Over a third of the way into the season, Franchise takes a quick look at the Toronto Raptors to date in 2009 and peers into his crystal ball for 2010...
In fact, I'm writing to you from a bed at Mt. Sinai Hospital...the same place I've been for the past nine days.
It's nothing too serious, but thanks to the time of the year, a somewhat regular procedure has been stretched into twice as long a visit as was originally anticipated, and that's meant copious amounts of time for me to sit idly in my bed on medication, staring at my IV pump, and a ghettoized version of a TV that I'm somehow paying 10 bucks a day for.
Now, this post wasn't meant to be an opinion piece on the Canadian Healthcare system, but let's just say that my stay here probably explains my absence from the site of late and the lack of some of our regular features.
While under lock and key at Mt. Sinai, I haven't completely been out of the Raptors' loop however. Thanks to CBC, I managed to catch their wins over Detroit last Sunday, and New Orleans the Sunday before that. The team's play over the past four games (all wins), has indeed been a nice treat and suddenly, with a win over Charlotte tomorrow night, we could be looking at a Dino squad that enters 2010 only one game under .500.
That's a pretty far cry record-wise from what fans were looking at only a few weeks ago isn't it?
John Hollinger now has the Raptors expected to finish as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and various power rankings around the web have Toronto slowly climbing back into the ranks of respectability.
So have the Raptors' righted the ship? Are they now on pace to hit the win and performance targets the media and so many fans had laid out for them to start the season?
I think they're on the right track.
The last slew of games haven't exactly been against the toughest competition so I'll reserve judgement for a bit, but that being said, there have indeed been some positive signs of late that bode well for the rest of the season.
While we're actually five games over the "trimester" mark, I thought it might be a good time to look at some of these positives, as well as any negatives, and conclude with some big questions left to be answered during the 2009-2010 campaign.
1) Softening Schedule - For starters, the hardest part of Toronto's schedule is behind them.
The Raps have played more games than most other teams, have spent a good chunk of time on the road, and have already faced many of the league's toughest opponents multiple times (Phoenix, Orlando, Atlanta, etc.) They've got a few tough games coming up in early January but overall, the schedule now has a lot more matches against the likes of the Knicks and 76ers, than it does against the Suns and Mavericks. For a team looking to get back above the .500 mark and make some noise in its own conference, this is definitely a good thing.
2) Chris Bosh - Bosh played at a max-salary level through the season's first trimester. He was the heart and soul of the team on most nights and backed up his off-season training tales with on-court execution...especially in the paint. His rebounding has really taken a nice jump and he currently leads the league in double-doubles, no small feat. Bosh has done everything asked of him and has shown a "next level" in his game that many-a-fan, myself included, did not know existed.
3) The Bench - Early on it was Marco Belinelli and Antoine Wright. Lately it's been Jarrett Jack and Sonny Weems. Amir Johnson's always been a factor and now, even Marcus Banks is getting in on the action. Bottom line is that Toronto's bench through the first trimester has been a monumental upgrade over last season. They've given the club clutch scoring, energy, and defence and while they're by no means at an Orlando level, this is the type of performance fans expected overall after Bryan Colangelo's off-season changes. Best example of the impact the bench has had? The club actually has a better record under the wing of its back-up point guard Jarrett Jack now than the starter, Jose Calderon.
1) Defensive Effort - No surprise here. While things have been better of late, fans for most of the first trimester were witness to some of the most abysmal defensive effort in NBA history. Toronto's recent stretch has closed the gap but the Dinos are still a good two points per game worse than Philadelphia, Memphis and Golden State in terms of being the least efficient defensive clubs in the league. The frustrating thing is that TO remains undefeated when holding their opponents to under 100 points per game; the club's offence is still one of the league's best so if they can somehow continue to hold the fort on D, the results should quickly stack up in terms of W's.
