Kevin O'Neill and the Link on D to the 2009-10 Toronto Raptors


Franchise takes a look at the 2003-04 Raptors under Kevin O'Neill and wonders just how great of a defensive club they were...

Aaaah the Friday before Film Festival here in Toronto.

For about the fourth year in a row, I got up at the crack of dawn to try and get tickets, only to have the Film Festival's horrific online booking path crash.

You'd think by year four (or longer actually) they would have gotten this thing figured out by now right?  I mean, it's not like suddenly this year there are going to be way less people trying to book online!

Talk about maddening.

And of course by the time I probably get through later today, the tickets will all have been snatched up.

So what does this have to do with our beloved Raptors?

Well nothing really...except that my plan today was to talk about the 2004-04 version of the Toronto Raptors and as I was typing I realized that there is a common link between the two:

Both were frustrating as hell to endure.

Remember this incarnation of the Raptors?  Kevin O'Neill at the helm and an unbelievable 23 different players who donned a Dinos' jersey that year?  It was a motley crew indeed, and one that had future NBA All-Stars like Robert Archibald, Mengke Bateer, Lonny Baxter, Corie Blount, Rick Brunson, Dion Glover, Jerome Moiso, Milt Palacio, and Chris Jeffries.

Yikes.

And did you remember that other names such as Roger Mason Jr., Rod Strickland, Michael Curry and Jannero Pargo were part of that group?

I know what you're thinking: "playground sensation Rod Strickland was a Raptor?"

It was a strange season and indeed a tough one on the fans.

Prior to the start of the season, there was actually new hope thanks to the arrival of coach O'Neill.  Fans had lamented that previous coach Lenny Wilkens had been too soft on his troops and hadn't implemented any sort of defensive system.  As a result, while the team (when healthy) was still a joy to watch, the results just weren't there in terms of wins and after previous success under Wilkens, the club's record plummeted to 24 and 58.

It was time for a change and GM Glen Grunwald did just that by essentially hiring Wilkens' opposite.  KO was a defense-first, no-nonsense coach and the hope was that a healthy core of Carter, Williams, JYD and Davis, along with the addition of promising rookie Chris Bosh, would when combined with KO's philosophies, return the Raptors to the playoffs after a one year absence.

We all know how things turned out.

Davis and JYD were shipped to Chicago for a collection of players including Jalen Rose and Donyell Marshall, and while the club won nine more games, the end of the season marked the end of both O'Neill's coaching tenure in Toronto, and Grunwald's General Manager status as well.

However historically, many look at the 2003-04 Raptors as the best defensive club in the franchise's history and recently, current Raptors' coach Jay Triano re-established a link to this era.  He indicated that one of his assistants, Marc Iavaroni, would be implementing many of KO's old defensive philosophies from their time together in Memphis, and the assumption is that Raptors' fans will again see many defensive traits from that 03-04 club.

One of our readers remarked recently that KO's defensive system though could have been vastly overrated.  To the agony of fans, O'Neill implemented a snail's pace scheme at both ends of the court meaning fewer possessions for both the Raptors and their opponents, and perhaps this was the real cause of defensive fortitude.

I thought this was a very interesting point and not only that, I remembered that back in 2003-04, the NBA style of play was still quite different as well; hand-checking on D was much more common, immobile big men were still the common theme in the post, and the game was not as dominated by the uber-athlete swingman. 

Yes, Kobe was clearly one of the best in the game, but at this point he was still sharing the limelight with Shaq, and 2003-04 marked the rookie year for the likes of Lebron and D-Wade.

For proof of this, one only needs to gaze at the NBA Finals, where a non-star laden Detroit Piston club surprised the favoured LA Lakers and using a KO-esque slow-down pace and tough defensive style, captured the NBA title.

But getting back to the Raptors, was the club truly a great defensive team that year?

Gazing at some metrics from basketball-reference.com, it looks like yes, this was a very sound team on D.  The club improved from a defensive rating of 26th in the NBA (fourth worst) under Wilkens to 7th, a huge leap.  And considering that for a good portion of the year, players like Jalen Rose (not exacty a great defender) were key cogs in Toronto's system, it's hard not to say that O'Neill implemented a defensive system that was very effective despite his individual players' shortcomings.  His club kept opponents from shooting above 43% offensively and across the board, the D was much improved over previous seasons.

But what about pace?  Did KO slow things down to such a halt that it made the Raps' defensive numbers look better than they appeared?

Well this could be part of things for sure.  Toronto that year played at the 3rd slowest pace in the league (27th out of 29 teams.)  However that's not really a black and white resolution.  The previous year under Wilkens, Toronto still played at a reasonably slow pace (7th slowest in the league.)  So while it may have appeared that KO ground things to a halt, I think the reality was that he simply did a better job of installing defensive principles in his troops, something that admittedly is now a bit shocking considering the amount of personnel changes the club went through.  It's one thing to have a full training camp with core players and teach them the ropes on D, it's another when most of those players get traded away a few months into the season and you have to constantly re-teach your philosophies.

So am I lauding the job KO did?

Yes, I suppose I am to a certain degree. 

But more than that, looking over the stats from the 2003-04 has me admittedly excited to see just what coach Iavaroni can do to help this club's wonky D.  Everyone agrees that Toronto should have one of the most potent offensive clubs in the league and if they can play some semblance of defence, then suddenly this could be a very dangerous club.

And while I have stated in the past that coaching in the NBA is overrated compared to the NCAA, I do feel that it's in areas like this that coaches can have a profound impact.  No one would have picked the Magic to be the league's top defensive club last year Howard or no Howard and yet Stan Van Gundy coaxed a solid wall against opponents from a group that individually, weren't top notch stoppers.

Hopefully Mr. Iavaroni can do the same.

And hopefully the transition from one of the worst defensive teams in the league to at least one that can hold its own, for the viewing public, isn't akin to purchasing these film fest tickets...

...which over an hour later, I'm still unable to do.

FRANCHISE

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