns

We all used to love the Phoenix Suns, but things changed a bit last year. Under Terry Porter until the All-Star break, the Suns failed to meet expectations. The new coach was given the unenviable task of trying to change the Suns’ identity. Instead of an all-out running attack, Porter wanted to play a more controlled style of basketball. Less quick shots, less chaos, more defense, more rebounding.

It didn’t work. They slowed the pace down a little bit, but their defense got considerably worse. Players such as Raja Bell and Leandro Barbosa seemed downright frustrated at times, not knowing when they had the green light to shoot. The offense wasn’t the same and the players weren’t comfortable (despite Steve Nash’s genuine effort to make it work). Their roster wasn’t capable of becoming a lockdown defensive team, especially after the Jason Richardson trade, and it came as a surprise to no one when Porter got the axe and was replaced by Alvin Gentry. Sure, Shaquille O’Neal put up great numbers (with and without Amar’e Stoudemire in the lineup), but it wasn’t necessarily best for the team to make him a focal point. Even with the improvement under Gentry, the Suns remained a mediocre team and missed out on a playoff berth by 2 games.

This summer, the Shaquille O’Neal experiment was put to rest when he was moved to the Cleveland Cavaliers for salary relief. Matt Barnes headed to the East, too, signing with Orlando. All the Suns have done is re-sign veterans Steve Nash (36 in February) and Grant Hill (37 before opening day), draft forwards Earl Clark and Taylor Griffin, and sign free agent Channing Frye. My initial thought about all this: “What exactly are they doing? Do they even have a plan?” These are not moves I should endorse. They’re not ones that will put the team back where it belongs, legitimately in title contention. They’re not ones that will ensure future financial flexibility, planting the seeds for rebuilding. Rather, they are lateral moves, keeping them in a spot where they have just enough talent to make the playoffs if things go right. When I thought about it, though, I realized I was happy that they had kept Nash, happy they’ve pledged to keep the run-and-gun style going. It’s because, at this point, I just don’t want to see him in another uniform.

Here’s some of what Kelly Dwyer said about Nash in his top 10 point guards of the last decade list:

We play to win, I guess, but we’re also playing because it’s fun. Nobody says, “I’m going to go down to the Y later this afternoon to try and contribute to a winning cause.” We say, “I’m going to go play basketball,” a game, a game that’s fun. You’ve seen this dance before.

So, he’ll get burned on D. And at the end of the day, other players will have more points, rebounds, steals and assists, even. But man, isn’t his game something to behold?

Take this quote and apply it to the whole team. They have flaws. Obvious, season-shortening flaws. We know they are going to be overmatched, some nights. In a cold, rational world, the smart thing would unquestionably be to blow this thing up and start over. Ditch the veterans, develop young guys, rebuild. We live in the real world, though, a place where Phoenix Suns fans would be distraught if the franchise abandoned its fiery Canadian saviour. It’s really a shame that this franchise fell short of winning a title this decade, and it’s a shame that this year’s team won’t measure up to those of years’ past. Still, they’ll be fun for another year or two, and that’s what we want.

I can’t honestly say I’m very excited about the 2009-2010 Phoenix Suns. I can’t even say I find them that interesting, beyond seeing if Amar’e can successfully come back from eye surgery and start playing defense again. Still, I know I’m going to end up watching a ton of their games and I know I’m going to love it. They might not be the Suns of old, but they’re still worth our time.

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Filed under Free Agency, Looking Forward, Phoenix Suns, Trades