Looking Forward: Toronto Raptors

There were very high expectations in Toronto going into the 2008-2009 season. As a Raptors fan, I was as optimistic as I’d been in years after the team’s 3-0 start to the season. The idea was that a streamlined roster and the addition of Jermaine O’Neal’s defensive and rebounding abilities would finally give Chris Bosh’s team a taste of playoff success.

It didn’t happen.

When the team won just five of its next fourteen games, culminating in a shameful performance in Denver, head coach Sam Mitchell was sent home. Interim coach Jay Triano was given the task of leading the Raps to the well-over-.500 record expected of them. Unfortunately for us fans, though, the losses kept on coming. On offense, Triano placed an emphasis on picking up the pace and relinquished some play-calling control to his point guard. On defense, he had his guys funnelling players towards the baseline rather than the middle. All of the players spoke glowingly of him. This was nice, but none of it translated into wins.

Jermaine O’Neal didn’t play up to the standard we hoped for and he certainly didn’t click with Chris Bosh on offense. Jose Calderon was injured or playing hurt for the vast majority of the season. The team was downright frustrating to watch at times. When O’Neal was shipped out with Jamario Moon in exchange for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks, many fans were relieved that something was done to inject new life into the team. They went 12-15 to finish out the season with Marion, which sounds like an improvement until you look at how easy the schedule was.

At the end of the season, the team finished 33-49. For a franchise paying for a winner, this is disastrous. But why were so they bad?

I think it was fairly obvious that the Raptors were simply not deep enough and woefully unequipped to deal with an injury to point guard Jose Calderon. Roko Ukic, Will Solomon, and Marcus Banks rarely seemed worthy of being in an NBA rotation, watching their stints at the 1 last season. Anthony Parker did a surprisingly decent job running the point at times, but on a team that’s thin on the wing, having the starting 2 guard play significant minutes at the 1 isn’t ideal. I like AP and Jamario Moon (and think they’ll be fantastic off the bench for Cleveland next year), but they were overmatched almost every night last season in the starting lineup. The Raptors desperately needed someone on the wing who could create his own shot and even bringing in Shawn Marion didn’t change that. They didn’t get much production out of Jason Kapono and their frontcourt reserves were weak, too, at least until Pops Mensah-Bonsu was signed for the last 19 games.

This team finished 22nd in the league in offensive efficiency and 22nd in defensive efficiency as well. I don’t have to tell you that this meant significant changes were coming. We all knew Jose Calderon, Chris Bosh, and Andrea Bargnani would likely return, but the rest of the roster needed an overhaul.

It’s now August, and those three players have seven new teammates already. Bryan Colangelo has been as active as any General Manager in the league this summer, as he should have been, and this is the part of the post where I take a closer look at the moves he’s made:

1) Jason Kapono traded for Reggie Evans: Colangelo and Triano had talked about getting tougher in interviews and this move was a step towards that goal. Kapono is an overpaid shooter who does little else to help a team. Evans is an overpaid rebounder who does little else to help a team. The Raptors needed rebounding help and the Sixers needed shooting help, so it makes perfect sense for both sides. Kapono had worn out his welcome in Toronto and, while he probably won’t play more than 15 minutes a game, Evans could bring an attitude and energy that the team has been sorely lacking.

2) DeMar DeRozan drafted ninth overall. For a team that lacked athleticism and needed help on the wing, this pick was obvious. He’s only 20 years old, so Raptors fans should be cautious not to expect too much from him this season. It’s possible that we have a steal on our hands, though – he has a good mid-range game, tremendous hops, a great attitude, and seemingly limitless potential. This was a weak draft and the Raptors didn’t have one of the top picks, so coming away with a guy that fills a need and has upside has to be seen as a positive.

