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3 In the Key – Toronto Raptors Game-Day Preview vs. Houston

For anyone holding out hope that this year's draft will return the team to glory, here's a reminder of what the draft can bring...

For anyone holding out hope that this year's draft will return the team to glory, here's a reminder of what the draft can bring...

"With the 8th pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, the Toronto Raptors select…"

Over a third of the way into the season, the Toronto Raptors are in a strange spot.

The team is one of the top three disappointments in the league this season (along with Philadelphia and Washington), have already dropped 20 of their first 32 matches, and continue to face some of the league’s toughest competition, including the Houston Rockets this evening, as they look to right a ship that has gone seriously adrift.

However for all the negativity, the club is still quite in the playoff hunt in the watered-down Eastern Conference as they sit a game and a half out of eighth, and two games out of seventh.

So as we tip off a new calendar year, Raptors’ GM Bryan Colangelo has some major decisions to make.

The expectation was that this team would be challenging the Boston’s and Orlando’s for the top spots in the East and obviously that hasn’t, and isn’t going to happen. Yet because the team is still in striking distance of a playoff spot, it’s hard to say that Colangelo should just blow things up, especially since the overall goal beyond simply this season and next, appears to be retaining franchise forward Chris Bosh.

So what to do?

The bottom line here is that from Day 1, Raptors’ Management set the bar way too high for most of this team, expecting internal development from the likes of Moon, Bargnani, Humphries and others that just hasn’t panned out. In fact the only pleasant surprise on the entire team, and I’d argue the only "over-achiever," has been Joey Graham. Bosh, O’Neal and Calderon have all had their moments, but Graham is the only player who has really taken a big step forward in my books, especially considering his beleaguered past.

This has made things even more difficult for BC as it’s given him a slew of under performers from which to try and deal. Therefore with few assets to work with on the trade front, a team that at times teases in terms of "what could be," and the omnipresent Chris Bosh contract situation hanging over the team like the Sword of Damocles, it’s hardly an enviable position for the GM.

Yet I don’t think there are too many fans willing to shed a tear for Colangelo’s situation, something he created himself by drafting Andrea Bargnani over the likes of Brandon Roy and Rudi Gay, re-signing fringe players like Kris Humphries to long-term deals, trading for Jermaine O’Neal thus bringing the club oh-so close to the luxury tax zone, and curiously going with two back-up point guards with essentially no NBA experience.

In fact outside of the Isiah Thomas fiasco in New York up until this year, I can’t think of a better example of the expression "you’ve made your bed, now lay in it."

So how does BC get out of this situation and get the club back on course to be an NBA elite? Well I think the first step is the same as any rehab program, admitting that you have a problem.

Colangelo famously decreed that this current squad was the best he’s ever had during his tenure as Raptors’ GM and we all know now that a) that isn’t the case and b) even if the team does go on a streak the rest of the season to win upwards of 45 games, (meaning they’d have to essentially go 33 and 17 the rest of the way), it’s still not enough to compete with the Cleveland’s and even Detroit’s of the East.

So once that admission is made, then he can get down to work and start doing some long-term planning here, starting with the future of Andrea Bargnani with the team.

Andrea really is the number one problem with the club right now.

He’s nearing the mid-way point of his third NBA season and for all the offensive flurries and defensive improvements, he’s a long ways away from justifying his number-one pick overall status. Furthermore, and more importantly, it’s still extremely hard to envision him as being the complimentary piece to Chris Bosh that this team needs to take the next step. I’d argue that until Colangelo decides whether to cut his losses and move on without Andrea, or go down with the Bargnani ship so to speak, this club is going to continue to float along without a rudder, beating some of the league’s top teams on occasion, and losing to the Thunders and Warriors of the NBA on any other given night.

Even as an under-performer, Andrea is the team’s top trade chip right now as O’Neal’s contract is still probably a year away from being palatable to NBA GM’s, and outside of Bosh and Calderon, still represents the player on the team with the most upside. I still do think that Bargs can be a very productive NBA player, but maintain that it’s not with this team as it’s currently constructed.

And what scares me is that if Colangelo, handcuffed by a lack of salary flexibility, goes into next year with essentially the same roster, (Anthony Parker’s salary is the only substantial one that comes off the books in the summer – the rest belong to the sub-million dollar crew of Jawai, Adams, Moon, Solomon and Voskuhl), then as fans we could find ourselves right back in 2004.

You may recall that 2004 marked the year Hoffa was drafted, and that eventually Vince Carter, our one legitimate star, demanded out of Toronto, forcing a trade that sent the franchise into a tailspin that it took almost 3 years to recover from. (And some may argue is STILL trying to recover from.)

Well at the current pace, tadaa, Toronto is again looking squarely at an eighth overall pick, the same place Araujo was selected, in a draft that looks to be the weakest since 2002. Even if Colangelo hits a home-run with his selection, something that seems highly unlikely given his draft history so far with the Raps, it’s going to take a few seasons for that player to have an impact and it’s quite possible again that Raptors’ fans find themselves in a situation where their franchise player is looking at greener pastures.

The argument has been that during the free-agent bonanza of 2010, Toronto suddenly will have enough room to keep Bosh AND go after another big name but I just don’t see that as a plausible situation if the franchise can’t prove that it’s an up-and-comer in the league. If you are a Joe Johnson or Amare Stoudamire, both possible free-agents that summer, are you really going to choose the Raptors over say a team like the Pistons? If Colangelo thinks that to be the case, I’d say it’s akin to putting all your eggs in one basket, a dangerous scenario given that the O’Neal trade this off-season was already an example of that, and one that hasn’t exactly panned out to date.

