It might be the NBA All-Star break, but the HQ has its media roundtable ready to talk some Raptors' ball...
Periodically here at the HQ, we sit down with some of our favourite folks who cover the Toronto Raptors on a daily basis, to talk some Dino-ball.
With the All-Star break upon us, we figured now was as good a time as any to throw out the Rap-Signal, and assemble our crack team of media aces, to talk about the current status of the Raps.
Our crack team?
None other than TSN.ca's Tim Chisholm, the Toronto Sun's Ryan Wolstat, Raptors Republic's Tom Liston, and the Fan 590's Zack Cooper.
Let's do this...
1. RaptorsHQ: The Toronto Raptors hit the All-Star break with a measly 15 wins. Yes, the team has been ravaged by injuries but do you feel they've underperformed regardless?
Tom Liston: Given all the changes in the offseason, I felt 25 to 30 wins was reasonable. As Adam and I chatted pre-season, we felt the team had reasonable depth. The good news / bad news was that the bench and starting lineup were not far apart in terms of talent (although quite different skill sets). With the rash of injuries, 15 wins is quite reasonable. What was surprising is a few key road wins (ORL, DAL) offset by what should have been a few more home wins.
Ryan Wolstat: Not really. They had an underwhelming lineup to start with and have been ravaged by injuries. Maybe they've lost a few games they could have pulled out, but this is about where I saw them if they ran into injury trouble.
Zack Cooper: I think the Raptors have under-performed to this point. It's easy to look at the record and determine as such. It's also easy to delve into the murky injury situation to reach the same conclusion. However, all in all, I personally expected more.
I anticipated that Jarrett Jack would have a better start to the season; I did not expect Jose Calderon to take the reigns as well as he did since Jack's departure. I hoped for DeMar DeRozan to flourish the way he has, but didn't necessarily think it was going to happen. Linas Kleiza has grossly under-achieved, while Sonny Weems (before his back injury) showed us all why he might have been trade-filler. Julian Wright has sparkled at times, and faded at others - when he wasn't outright disappearing. Amir Johnson has played admirably (and durably) through his back issues, while Andrea Bargnani has improved offensively, while somewhat regressing defensively (yes, that's possible).
When you add it all up, with the addition of Leandro Barbosa (the Raptors got him and got rid of Hedo in the process), and a healthy Reggie Evans, I expected this Raptors team to fight a lot more. Reggie's been out for a long while now, and his absence has subsequently stripped this team of both its heart and hunger, which is what makes this season, so far, all the more disappointing.
Bryan Colangelo's off-season was certainly one done through patch-work... but I expected the transition from team-loses-it's-franchise-
Tim Chisholm: I do not feel that the team has underperformed, no. Their best players are, at best, third-best calibre on a real team, the overall inexperience of the guys getting minutes is tremendous and, as you said, injuries have derailed any hope for stability so far this season. Fans hate to hear excuses, especially about things that they cannot see for themselves, but when you are running a practice with so many bodies absent (even players who wind up playing the games like Calderon, Bargnani, etc) it prevents the cohesion on the court and deprives the coaching staff time to work through strategies that they may want to employ going forward.
That said, I would say that there are definite individual failings that can also be pointed to. Andrea Bargnani's continued refusal to play defense or rebound is indefensible given his pay-cheque and role with the team. One had hoped that Amir Johnson would have reported to camp with a more mature defensive game, or Julian Wright with a jump shot. Still, the improvement of DeRozan, combined with the strong play of Ed Davis and the tenacity of Johnson, help lay a foundation for what comes next, and it's in areas like that that this season needs to be measured.
So, considering both what the team has had available to them, as well as what their ultimate goals are (develop youth, shed salary, pump up the value of their draft pick), I'd say the team's performance is just about right so far this season.
2. RHQ: Some great points folks, and it sounds like everyone here is in agreement that injuries have played a major role in where the team sits not only in the standings, but developmentally. What about the job Jay Triano has done? In many ways he's done an amazing job working with what little he has, but at times his rotations leave folks scratching their heads (especially in respect to Andrea Bargnani), and the club is nearly as porous defensively as ever. Give me your take on Jay and his future.
