Tag Archives: DeMar DeRozan

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

A Closer Look: TS% and the Toronto Raptors

This is a guest post by my buddy Julian, who writes the blog Comedy Landfill. Like me, he’s a huge Raptors fan. Also, he’s fond of playing with numbers, so get ready for a barrage of stats the likes of which have never been seen before on this site! Anyway, enjoy. And follow him on twitter.

Since the Bryan Colangelo era began, the Toronto Raptors have been a team that looked to punish opponents with its long distance shooting and offense in general. During the 06/07 season, the Raptors put their excellent shooting on display and managed to win the Atlantic Division (albeit in a year where there wasn’t much competition for the honour) by tying the franchise high 47 wins in a season. Since that point, the Raptors have been mired in mediocrity to just plain not-goodness; this past season being a lot of the latter, mixed with a bit of the former. I think any Raptors fan might be wondering what went wrong. Why were we so gosh darn awful this past season? Are the Raptors going to be any better in the upcoming season?

Getting to know TS%

First of all, let me introduce to you one of my favourite basketball statistics. True Shooting Percentage (hereunto referred to as TS%), is a statistic that measures how efficiently you score the basketball. Most of you, if you’re slightly more than a casual fan of basketball, understand what FG% is. FG% is the number of shots a player makes divided by the amount of shots a player takes, put into percentage form. This was the statistic that was used by the NBA for a long time, long before the 3 point line was introduced to NBA Basketball in the 1979-1980 season. The problem with FG% is that it doesn’t account for 3 point shots, nor does it account for free throws.

FG%

For instance, if you take two players, both of them shooting 40% in FG%, you would assume that neither of these players are very good. However, if someone informed you that “Player A” shot all of his shots from the 3 point line and “Player B” shot all of his from 2, it would be quite easy to see that Player A is a more efficient shooter, because his shots are worth 1.5 times more than the other guy’s! But FG% just sits there judging both players as the same. “It’s not fair!” you’re probably yelling at your computer screen right now. I agree. Let me give you another example: Let’s say that there are two players that shoot 45% FG%. Now, looking at those stats, you would assume that both players are pretty average scorers. But if I were to tell you the “Player C” shot 10 free throws a game, and hit 90% of those free throws, and “Player D” went to the free throw line 1 time a game and shot 50% from the stripe, you would realize that FG% has failed us once again! “Player C” is a far more efficient player than “Player D”!

The solution to this problem is TS%. TS% accounts for two point shots, three point shots and free throws when gauging how efficient a player is from the field. “All right!” you’re probably saying with a fist-pump. I agree. TS% is awesome! Now TS% isn’t an end-all, be-all statistic. It doesn’t account for rebounding or turnovers, so the number of possessions must be accounted for as well, and if you’ve read the sports pages in any newspaper, you will know that the Raptors were a very poor rebounding team. However, TS% does allow us to examine the offenses and defenses of teams and players around the league.

TS%

Applying TS%

Now, back to the question of why the Raptors stunk so badly last season. As a team, the Raptors scored the ball at a 54% TS%. While this is not awful, it is nowhere near the efficiency that the top teams in the league can boast. Cleveland, for example, scored the ball at a 56% TS%. You may be saying to yourself “Hey, are you actually saying that the Raptors and the Cavaliers are only 2% apart in terms of shooting the ball as a team?” And the answer is YES! If you are surprised by that statement, the thing that you are probably not considering is that a basketball game consists of many, many possessions. Cleveland, for example, took 58 2 point shots a game, 20 3 point shots a game and 24 free throws a game. If they scored on 100% of those attempts, they would have scored about 202 points per game. Considering that, a 2% difference in shooting efficiency is going to account for around 4 points per game, which is actually quite a big difference. The 06/07 Pheonix Suns, for example, one of the greatest offensive teams of all time, had a TS% of 59%! Still “only” a 5% difference from the 08/09 Raptors in efficiency. This is why those seemingly small percentage differences actually do matter in the grand scheme of things.

