"We had to grind it out. You are talking about one of the top defensive teams. Doug (Collins) is always going to coach a tough team. Our guys did a good job shorthanded. Everybody stepped in and did a solid job."
Those were the words of the Toronto Raptors head coach, Dwane Casey, in the aftermath of his team's 90 to 72 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers last night. Our man on the scene, Scott Campsall captured these, and I think they do a pretty good job of summarizing last night's affair.
The 76ers have indeed been one of the league's better defensive clubs overall this season, holding opponents to a shade under 97 points per game.
However of late, they haven't fared so well on D, losing their previous three matches by 109 points, so in fact, Toronto only scoring 90 yesterday evening, was a bit of a break in trending.
Compounding those recent defensive issues is Philly's offence, in the basement of the league in terms of efficiency, and averaging only 92.,2 points per game, fourth-worst in the league. The club struggles to score even against decent defences, and last night, yep, was exhibit A. The Sixers shot under 40 per cent for the game, scored only 11 points in the final quarter, and seemed gassed well before the final horn sounded.
Some praise for Toronto's defence is in fact quite warranted as the club posted a stellar defensive efficiency mark of 81.8, and limited Philly's effective field goal percentage to only 40.5 per cent. The Raps did a fairly good job on the perimeter, and the length and athletic ability of Amir Johnson and Ed Davis (who combined for 36 points, 21 rebounds, and 7 assists) really gave the Sixers issues down low.
As I watched Ed and Amir score on put-backs, out-leap their opponent, and show-off improved offensive moves, my mind wandered a bit, pondering the idea of this duo being the team's front-court of the future. The duo had already been called out earlier this season as one of the top defensive tandems by both Zach Lowe and John Hollinger, and as Amir zipped a nifty behind-the-back pass to Davis to pretty much cap off the match, I couldn't help but think about the potential upside of these youngsters.
Wait...what about Jonas Valanciunas!
Yes, suddenly I realized that I had forgotten someone in the frontcourt mix, the Raptors prized possession, Mr. Valanciunas.
It's an interesting situation suddenly in Toronto. A healthy Amir Johnson, and an emerging Ed Davis, combined with an "out-of-fan-favour" Andrea Bargnani, means that the Raptors have some major decisions to make regarding their front-court going forward. For all the early-season talk about a mess at the 2-3 spot, DeMar DeRozan has shown enough improvement to truly justify a starting gig, Alan Anderson has proven a more than capable back-up for both spots, and now Landry Fields (10 points and 11 rebounds last night) is showing positive signs.
Add in Terrence Ross' recent play and while certainly not perfect, the shooting guard spot is a net positive in terms of PER so far this season (was -0.4 last year), and while the small forward spot is not (-4.0), it's slowly improving now that Fields and Anderson have returned.
Which brings me back to the front-court.
As big of a fan of Jonas Valanciunas as I am, and his future, it's clear that overall the Raptors are better served playing Amir Johnson and Ed Davis together for the bulk of the minutes. Val has shown solid upside as both a shot-blocker and defender, but obviously he's got a lot of growth to do in those areas.
And Bargs, well...there's a reason we made this video.
But Amir and Ed aren't the perfect solution either.
Against clubs like Sacramento, you can see major match-up issues as bigger bodies (ahem, DeMarcus Cousins) just overpower the Raptors' lithe post-men, and Dwane Casey doesn't have much else to turn to. Aaron Gray has been a big disappointment this season, and while a healthy Valanciunas gives Casey six more fouls to use, he's not the burly defensive option needed either.
So what to do?
Ideally, Toronto flips one of their promising young bigs, potentially in combination with Andrea Bargnani, to secure the services of a top-notch, starting caliber wing on a reasonable contract. While I noted that the wing spots have improved, there's still no way the team could pass up the opportunity to secure such a player.
Like Rudy Gay you say?
Gay would be another move of the "Hedo" variety in my books, a "rush towards further mediocrity" let's call it, especially considering the potential financial ramifications.
Sure, if Memphis is willing to take on some absurd combination like Fields and Bargnani (nearly a perfect salary match), you do it, but I'm not holding my breath on that one.
The bottom line is that we're now seeing a Toronto Raptors club that's performing at the level many expected this season; beating the teams that on paper they "should" be beating (last night was a perfect example of this) and hanging tough with more elite clubs. Whether or not this translates into a playoff spot remains to be seen, but even if so, can anyone visualize this team challenging the Miami's and OKC's of the NBA? A move for Rudy Gay likely doesn't do much to improve the club in the short-term, and certainly hampers the long-term.
And I'd argue with a lack of definitive superstar talent, it's the long-term this team needs to focus on.
Thanks to the Lowry trade, and frankly, the current talent on the club, tanking isn't a realistic option this season. The team just isn't bad enough (barring any unforeseen injuries obviously) to bottom out as needed to take a run at a top three pick, and as we know, any other lottery pick is headed west.
The team's long-term improvement right now rests on players like Davis, DeRozan, Valanciunas and Ross, so unless an obvious upgrade is available, I'd argue that patience is the better path here.
Especially regarding the wing position.
A few paragraphs ago I noted that if the Raptors move someone like Ed Davis, it should be to secure the services of a top-notch, starting caliber wing on a reasonable contract.
Now I'll ask you to name one.
Wait, that should be, "a top-notch, starting caliber wing on a reasonable contract, whose team would move for some combination of current Raptors' assets."
Not so easy eh? Top-quality wings on reasonable contracts aren't exactly a dime-a-dozen so the best bet for the Raptors in terms of filling this spot, might indeed be to continue to develop their current talent in Ross and DeRozan.
Put it this way. Toronto's certainly not following the Oklahoma City Thunder model of team-building, nor are they walking in the footsteps of a Sacramento (perennial lottery visits trying to find the right mix of young talent) or Miami (able to land top tier free-agents.) The Raptors as currently set-up, are likely best served by continually adding young talent when possible, but focusing on small tweaks that improve on-court performance, ones that don't unduly hamper the club's financial future.
Maybe the trade market for Andrea Bargnani isn't what it once was but could he be moved to address some of the team's current needs, to make them a much stronger playoff contender?
One such move, in the wake of my thoughts regarding Amir and Ed, would be moving Bargnani for someone like Emeka Okafor. Okafor is hardly Al Horford at this point, but would represent a solid big-man defender who could provide a much better match-up against the Cousins' of the NBA. He's a pretty woeful offensive player, but Toronto would be playing him for defensive purposes only, where he still posts fairly solid advanced metrics.
As a bonus, while his salary is slightly larger than that of Bargnani's, he's only got two years left on his deal, saving the club long-term. (I'm assuming here that he's not going to exercise what appears to be an early termination option.)
Obviously what makes sense for Toronto may not make sense for Washington, and they may not be so keen on Andrea Bargnani the player, nor his extra year of salary.
And this is no slam-dunk for the Raps, but more an example of the type of move that makes sense for the Dinos as we march towards the NBA's February 21st trade deadline.
The name Rudy Gay has more marketing appeal to it than Emeka Okafor, but it's the Rudy Gay type moves that have gotten Bryan Colangelo in trouble before.
However with yesterday's Brian Burke firing, and BC's contract up for extension in only a few months, it may be too hard for Colangelo to resist the lure of the "big name player" siren.