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
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
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:
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:
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
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:
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:
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.
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.