TC: I think that, to an extent, Jay is paying for the sins of his boss. He has been left to coach a team with next to no shooting, which has limited the effectiveness of the team's offense due to a lack of spacing, and next to no defensive personnel, which has limited the team, period. Throw injuries into the mix, the inability to utilize practice time the way he would like, and I'd say that he's been pretty handcuffed thus far in the season, making a clear evaluation difficult.
Pointing to the rotations, I think, is a bit unfair, too. Yes, the reactionary basketball fan in all of us would love to see Bargnani held more accountable for his misdeeds, especially over the last couple of weeks. But one has to remember that Bargnani represents the team's biggest financial investment, he is the team's strongest offensive weapon (on a team with precious few) and it is imperative for the future of the organization to know exactly what they do and don't have in that player. Yes, playing him despite his disinterest in defense and rebounding can (and probably does) send a bad message to a lot of the young players on the team, but one has to balance discipline against spite. Jay has been sitting him for longer stretches of late when he errs, but he can't just pull him out of the rotation altogether because that just creates more headaches than it cures (just look at Rip Hamilton).
There is also the issue of people not knowing exactly what specific young players are told to focus on in practice and in games, and when they are pulled from the game because they are blowing that assignment. We may see Ed Davis or Julian Wright make a few nice defensive plays and think they're playing great, but they may have blown a specific personal assignment (positioning on defense, movement on offense, shot selection, etc) that they were told to focus on in game. So, Jay may pull them to reinforce a lesson learned but not heeded, but the specifics of such never make their way down the pipeline. Balancing coaching and teaching is one of the modern crosses for coaches to bear as the prospects have gotten younger and management has demanded that those youngsters play. That means that sometimes a coach has to balance in-game strategy with a longer-view teaching opportunity, which can confuse the use of rotations beyond what seems appropriate in the moment. More coaches get fired today for failing to strike that balance than they do for their ability to actually strategize, for better or worse.
In terms of Jay's future, it's hard to say. At the end of the season his performance will certainly be evaluated, and he's got some positives and negatives amassed that management will have to sift through. He resuscitated Bargnani's career when he took over, steered Amir Johnson and Jarrett Jack to career years, oversaw the positive developments of DeMar DeRozan and looks to be doing the same with Ed Davis. On the flip side, however, he's lost in bunches, famously failed to integrate Hedo Turkoglu into the team's schemes and has consistently overseen one of the league's worst defenses defining his tenure. My take has been and remains that if a decidedly better option is available this summer (Nate McMillan, for instance) then make the switch. Otherwise, lean on his strengths and try to shore up with weaknesses with heady roster alterations.
TL: Most coaches are judged on their record and usually only get a partial pass for lack of talent. Even Pat Riley coached to a .183 wining percentage one year. Coaches certainly make a difference, but they also need talent and complimentary pieces. I am likely in the minority, but I just don't see more than handful of coaches that could have taken this team as is (including injuries) and improve the record significantly.
Having said that, I agree with Adam's comment on rotations. Not that the Raptors always had a lot to work with, but having too many weak defenders on the floor at once is a common occurrence. One clear example: DeMar DeRozan and Sonny Weems should rarely play together - they're too much of the same player. Along with Bargnani, you have three shoot-first, pass second (and weak rebounding/defensive) players in the same lineup. Perhaps too little, too late, but Triano has put Bargnani on a shorter leash lately. Finally, given the next to nil probability of making the playoffs, I can live with status quo and fully examine in the off-season. Little upside in adding further disruption this season...
ZC: I feel amid all this losing, Coach Jay Triano has gotten a bad rap. I'm not saying he's 'head coach of the year' material...but it's not like he's playing with a star-studded line-up. They're young, broken down, and beaten up. When they were healthy (see: had Reggie Evans in the line-up), the team was fighting for loose balls, battling for boards, and essentially had that pit-bull mentality, where they were saying something to effect of: "you may be bigger, better, and stronger than us... but we'll be working harder than you, and making your life a living hell in the process."
