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.