There are a lot of positive vibes right now about this team and the potential season ahead. Although Howland likes some of the moves made this off-season he still thinks there are two glaring holes which will inevitably be the downfall of this team.
It’s been a major overhaul. It started with the Jason Kapono trade and the changes keep on coming, the latest move being the acquisition of Marco Belinelli. There has been a lot of money spent and many a deal made.
At first glance it’s hard not to believe that great things will happen for this team. For starters, this years Raptors squad looks like an offensive juggernaut. Based on last years stats, four of the sure fire starters (Bosh, Bargnani, Calderon and Hedo) averaged a combined 68 points per game. Whether it is Wright, DeRozan or Belinelli at the starting at the two, opposing teams have to be concerned with what is shaping up to be a very talented starting five – at least on the offensive end. You would be hard pressed not to believe this team wins more games than last year on the quality of the starters alone.
There is also firepower coming off of the bench. Jack, likely to be the first guy off the pine, has the ability to score the rock from all over the floor and should Wright start, both Belinelli and DeRozan look to have the ability to score. Let’s just say I am not concerned about this team from an offensive output standpoint.
Of course scoring the basketball has not really been a concern for the Raps over the past few seasons. Last years Raps, despite being led by an injured PG for most of the season still finished in the middle of the pack when it came to points per game (99.03). Over the course of the year Toronto averaged more points per game than Houton, Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Antonio, New Orleans and Detroit, all 2008/09 playoff teams.
The major needs heading into the offseason, as identified by BC himself were threefold – a player who can both create offensively, a solid defender to help protect Jose at the 2, and a rebounder. The other obvious issue heading into the off-season was that this team was soft.
At first glance, it looks like BC has done a tremendous job addressing these things.
A player who can create? Signing Hedo. Check!
A solid defender to help protect Jose at the 2? Acquiring both Jack and Wright. Check!
A Rebounder? Acquiring Evans. Check!
Getting tougher? Acquiring Evans, Wright and Jack. Check!
Looks like a Grand Slam. BC should be lauded for his off-season activity. I don’t doubt that this team is going to be better than last years squad, but I am worried that fans, once again, are going to be disappointed with the outcome of this upcoming season.
Defense and Rebounding. Let’s take a look.
Despite having added Evans and bringing back Rasho, this Raps team, in particular the starters, look to be a very weak rebounding unit. Rather than lay out the gruesome details myself I will point you in Raptorblog’s direction where Scott Carefoot did a bang-up job looking at the rebounding woes of Toronto’s front court. Based on his analysis (which will have changed somewhat since the time of publication with certain player movement) Toronto will be starting the worst rebounding front-court in the Eastern Conference. The most poignant part of the article is as follows:
"Just how important is rebounding in the grand scheme of things? Well, the top five teams in rebound differential last season were Portland, Boston, Cleveland, Houston and the Lakers (average wins:60). The bottom five were Miami, New York, the Clippers, Sacramento and Golden State (average wins: 28). So, yeah, I'd say it's pretty important."
This is one area where the changing of the guard at the SF position will really be felt. The impact of replacing Marion with Turk will be felt more on the glass than perhaps anywhere else. Marion is a fantastic rebounder. Even in his short stint with the Raps he was nabbing more than 8 boards a game. By way of comparison, Turk’s best season from a rebounding perspective doesn’t even come close to matching Marion’s rookie season numbers. This is a big drop-off and one the team can ill afford given last season it was in the bottom third of the league in terms of rebounds per game.
Furthermore, I don’t think Evans and Rasho are going to make that significant of a difference. Evans, although he has great rebounding numbers over 48 minutes will never play close to 48 minutes, or at least he shouldn’t given his limitations in other areas of his game. Rasho has never been a great rebounder either. Three seasons ago as the Raptors starting centre, he only managed 4.5 boards a game. Last year in Indiana he managed only 3.4 in about the same number of minutes I expect him to get this coming season (15-18 mins).
To put it bluntly, this team is going to continue to struggle when it comes to rebounding the ball. The only way this changes is if Bargnani spends more time in the paint and uses his massive frame to increase his production in this area. Another season averaging 5.3 boards a game just is not going to cut it. To put that number in perspective, there were 87 guys in the league who averaged more rebounds a game than Bargnani. Players ahead of him? Chris Paul, Jason Kidd, Dominic McGuire and Mike Miller are some of the guys who averaged more rebounds a game just to name a few. If he can’t get upwards of 8 rebounds a game this team is going to find itself consistently outrebounded which will lead to more second chance opportunities for the opposition and less opportunity for this team to get out and run.
For those of you who think adding Pops Mensah-Bonsu is the answer it isn’t. I would love to see Pops back but he isn’t going to be the savior here. He can bring energy and hustle but he would likely see limited playing time so his impact would not be significant.
The simple reality is that outrebounding your opponent is key to securing W’s and this problem is only going to be magnified when combined with the next issue…
Last years Raps squad was pretty atrocious defensively, in particular on the wing. Due to injury Calderon’s best defense was a solid clap of the hands and Parker started to slow and was simply "average". Adding Marion gave the team a good boost but on a whole opposing teams had little problem getting into the paint to create opportunities. The Raps were generally in the bottom third of the league in all major defensive categories.
BC has clearly tried to address this glaring weakness by securing the services of Jarrett Jack and Antoine Wright. Although I am not sure why reader’s need to know whether Antoine Wright likes smooth or crunchy peanut butter, or knows whether Texas is bigger than Canada, this interview gives you a good idea of what sort of defensive player the Raps have in Wright.
Even with these two additions and a healthy Calderon will the Raps be that much better defensively on the perimeter? Well the loss of Marion doesn’t help. For all of Hedo’s offensive talent he will never come close to being Shawn Marion when it comes to defense. Marion is extremely active on the defensive end and a tough match-up for even the best offensive players.
Some people have suggested that Iavaroni will be the answer for the Raps on the defensive end. I believe that having a defensive minded coach is an asset but we have argued time and time again that a defensive system is only worth the effort the players put into it. As fans we have been witness to some pretty weak defensive efforts. Iavaroni is a great hire but lets not forget his resume includes senior coaching positions on the Suns and the Grizzlies who were not exactly known for their defense during his tenure. He is not a miracle worker.
Now I do think this years Raptors squad has some better one-on-one defenders, in particular in the backcourt. The major problem I see is the lack of a shot blocking presence. Statistically the Raps best shot blocker is Bargnani who last season ranked 31st in the league. I think it is fair to say that 90% of his blocks were in one-on-one situations and very few were as a result of him helping defensively. Jermaine O’Neal may not have brought much but he was a presence on the defensive end and was willing to challenge opponents heading to the rim. The Raps clearly don’t have that sort of player and opposing teams will be able to expose this lack of "presence" in the paint. The core of the Raps defense continues to be soft and ready to be exposed.
Now this is not meant to be a downer article. I am excited for this team to start playing and I think it will be involved in some high scoring and exciting affairs. They will definitely be more enjoyable to watch than last season. However, this team will be measured by how it does come playoff time and it would be to our own detriment to forget the famous and undeniably true adage that Defense Wins Championships. This Raptors team may be able to get by during the upcoming regular season with less than stellar rebounding and questionable D, but when the games really count and next spring is upon us, these weaknesses will be exposed and it won’t be pretty.
I see problems ahead. I also don’t see how BC is going to solve them with what assets he has left. This season could be fun, but with all the money spent and all the deals made I was sort of hoping for more than that.
I didn’t want to have cause for concern.