That approach is clearly long gone. Now we've been seeing the "we're going to try our best offensively for the first 3 quarters (4 if we're lucky), and see what happens."
I don't blame the change on Jay Triano. At least not solely.
I think this is a young club that is simply struggling through the confidence-sapping ways of what's become a prolonged losing stretch.
I've seen improvement in Andrea Bargnani (at least, until mid-January rolled around), DeMar DeRozan (same deal), and even Jose Calderon has flourished under Triano (with no Jack to watch out for).
The one thing I like from Triano, is that he's starting to take his players to task. We're seeing Andrea Bargnani get called out (and benched) for not playing on both ends (while struggling mightily with his shot), and we're see Jay call out DeMar for his lack of rebounding...
Some might say that both of those notions reek of a coach on his last straw... to me, that shows a coach who isn't scared to go down swinging, even if he's taking the wrap for a poorly assembled team.
RW: First off, loved the Riley stat Tom.
I think Jay has done a fair job with the team this season. He had a bad roster to start with that became awful thanks to injuries. Sure, the losing streak was embarrassing, but it wasn't like they were getting blown out all the time. They stayed in games and either didn't have the depth or talent down the stretch to pull them out. That's not on Jay.
I also give Jay credit for sitting down Andrea recently because he wasn't giving enough at either end. That takes guts to do given all BC has invested in Bargnani. For me, it's not Jay's fault they stink defensively. Calderon and Bargnani complement each other horribly defensively, DeRozan is still learning, and Weems seems to have lost interest at that end after looking like a potential standout defender last season.
I think Jay gets at least another year as Bryan will give him a chance to show what he can do with a roster that figures to be a lot more competent.
3. RHQ: Aside from Triano and his future, let's talk for a second about the future of the individuals who make up this current roster. Which of the current Raptors do you think have made the biggest strides this season, and which can be key components in this franchise's future?
TC: I think that right now, in terms of the future of this team, you start with DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis and work your way downward. Right now the team doesn't employ anyone that projects to be an A-list star, but those two players right now represent some real talent and, more importantly, some upside that actually looks like it might be capitalized on. They're not A-list, but they could both emerge as strong B-level players. DeMar has taken control of his game in 2011 by being more assertive on offense and with that he has begun to lay the groundwork for how his game will evolve over the next two-to-three years. LIkewise, Ed Davis has begun to make a mark for himself, especially as a rebounder and shot blocker, and as his body fills out and he learns the nuances of positioning he'll start to impact the game more consistently than he does now. With both of these players you still have a lot of work that needs to be put in to ensure that they continue on the paths that they are on, but considering their importance to the franchise you can be pretty sure that they'll be pressured hard to work to reach their potential.
After them I'd say you're looking at Jerryd Bayless and Amir Johnson as key components to the team, for two very different reasons. Bayless is in his third year and is still showing a lot of signs of immaturity to his game. Right now no one seems to know exactly how to best utilize him, and his injuries have hampered his ability to use his minutes to define a role for himself. That said, his quickness and knack for getting to the basket, as well as his energy on defense, are traits that the team can certainly use going forward and both parties will have to work together to see how those traits can help the team at the end of this season and going into the next.
Johnson, conversely, is pretty much solidified the kind of player he's going to be in the NBA. He's a hustle player that goes after rebounds and blocks, runs the floor very well and is killer in the pick-and-roll. Whether or not he is a full-time starter on a winning team is still unknown (I venture to guess he is not) but that has as much to do with the players he is surrounded by as anything. If he can continue to mature his game, learning the nuances of defensive positioning then he could emerge as a very savvy signing last summer by Colangelo. HIs play has been off the charts of late but no one can say for sure if he'll get the same allocation of minutes and touches as Ed Davis grows into an NBA player.