Because a lot of you probably have an idea of what a good FG% is and what is a bad FG% is, I’m going to give you my analysis of how to rate TS% when it comes to players:

1- The Mendoza line: A TS% of 48% or below. If you are shooting a TS% of less than 48%, you are hurting your team every time you take a shot. Players who shoot this type of percentage are usually fringe utility players that play deep on a team’s bench, and are brought in (occasionally) for rebounding, defense or playmaking. Most of the time, this type of TS% means you will be out of the league soon.
2- Awful: A TS% of 48% to 50%. This is still quite bad.
3- Poor: ~51% TS%.
4- Not good: ~52% TS%.
5- Acceptable: ~53% TS%.
6- Fine: ~54% TS%.
7- Good: 55% to 56% TS%.
8- Very Good: 56% to 58% TS%.
9- Excellent: 58% to 60% TS%.
10- Outstanding: 60+% TS%. Anything over 60% TS% will put you near the top of the league for efficiency. At this point, you are either a guy who is an unbelievably efficient scorer (think Steve Nash), or you are a guy who scores only by way of dunking or laying the ball up via an assist (think Tyson Chandler — former center for the New Orleans Hornets — who got gift-wrapped dunks and layups from Chris Paul).

Now, this same logic doesn’t apply to teams, because teams of players usually incorporate not only very good scorers, but also defensive players, rebounders and playmakers, who may not be as efficient scorers as the star players on the roster. What happens is that while you may have a player that is exceptional at scoring the basketball, the TS% of the team maybe dragged down by other players on the team who shoot a much lower percentage.

TS% and the Raptors

Perhaps at this point you are saying to yourself, “These statistics are great and all, but how do they explain last season’s woes?” That’s a good question. As I just explained, the best scorers on a team in terms of TS% may be dragged down by the rest of the team. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the players on Toronto’s roster last season.

Below are the players who played for the Raptors (minus a few players who rarely saw floor time), with the amount of shots (FGA) and free throws (FT) they took, as well as their true shooting percentages.

-Chris Bosh: 1263 FGA, 617 FTA, 56.9%
-Andrea Bargnani: 958 FGA, 266 FTA, 55.9%
-Anthony Parker: 754 FGA, 145 FTA, 52.4%
-Jose Calderon: 644 FGA, 154 FTA, 61.3%
-Jason Kapono: 604 FGA, 42 FTA, 52.5%
-Joey Graham: 480 FGA, 160 FTA, 54.2%
-Jermaine O’Neal: 456 FGA, 142 FTA, 52.6%
-Shawn Marion: 342 FGA, 62 FTA, 52.3%
-Roko Ukic: 324 FGA, 60 FTA, 43%
-Jamario Moon: 317 FGA, 65 FTA, 56.2%
-Will Solomon: 181 FGA, 24 FTA, 51.2%
-Pops Mensah-Bonsu: 96 FGA, 41 FTA, 42%
-Kris Humphries: 90 FGA, 48 FTA, 51%

A few things on the above list may pop out at you. One could be “Wow! Jose Calderon is outstandingly efficient!” or “I thought Jason Kapono was a really good shooter, why is he only shooting a 52.5% TS%?” or maybe even “We had a lot of really inefficient scorers on our team last season.”

First, let me tackle Jose Calderon. Yes, Jose Calderon was incredibly efficient for the Toronto Raptors last season, even though he was injured. He has also been a very efficient player over the past 3 years as well, boasting a 58.8% and 60.7% TS% mark in his previous two seasons with the club. From my own experience, this is because he takes a lot of good shots, and hardly ever takes a bad one. He shoots when open, and when he isn’t open, passes the ball. This also explains why a guy with such a high TS% doesn’t take more shots. I think every Raptors fan would like to see Jose take more shots, however.

Secondly, Jason Kapono’s TS% is not an aberration. In fact, if you watched most of the Raptors games last season, you’ll know that Jason Kapono, while a good 3 point shooter, was absolutely awful whenever he was not shooting a 3 point shot, which was actually quite a bit. While his 3 point average of 42.8% is quite impressive, his two point percentage of 43.4% was not, and he took about 150 more 2 point shots than 3s. Also, if you take a look at the above graph, Jason Kapono averaged an anaemic 42 free throw shots for the season! Jason played 1,831 minutes that season, which roughly translates to 0.02 free throw attempts per minute, or one free throw every 45 minutes of playing time. In comparison, Pops Mensah-Bonsu played only 263 minutes and got virtually the same amount of free throws. It’s no surprise that he didn’t score very efficiently when you take those factors into account. On top of that, Kapono was by far the worst defender on the team, but that’s a story for another day.

