Tag Archives: Sam Mitchell

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:

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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: 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