After those four things get murky. I think at this point we can safely say that Bargnani gives a team little more than Michael Beasley or Al Harrington, and while that will work in some places, he's hardly a piece you want at the foundation of your organization. Sonny Weems and Julian Wright, both free agents this summer, have a shot to stick around, but neither has demanded a second tour with the team with his play this year. Leandro Barbosa and Reggie Evans are strong role players, but neither really looks like they have a place with the team long-term. The only really intriguing player, for me, is Jose Calderon. He's been very strong this year, elevating his status from 'must trade' to 'must start'. He brings a headiness and cohesion to this young team and that would be hard to replace without a similarly savvy player taking over his job. If the Raptors land Kyrie Irving in the draft then obviously Calderon's days are numbered, but unless there is a supremely talented replacement on deck the team should be in no hurry to part with him over the next 18 months.
TL: Biggest strides - Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan. I was (and still am) a big fan of Amir last year and caught a lot of heat for defending his contract. I believe we can all agree that he's at least been the team's most consistent player and gives it 100% every night, even despite his injuries. This is unfortunately rare for someone with a long term deal. His deal averages $5.75 million per year - quite good in relation to his 19 PER rating (up 2.3 pts from last year and just below Bosh, Scola and Josh Smith). His fouls per 36 minutes is a career low at 5.2 (averaged over 6 previously) and minutes are up 47% from last year. Finally, his 59.6% FG% is second in the entire league. Demar DeRozan hasn't made big strides, but he's certainly up nicely in every category and feels like he can become a "go to" guy soon. Definitely more aggressive and slowly starting to get his calls. It's no coincidence that both men have a passion for the game, put in the work, and understand their weaknesses. These traits should lead to further improvement.... which leads to the next question: I view both as key pieces, but certainly they need help.
Ed Davis has great potential to be a part of the core as well. I don't mind Calderon being a key part of the near term future since he's a steady hand, provides stability, and is a good mentor to the young group. Jerryd Bayless should be a solid backup with upside. I'd try to keep Julian Wright (surprise!) for somewhere around his $2.8 million salary (perhaps a bit less). You'd have a good group of hard working young men and one vet (Calderon) that may be traded as an expiring at the end of next year. A couple smart drafts and strong FA signing two years out and you may make some noise.
ZC: I'll agree with most of what Tom said... I definitely like the way Amir has polished his defensive approach to the game - mostly referencing his ability to stay on the floor. Offensively, and regarding the intangibles, there are no surprises - and also, no real strides in his game. It's good for him that he's developed some range on his jumper, I just fear that it'll become a crutch for him when his energy starts to wane.
Where I'll disagree with Tom, is the improvement, development, and progression of DeMar's play. Maybe it was just a byproduct of his role (or lack thereof) on the team last year, but in 10-11, where he's either 1st or 2nd option on this team, I think DeRozan has done an admirable job with his aggressive, assertive approach (offensively, more so). Even when his shots aren't falling, or he isn't getting the calls, you'll see him try to cut through the paint and get a high-percentage bucket or a couple of free-throw attempts. There's obviously plenty of work to be done on the defensive end and with his tenacity for rebounding, but he's just a kid and there's plenty of time for him to round everything out.
I don't think it's any secret that the Raptors will be looking to these two, as well as Ed Davis, Jose Calderon, and Andrea Bargnani as the core - assuming there's not a new GM constructing this team in the summer.
For the record, I could also see Bayless coming back... while Barbosa is probably the best asset to move by the deadline, or next season (assuming he exercises his player option and/or there's no lockout).
RW: Probably doesn't come as much of a surprise since I was one of the very few print guys that defended the Amir contract from the get-go, but I'll third Amir as the guy who has made the biggest strides this season. Production was never his problem, but he has become even more productive while also finding a way to stay on the court longer.
People like to rip the contract (which is actually about $5 million less guaranteed than most people believe) but every team would happily play Johnson if they had him.
DeRozan has also come along, not quite as far as I expected early, but of late, his jumper has been very good and that will be a key moving forward.