Lastly, and most importantly is that the Raptors DID have a lot of sub-par scorers taking a lot of shots last season. Kapono, Parker, O’Neal, Marion and Ukic all did not impress on the offensive end. But surprise surprise! If you look down the list, virtually all of the players apart from Bosh, Bargnani and Calderon are either no longer apart of the team, or figure to have a much smaller role with the club next season. So, let’s take a look at the players that will either be gone, or have their minutes marginalized next season:

-Anthony Parker: 754 FGA, 145 FTA, 52.4%
-Jason Kapono: 604 FGA, 42 FTA, 52.5%
-Joey Graham: 480 FGA, 160 FTA, 54.2%
-Jermaine O’Neal: 456 FGA, 142 FTA, 52.6%
-Shawn Marion: 342 FGA, 62 FTA, 52.3%
-Roko Ukic: 324 FGA, 60 FTA, 43%
-Jamario Moon: 317 FGA, 65 FTA, 56.2%
-Will Solomon: 181 FGA, 24 FTA, 51.2%
-Pops Mensah-Bonsu: 96 FGA, 41 FTA, 42%
-Kris Humphries: 90 FGA, 48 FTA, 51%

In all, those players took 3,644 shots last season, accounting for well over half of the Raptors’ 6,673 shots total. A curious mind such as my own wondered what the TS% of that group of players was. I did the calculations, and found that that group of players averaged a TS% of 52.6%; rooted somewhere in between “not good” and “acceptable”. Not exactly an offensive juggernaut, that group. I think this plainly shows the “drag down” effect, which mitigates the accomplishments of Bosh, Bargnani and Calderon on the offensive end.

With that in mind, why don’t we take a look at their replacements? While the roster may not be totally completed as of yet, we now have a idea of what the Raptors roster will look like come tip-off time. Below is a list of players that we have acquired this summer, with their number of FGA a game (I’m using per-game metrics because some of them were injured and missed time), FTA a game and TS%.

The Replacements

Hedo Turkoglu: 13.3 FGA/G, 5.1 FTA/G, 16.8 ppg 54.1%
Jarret Jack: 10.4 FGA/G, 3.2 FTA/G, 13.1 ppg 55.4%
Marco Belinelli: 7.5 FGA/G, 1.2 FTA/G, 8.9 ppg 54.7%
DeMar DeRozan: X, X, x%
Reggie Evans: 2.3 FGA/G, 2.2 FTA/G, 3.3 ppg 51.4%
Rasho Nesterovic: 6.1 FGA/G, 0.5 FTA/G, 6.8 ppg 52.4%
Antoine Wright: 6.6 FGA/G, 1.5 FTA/G, 7.3 ppg, 50.1%
Amir Johnson: 2.6 FGA/G, 0.6 FTA/G, 3.5 ppg, 60.8%

Running the calculations on that group of players, their average TS% was 53.8%. Notice that I didn’t even attempt to extrapolate DeMar DeRozan’s stats, because unlike some statistical experts (*cough* Hollinger *cough*), I have absolutely no faith whatsoever in the college-to-pros numbers game that people like to fool around with, especially when it comes to unfinished “project” players that DeMar figures to be.

While these guys already project to be better than the group of players that they are replacing, I’m going to make a couple of guesses about these stats to paint what I believe to be a more accurate picture of what will transpire next season. I think that Antoine Wright’s minutes are going to go down, and as a result, his shot attempts too, because of increased competition at the 2 spot from Belinelli, Jack and DeRozan. I also think that Jack’s minutes and FGA are going to take a hit from alternating with Calderon. I also believe that Belinelli’s minutes and FGAs are going to increase, now that he’s not in Don Nelson’s doghouse. I think that Johnson will compete with Evans for the backup 4/5 spot, and should get more minutes at the 5 (he’s 6’10”) if Rasho Nesterovic continues to decline.