3) Shawn Marion, Kris Humphries, and Nathan Jawai traded for Hedo Turkoglu, Devean George, and Antoine Wright: I wrote about Hedo Turkoglu and this complicated deal in earlier posts, so I’ll keep it brief here: The Raptors absolutely needed a guy like Turkoglu on offense. His contract, though, is very questionable. Antoine Wright should be a boost to the Raptors’ perimeter defense next season and the fact that this trade allowed the Raptors to keep the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions is a huge, huge deal. As for Devean George, I’ll get to him in a minute…

4) Jarrett Jack signed to a four-year deal: This is where the mid-level exception comes into play. Keeping it allowed the Raps to ink a quality young combo guard who just happened to be Chris Bosh’s roommate in college. They might have overpaid him a little, to make sure that Indiana wouldn’t match the offer sheet, but for a team starved for depth in the backcourt, it’s understandable. Jack is a more-than-solid backup point guard and he proved himself capable of playing the 2 alongside T.J. Ford last season. He has the ability to penetrate the defense, something that the Raptors sorely lacked last year after the trade of the aforementioned Ford. He’s also renowned as a consummate professional, a great guy to have in the locker room, and a leader on the court.

5) Rasho Nesterovic signed to a one-year deal: This is where the bi-annual exception comes into play – the Raps got themselves a solid backup center for only $1.9 million. This move came as no surprise to anyone following the Raptors, as Rasho had publicly expressed his desire to return to the team. Rasho is a very good post defender and can score on the inside occasionally. He fills a need and, at that price, there is nothing to complain about here.

6) Devean George traded for Marco Belinelli: When George was included in the Turkoglu deal, most observers assumed he would only see spot minutes on this Raptors team, with his main role being mentoring the young guys and regaling them with stories about Shaq and Kobe from his time in L.A. It is quite impressive, then, that Bryan Colangelo was able to flip this 31-year-old for the 23-year-old Belinelli. The young Italian is no sure thing, and the Raptors had to give Golden State cash equivalent to George’s salary, but the fact is that the Raptors gained a player who should crack the rotation and gave up one who probably wouldn’t have. In Belinelli, the Raptors have a guy who can be the shooter Toronto lost when they traded Kapono. In George, it seems the Warriors have someone who will complain about playing time. Winner: Toronto.

The Raptors made one other significant transaction this off-season, one that didn’t involve any players changing teams. This was signing Andrea Bargnani to a five-year, $50 million contract extension. I’ve already defended this decision, but I will add this: even if you are not fond of this move or some of the Raptors’ other personnel decisions, you have to hand it to their ownership for being willing to shell out the money. You have to hand it to Colangelo, as well, for recognizing that the team needed a makeover and that his star player wanted to see the boss bring in some reinforcements for him. The Raptors have a new core of players now, with Bargnani, Calderon, Turkoglu, Jack, and DeRozan on board for the long haul. The Raps now must hope that these guys click and that Bosh wants to be a part of this group for the next few years.

There are just a couple of questions left for rest of the off-season. The first is what will happen with their backup point guard trio of Roko Ukic, Quincy Douby, and Marcus Banks. With none of them slated to receive significant minutes, it is likely that at least one of them will be moved before the start of the season. Secondly, there’s still one roster spot left on the team. This spot could be used on bringing back fan favourite Pops Mensah-Bonsu, or perhaps bringing in a defensive-minded wing like Ime Udoka.

Regardless of what happens with the last roster spot, we now have a pretty good idea of what the Raptors will look like next season. Based on the look of this roster, the offense should be vastly improved. If Triano uses these pieces properly, the team should be a lot more fun to watch on the offensive end. The Raptors are loaded with guys who can hit shots and pass the ball. Plus, I know I’m not the only one looking forward to DeRozan’s dunks.

Defense, though, is still a big question mark. Can the Raptors make key stops when they need to? Can they rebound the ball after forcing a tough shot? I’m not entirely sure yet. One good thing is that the point guard defense will improve – Calderon should be healthy again and Jack is able to stay in front of people. On the wing, Antoine Wright is known as a solid defender, but Belinelli is not and DeRozan, while he has the tools, will probably take some time to learn. Unfortunately, Turkoglu struggles on D, especially at this point in his career. As for the bigs, Bargnani made some strides last year, but he still has lots of room for improvement. Bosh is decent on D, but still sometimes gets abused one-on-one and his lack of strength can hurt him. Coach Triano wants Bosh to aim to make the all-defensive team this year and Raps fans have to hope he bulks up some more before the season starts. Evans and Nesterovic should help, for sure, but they will not have as much of an effect as significant improvement from the young guys who play most of the minutes.