Ed Davis has really progressed as well and should be a key part of the future with those two.
After that, there are guys I would keep, but they are the only three must-stays in my opinion.
Calderon has also made huge strides this season and made himself tradeable again and a valuable contributor after a couple of down seasons.
And I agree that Barbosa could be the guy to go and would be comfortable giving Bayless his role as backup scoring guard, preferably with an upgrade at starting PG replacing Calderon (hello Kyrie Irving).
4. RHQ: Amir, DeMar, Ed...along with sprinkles of Jose, Jerryd, Julian, and even Andrea. There's definitely some raw talent here, so my next question, as we wind down on this round-table, is one that pertains to the upcoming off-season. In terms of need, what position or type of player do you think this club needs most of all to take a significant step forward?
TC: The Raps need a defensive/rebounding seven footer and a dynamic point guard - but what team doesn't, right? They also need three-point shooting on the wing, veteran leadership and to maintain cap flexibility as their rebuilding will be a multi-year process.
One of the problems facing the club in that pursuit, though, is the very draft that the team hopes to improve through. While Kyrie Irving would be an ideal piece, it would probably take a top-two pick to nab him. If the Raptors aren't lucky enough to land there in the lottery, you're dealing with a lot of project power forwards like Perry Jones and Jared Sullinger. The Raptors already have their share of project forwards, and while upgrades may be available to them, swapping out someone that they have to make room and fill a need puts a lot of pressure on an incoming pick before they've ever played a game.
The alternative might be Enes Kanter, a legit centre in the Andrew Bogut mold that may fit the team's needs, but will have to play incredibly well to keep the locals from rampaging in the streets over the selection of another European big man. While Kanter shares none of Bargnani's faults, it would be hard for Colangelo to keep from being preemptively flamed for again dipping into the Euro pool after so many high-profile missteps (Turkoglu, Kleiza, even Bargnani to some). Of course it shouldn't matter where a player comes from if they are they are the best player on the board, but for a team in desperate need of good publicity this is a legit factor facing Colangelo this June. It says here that the best thing for the Raptors might be a huge second half push by Harrison Barnes, either making him a safer pick or pushing a guy like Irving down to within the Raptors' grasp.
Regardless of what happens in the draft, though, this team needs an identity. They need a cornerstone that represents the kind of things an organization would want to build around (efficiency, defensive intensity, accountability, leadership). That man is obviously not Andrea Bargnani and probably isn't DeMar DeRozan, either. For years fans of the Raptors have longed to be known for something other than shooting jumpers and playing soft, and more than any other need that this team has going into the offseason, addressing that identity should be priority number one.
TL: 100% agree with Mr. Chisholm. 1) A true big, but they're often hard to find. Chandler would have worked nicely. 2) A better version of Kleiza: a little more passing and 6 or 7% better 3 point shooter 3) As per Tim, a "dynamic" PG. I'm okay with Calderon for now, but a little more hops/athleticism and defense would be nice. I'd also echo his comments about building an identity for this club. While you cannot have everything, the bias should be towards the Amir Johnson types at various positions: players that practice hard, learn, listen, hustle, and leave it all out there on both ends. These are the types Toronto fans get behind and will show up to watch. Yes, you'll likely settle for a few offensively bias pieces along the way, but attempt to create an identity for team is a welcomed concept.
RW: I think we are all on the same page here. I think the Raptors have two massive holes and another pretty big one. To take a significant step forward, the Raptors need a stud point guard and a stud small forward. A true 7-footer with a base like Joey Dorsey or DeJuan Blair would go a long way too, but those guys are the hardest to find.
1- Let's start at the three, which I think is the biggest need. The Raptors desperately need a big three, someone with a near 7-foot wingspan who is a great defender who can also nail threes at a 35-40% clip. This is especially true as long as Jose Calderon, DeMar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani are starters, since the guards can't keep anybody in front of them and Bargnani is fine one-on-one, but can't rotate to save his life. I'm not sure that small forward is in the draft, Marvin Williams Jr. ... sorry, Harrison Barnes isn't a shooter or a great defender.