So now let’s have a little fun and see what the ultimate TS% projects to be for our team, using the non-adjusted stats from last season.

Chris Bosh: 16.4 FGA/G, 8.0 FTA/G, 22.7 ppg, 56.9%
Andrea Bargnani: 12.3 FGA, 3.4 FTA/G, 15.4 ppg, 55.9%
Jose Calderon: 9.9 FGA, 2.3 FTA/G, 12.8 ppg, 61.3%
Hedo Turkoglu: 13.3 FGA/G, 5.1 FTA/G, 16.8 ppg 54.1%
Jarret Jack: 10.4 FGA/G, 3.2 FTA/G, 13.1 ppg 55.4%
Marco Belinelli: 7.5 FGA/G, 1.2 FTA/G, 8.9 ppg 54.7%
DeMar DeRozan: X, X, x%
Reggie Evans: 2.3 FGA/G, 2.2 FTA/G, 3.3 ppg 51.4%
Rasho Nesterovic: 6.1 FGA/G, 0.5 FTA/G, 6.8 ppg 52.4%
Antoine Wright: 6.6 FGA/G, 1.5 FTA/G, 7.3 ppg, 50.1%
Amir Johnson: 2.6 FGA/G, 0.6 FTA/G, 3.5 ppg, 60.8%

First of all, this shouldn’t be taken 100% seriously as a real projection, because there are a lot of problems with doing this sort of calculation. One of the problems of course is that we score 107 points and use 84 possessions with only these players, a large jump up from last season, which isn’t likely seeing as we haven’t even included DeMar DeRozan or the scrubs yet, who figure to get around 5-10% of the minutes. What this means is that some of the players are likely to have their minutes and shot attempts scaled back. The TS% of the team works out to 55.2%; a 1 percent jump from last season. Seems like a decent improvement.

Synergy

I think when looking at the upcoming season, you have to understand something. Future projections are always educated guesses that rely on data being the same, or growing in ways that follow a historical or statistical trend. But this is not always how things work in real life, rather, that’s just how things work MOST of the time. The Pheonix Suns of 04/05 are a great example of this. Prior to that season, they were an abysmal 29-53 (very similar to the 08/09 Raptors!) and had a rookie coach who came in mid-season and went 21-40 (extremely similar to Jay Triano!), and had just signed a 30-year old Steve Nash to a contract that everyone thought was insane (very similar to Hedo Turkoglu!), and everything was put together by Bryan Colangelo (very similar to… Well, you get it) and fans were gearing up for a disappointing season. But the Suns came in and blew the doors off, tying the franchise record in wins at 62 and bucking all of the expectations that were placed upon them by stat-head prognosticators such as myself.

But how was the Phoenix rebirth possible? I attribute it to something called synergy. Synergy is the state in which all parts of the team are working together smoothly, like a well-oiled machine. Synergy is when the system employed by the coaching staff fits the roster perfectly. Synergy is when disparate elements come together to become much, much greater than the sum of their parts, and synergy is something that every awful team that has done a bit of tinkering in the offseason can hope for. Before Steve Nash entered the equation, guys like Marion and Amare Stoudemire were putting up the stats, but were not even close to as efficient before he got there. Steve Nash, in turn, had a career year that propelled him to his first MVP trophy.

While the influx of new players seems like it will improve the offense of the ballclub a fair amount on paper, I think that every Raptors fan with a heartbeat hopes that Bryan Colangelo manages to catch lightning in a bottle twice, and the 09/10 Raptors will emerge a synergistic team with a knockout offense able to overcome the obvious shortcomings they have on the boards and defense, much in the same way Phoenix was able to five years ago.

Update from Vittorio: I’ve got to thank Julian again for posting the most-commented article on this site thus far. I like all the discussion. Perhaps I should make start making controversial claims like “Kevin Durant will be better than LeBron James” in my blogs now (not that Julian did anything like this). Anyway, this post and Khandor’s comments have inspired Tom Liston to do some statistical analysis of his own. Here’s his graph, showing the correlation between opponent’s TS% and wins:

Liston's Graph

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Filed under A Closer Look, Free Agency, Guest Posts, Stats, Toronto Raptors, Trades

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