John Hollinger has predicted that this will either be a huge success or a horrible failure. I’m not sure that I agree. The Raptors have made vast improvements on one side of the floor, and probably improved on the other, too. It’s easy to say they’ll improve on last year’s record, but how significant will the improvement be? If everything goes right and they effectively hide their defensive weaknesses, they could be the 4th or 5th seed in the East. If the group takes too long to gel and Triano fails to instil in them a strong defensive identity, they could be fighting to make it into the playoffs. The safest bet is to say they’ll end up in the middle with a 5th-7th seed. I’m not into pretending I know what’s going to happen, but I can’t wait to find out.

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11 Comments

Filed under Free Agency, Looking Forward, Toronto Raptors, Trades

11 responses to “Looking Forward: Toronto Raptors

  1. Thorough analysis, as usual. And I appreciate that you’re realistic even though it’s your home team.

    Honestly, I don’t see Colangelo’s vision. At all. It’s like he’s playing fantasy basketball. “This guy can shoot 3s, this guy gets lots of assists…”

    Best case scenario, they’re the Suns of a few years ago. Entertaining but not built for the playoffs. Worst case, they give up 110 a night and lose 50 games.

  2. vittoriodezen

    Thanks for the kind words. Honestly, if I get to watch a team resembling those Suns in person a bunch of times this year, I’ll be a happy man. I loved those teams.

    I don’t think this is a title-contending team, but it could be a really interesting one. I don’t exactly buy into Colangelo’s long-term plan (mostly ’cause I think Hedo’s contract will be crippling in a few years), but at least he’s added talent and this may appease Bosh. If Bosh bolts for Miami and we get nothing in return, I’d have a breakdown.

  3. Eric

    Nash vs Calderon
    Bell vs Derozan
    Marion vs Turkoglu
    Diaw vs Bosh
    Amare vs Bargnani

    On defense, the Raptors have better defenders than the old suns had in Calderon, in Bosh (I love Diaw, but his lack of size and strength was a problem depending on matchups), with Bargnani (he has to prove me right here, but Amare had a tendancy to loaf. Say what you will about Dr Drea but he brings it on the court). And to be honest, Marion didn’t always play the Defense a player of his skills and talent should be playing.

    Is this a Championship contending team? Clearly no. Especially in the East this year. However, a team that can score like they should be able to will win a lot of ball games. Anything below 6th in the east should be seen as a failure unless there are serious mitigating circumstances. Too much talent to not win 43-45 games on the back of the offense alone. Then you just have to hope the D can steal 5-10 at various times this year. 48 wins seems totally reasonable. If not more.

  4. Raul

    Nice analysis Vittorio, like always. I think it’s way a better team than last season and we will surprise a lot of people in the league. Maybe it could take time to gel but sooner or later in the season this team will play great basketball at both ends of the floor. I’ll say that we can be at the 4th spot in the east, Atlanta is overrated, the only team that can fight that position with us is Washington if they stay healthy. That being said, i don’t see orlando being an elite team this year. They’ve lost their playmaker (Turk), and they are not the match up nightmare they used to be. We can be 3rd or 4th this year
    I trust Triano and his international expirience to make this group of players a true team. The pieces are the right ones and the coach too. Training camp will be a great time for this players to get to know each other but i think the chemistry will be fantastic, better than the 2006/07 and 2007/08 season. Most of the players already know each others. Bargniani/Belinelli – Bosh/Jack – AB JC CB/ Rasho, so i think the chemistry will be great.

    I still think we need a back up SF, We’re overrating Wright a lot. I don’t see him as a key part of the rotation and i don’t see him fitting well on the team.
    As i said before, nocioni is our man, if we can add him, we will be a tittle contender

  5. vittoriodezen

    Thanks for the comments, guys.

    @Eric – If they’re the best in offense and the worst in defense, they’re probably still not winning 46-48 games. They’ve gotta be at least decent defensively to be successful. I’m not saying this won’t happen, but I will say that the Raptors don’t have any defenders comparable to Bell and Marion in their primes.