2) Team Chemistry - I don't think anyone was doubting that the talent was in place for a fairly solid season. However up until the past few weeks, this looked like a team that was completely lost and many of the players fans were expecting big things from were either not producing on par with their pay grades or not playing at all. The trick really, is sorting out who's at fault in these cases; the players, the coaching staff, or even management for trying to fit "square pegs into a team of holes." I think all three apply to a certain extent however 32 games in, it looks like the club is finally sanding the corners off the pegs to make things fit a bit better.
3) Rebounding and Toughness - Despite Bosh's upgrades in these areas, the rest of the team has actually taken a step back from last season in some ways. Both Jermaine O'Neal (when healthy) and Shawn Marion were excellent rebounders who brought grit and toughness in the paint. Andrea Bargnani's rebounding numbers have improved (he's averaging 6.1 boards so far this season compared to 5.3 last year) but that 6.1 mark is still the fourth-worst amongst starting centers in the league. Throw in Hedo Turkoglu's measly 4.5 boards per game (his lowest mark in 3 seasons) and there just isn't a lot to work with in these areas from a starting perspective. Unless Toronto's offence is lights out the rest of the way, it's going to need more of a push in these areas from guys like Bargs.
So over a third of the way into the season, how do I feel about my 42 win and post-season appearance prediction?
Despite the losing record, I still feel pretty good about things, especially in regards to the playoffs thanks to how atrocious the majority of the East has been. And while right now the Raps are on pace to win about 38 games, I think I've seen enough of late to make me believe that in the end this club will end up hovering right around the .500 mark.
To hit this mark though or climb higher, here are a few hot button topics that I think will need to be addressed as the season wears on:
1) What happens when Jose returns? The biggest blessing in disguise for this team so far this season might have been injuries. In fact, I almost considered adding it as one of the "plusses." Injuries have enabled Amir Johnson to shine thanks to the continued absence of Reggie Evans, and more recently, and injury to Jose Calderon has gotten Jarrett Jack playing at an extremely high level as a starter, thus benefitting the likes of Hedo Turkoglu and Andrea Bargnani around him, and others like Sonny Weems and Marcus Banks off the bench.
So what happens when Calderon comes back?
That's the million dollar question in my books right now. The team's chemistry and rotations are humming along, players are more effective in their current roles than they were previously, and the club's defence has noticeably improved.
So what to do?
I'd like to see Jose come off the bench for a while...and not because I think Jack is a better starter or player, simply because I believe he's a better fit next to Hedo Turkoglu. Hedo's play has skyrocketed since paired with Jack and you see much more of the Hedo that was the yin to Jameer Nelson (a similar player to Jack) in Orlando than you did earlier in the season while Jose was running the show.
Also interesting...what about dealing Jose? He certainly would have value despite the length of his deal and many clubs around the association could use a pass-first type leading the charge.
And on a related note, what happens if/when Reggie Evans returns? I'd argue it's not nearly as sticky a situation but it will be something to keep an eye on nevertheless.
2) Can Chris Bosh keep playing at this level? Let's hope! Recently CB4 has had to do less of the heavy lifting for the club which has been great, because the club can't have him burn out in January like last season. Physically it looks like this year he'll be able to sustain his level of play but you've gotta wonder if the losses stack up, just what will happen to his level of effort.
3) Can Triano get this team to play D? This might be the biggest of my three questions regarding the next two parts of the season. Toronto has proven that they can score with the best in the league, and when they get stops as well, are a tough match-up each night. When this club is locked-in at the defensive end, suddenly this no longer looks like a middling Eastern conference foe, but a true force to be reckoned with and one that could easily grab a top 5 playoff position.
The problem is, fans just haven't seen the latter version of the Dinos with any degree of consistency this season, especially against the league's elite clubs. And until that happens, Toronto will probably be continually viewed as the Golden State's of the East; "sure, they might beat a good team now and then when their offence is just on fire, but most of the time, they're simply too soft on D."
It's going to be up to Triano and his crew to continually mould these current players into somewhat decent defenders and should that happen, it could pave the way for one of Toronto's best seasons to date.
On the flip side, more blowouts in 2010 might not only lead to another unexpected lottery appearance, it could also very well mean the end of Chris Bosh's tenure as a Raptor.