It may sound a bit pre-mature to discuss this 2010 business but given the way the season has gone, unfortunately Bryan Colangelo and his team need to start making some decisions that look that far in advance. This team isn’t competing for an Eastern Conference crown, and yet only a few games out of a playoff spot, it’s not in complete rebuilding mode either. It’s stuck in that undesirable position of many an NBA club; not bad enough to capture a franchise-changing player in the draft, not good enough to make serious noise in the playoffs.

If I’m Bryan Colangelo then, I’m considering two situations.

Situation 1 is that he doesn’t make any sort of attempt at a quick fix, stays the course, and hopes his team slips into the playoffs. Unless the club is going to completely tank the season, and as we know, even then that won’t guarantee one of the top two picks in the draft, then is it really going to make a difference this year if Toronto has the 17th pick as opposed to the 8th or 10th? I don’t think so. Some of the top 10 guys being named are players like Chase Budinger and Hasheem Thabeet, hardly franchise-changers and guys who were pegged as late first-rounders in last year’s deep draft class.

Situation 2 is that Colangelo does look for the quick fix by moving some combination of Bargs, Parker, Moon, Graham etc, hoping that whatever he gets in return is enough to take the team to the level he expected prior to the season.

In both situations, there are pros and cons but regardless of which situation he goes with, and whether or not Toronto makes the playoffs this year, everything Colangelo does needs to ensure team success NEXT year. In fact, next year needs to be one of the best ever, if not THE best ever in Raptors’ history. Colangelo needs to show not only Bosh, but other prospective free-agents, that this Toronto franchise is committed to winning and is constantly looking to improve. If he can’t do that, not only might we lose the current face of the franchise, but we may also find ourselves without any options for replacements, despite sitting on over $40 million in cap room.

Even worse, the Raptors might end up with the Bucks, and until very recently, the Hawks of the league; consistently overpaying mediocre free-agents just to have some sort of talent to work with.

Right now, unless there’s some steal of a deal offer on the table, I hope that Colangelo goes with the first option described above. I still believe this team can make the playoffs in the East and if they can get through the next few games, and put together a bit of a winning streak to grab the seventh or even sixth spot, who’s to say that they wouldn’t be able to surprise a team like Orlando or Atlanta in the first round?

Then this off-season, hopefully after a solid draft and some more salary cap flexibility due to the conclusion of a few contracts, Colangelo will finally have some assets and he can really get to work. He’ll have Jermaine O’Neal’s mammoth expiring contract to offer up to teams desperately looking to clear room for the 2010 class, and by this point he should know for sure where Bargs fits into the team’s long-term future.

So how does all of this fit into tonight’s game?

Well, instead of "3 Keys," I’m going with 3 New Years Resolutions for the Raptors, ones that I want to evaluate on an ongoing basis beginning this evening against the Rockets.

1) Forge an Identity:

As we’ve seen Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni do with the Knicks, I want to see Colangelo and Triano start forging an identity for this team. If the Raptors are going to be a club that gets out and runs, let’s see it. That means Roko backing up Jose instead of Solomon, much more Joey Graham, and less throwing the ball into post and standing around on offence. It’s strange to say but as one of our readers pointed out, what happened to the pick-and-roll? Jose and Bosh are a lethal combination in this regard and it needs to be more of a presence in the offense again. Against the Rockets tonight I don’t want to see CB4 shooting a single 3-pointer. Let’s see him getting position down low against the undersized Rocket 4’s and running and rolling with Jose again.

Franchise wants to see more Roko in 2009...

Franchise wants to see more Roko in 2009...

2) Develop Talent:

It sounds like both Kapono and O’Neal are no-go’s tonight and that’s fine. At some point in the very near future, the Raptors are going to need to decide on the future of Andrea Bargnani so the more time he gets, especially at the big-man spots, the better. And like the first point, this means more minutes for both Roko and Joey, both of whom have shown some nice upside this season at times. Even after Kapono and O’Neal return, if this comes at their expense, so be it. The reality is that Toronto has little to work with in terms of young talent so the sooner the Dinos can take advantage of it, the better.

3) Maximize Effort:

The Raptors have blown the second-most double-digit leads in the league this year behind only Indiana. Why? Some of this has to do with talent and basketball IQ for sure, but most of the time it has come down to effort on an individual level. Players on this team need to start understanding that there are no free passes and if defensive assignments are consistently blown, rebounds aren’t hauled in, and if jump shots are taken in place of attacks on the basket, they’re going to sit. This key may seem to contradict the previous "develop talent" one but that’s not the case. If effort isn’t being given consistently then this simply makes management’s job that much easier in the off-season when it comes time to decide who are essential building blocks for this team going forward and who can be shipped out.

Toronto is facing a banged up Rockets squad tonight so it’s a perfect opportunity to start putting these keys into play. Houston is one of the league’s top clubs record wise but without Tracy McGrady (who may not play tonight) and outside of Yao, and Artest when he feels like it, this is a club of grinders who simply outworks their opponent instead of out-talenting it.

It’s a perfect opportunity for the Raptors to get back in the win column and a perhaps a nice boost before facing a very tough Orlando team on Sunday.