    @Raul – If they become the 4th best team in the East, no one will be happier than me! I disagree about Orlando and Nocioni, to be honest, but I agree about the chemistry. That was one of the things Turk stressed about coming to Toronto – he liked the team and he also really liked the people on the team. Apparently, these guys go out to dinner all the time and genuinely get along. Not a prerequisite for a winning team, but it’s a nice thing to have. Obviously I’m hoping the on-court chemistry matches the off-the-court stuff this year. I’m pretty confident that it will, offensively anyway. As for Antoine Wright, well, he’s a capable defender and that’s why he should see minutes on this team. I’m not sure about him being overrated – does anyone really see him as a big difference maker? If anyone, I think Belinelli’s the overrated one in Raptorland. Time will tell…

  6. Mike Klander

    This team is totally up in the air for me and I will refrain from making any predictions until I see how they gel on the floor.

    a) Until Colangelo steps away from this European style of play for building teams I just don’t see the Raptors enjoying any kind of post season success if they make the playoffs. This style of play works wonders in the regular season. Ask Phoenix and Dallas. But once the playoff defense kicks in it’s all out the door. Physical teams that like to beat you up like Boston and Denver eventually prevail.

    b) With all the trades this year, they haven’t noticeably commited to a style of play. Are they are run-and-gun team? Outside specialists? Will they specialize in the slower pace half court set like boston does? With all the acquisitions, it still looks up in the air because they’re trying to get a little piece of everything.

    I really won’t know what to make of this team until the season begins.

  7. Vittorio De Zen

    Thanks for the comment, Mike.

    a) Well, yeah, Phoenix lost in the playoffs. But I think there’s an argument to be made that Phoenix was good enough to win it all a couple of times in the last decade. Some injuries, suspensions, and bad calls played big roles in a few playoff defeats. (Bill Simmons and Steve Nash talked about this in a recent podcast – http://sports.espn.go.com/stations/player?id=4411583) That said, though, I agree that the Raps likely will not have much playoff success this season, especially if matched up with an elite defensive team like any of the East’s big 3.

    b) You’re on point here. I’m not sure how this group will play. Colangelo and Triano have been talking about pushing the pace ever since Mitchell got the axe. I think DeRozan, Amir Johnson (acquired after I wrote this post), and Jarrett Jack would benefit from this, but not sure about everyone else. Bosh, Bargs, Jose, and Turkoglu are all mainly half-court players, so I don’t expect the Raps to be leading the league in pace.

    • Mike Klander

      You’re definitely right Vittorio. Throughout the decade Phoenix was one of the favourites to take it all. Bad decisions which led to suspensions (why Amare got off the bench to run after Horry in a CRUCIAL GAME was beyond me) and injuries was their ultimate downfall. But you just have to look at the teams (or team) that beat them through the decade. Teams like San Antonio stuck to a defensive state of mind since they already had the offensive power they needed and succeeded three times this decade. I think the formula can work, but you need a right defensive mix as well.

      • Vittorio De Zen

        Well yeah, you definitely need to play defense too. Phoenix wasn’t too bad on D under D’Antoni, though. Here’s where they ranked:

        2004-2005 – 17th in the league
        2005-2006 – 16h in the league
        2006-2007 – 13th in the league (!)
        2007-2008 – 16th in the league

        So, they were an average defensive team the whole time. If you’re an offensive powerhouse, I think you might be able to get away with being just an average defensive team.

        There was a lot of talk about Porter slowing the team down and focusing on D last year, but they actually got WAY WORSE under him. They finished the season last year 2nd in offense and 26th in defense, hence the only average record.

  8. Brothersteve

    Last year the Raps were thin at PG, SF, PF, and C (except when O’Neal was not hurt/playing hurt.)

    This year they’re not that thin!

    Jay Triano should be able to make this a winning team!

    • Vittorio De Zen

      Yeah, there’s definitely more depth on this squad than there was last year. Rasho & Amir are huge upgrades in the frontcourt off the bench, and Evans is good at rebounding. Jack is a more-than-solid backup point guard. I still worry about the wing positions, though, especially if Hedo is to get hurt. They have a lot of wing players but most of them likely aren’t going to play at a high level this year.

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