2- Calderon's health and defensive issues prevent him from being the long-term answer at the one. I prefer Bayless in a Barbosa role providing scoring off the bench and don't see him as the long-term starter there either. Irving obviously would be a fantastic get, though his defence is nothing special, it will be far better than Calderon's and he is a great distributor who runs a team very well. But he might stay in school thanks to his injury and after Irving, the point guard crop in this draft is the worst in years.
3- Not sure where he fits in if there's only 96 available minutes for Bargnani, Davis and Amir, but a true 7-foot banger is a massive need. I wouldn't want to trade Johnson or Davis and I don't see Bargnani going anywhere, so not sure where this mythical 7-footer would fit in, but I do know he is badly needed.
The Kanter idea is interesting, but I do fear like some of you guys, that the fanbase would refuse to give him a chance because of Bargnani and his countryman, Hedo Turkoglu. If he is the draft choice, the reaction at the draft party will be priceless.
ZC: Can't see anything already mentioned that I disagree with.
The weaknesses on this Raptors' team are pretty glaringly obvious. Currently, every position can and should be upgraded, but obviously won't. The staples, as I see it, are Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan. I also think the Raptors are probably banking (see: hoping) on Ed Davis being the defensive strong-hold to play alongside Bargnani for the near future.
Amir Johnson can easily be instant energy off the bench, and isn't going anywhere. That's a good thing.
Jose Calderon's under contract for another 2 years and roughly $20 million... but I can't envision him being part of the long-term vision. However, he can be a great (albeit expensive) mentor/tutor for a play-making PG, whether it's Kyrie Irving or someone acquired via trade or free agency. A slasher (like Bayless, but a little bit more geared toward distributing the ball) would be ideal.
Neither Sonny Weems, Linas Kleiza, nor Julian Wright are the answer at the 3... and as you've already read, an aggressive, defensive-minded, swingman has to be on the must-get list.
5. RHQ: There's no question that there are a plethora of issues this team needs to address, and holes that need to be filled. Until then, fans are probably in for a rough ride. With that in mind, final question for what's been a great panel discussion. How many games does this team win this year when all is said and done, and gazing into your crystal balls, does the club get a top 3 lottery pick?
TL: I counted 8 wins as well, while basketball-reference.com simulator has 10. So, let's split the difference and say 9 and 19.
This would place the Raps fourth worst (an estimate obviously, so much can happen). It would give Toronto a 11.9% chance at #1, 12.6% for #2, and 13.3% at #3. So, 37.8% for top 3 - the Raptors probably are owed a little luck and thus I say they get a top 3.
RW: Can't see them winning more than 20 games. Think Wolves and Wizards pass them and they duel with uncatchable Cavs and Nets for 2nd-worst record and get a top 3 pick. After all, it's a bad draft, and Raptors only get a top 3 pick when it's a bad draft (1996 aside).
TC: I won't guess at the team's win total, because I only ever embarrass myself when I do. I will say that the team will probably have a bottom four record, and will have at least one more impressive streak of wins/losses before the season is out (similar to two years ago). I'll also say that until we see what changes are (and aren't) made at the deadline, we won't even know what team we are trying to predict for will look like.
Let's say that at this point, there looks to be five possible impact guys in this draft (Irving, Sullinger, P Jones, T Jones and Kanter - some will argue over my five), and there is very little separating the personnel the group. If the Raps can ensure a top-five pick they should at least come away with as good a rookie as anyone else. Anything below that and the scouting department will have their work cut out for them.
ZC: I'm gonna go with 22 wins. Meaning they'd need to come up with 8 wins in their next 28 games. Definitely far below my initial prognosis, and some might say still a little too generous. Oh well. I'm guessing.
And while I'm at it... I'll say the Raptors get the 1st overall pick.
Hey, the lottery is on my birthday, after all...