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Tip-In: Toronto Raptors Post Game – Playing the Hand You’re Dealt

Bryan Colangelo knows all too well what this guy feels like...

Bryan Colangelo knows all too well what this guy feels like...

Fact: With a loss last night to the Detroit Pistons, the Toronto Raptors have now dropped seven straight – their longest losing streak since a 10 game slump in the spring of 2006.

Fact: When the Raps came out of that slump in 2006, they sat at 26 and 53, and won only one of their final three games to finish with 27 wins that season.

Fact: That 2005-06 squad that lost 10 in a row had the following roster:

PG: Mike James, Andre Barrett, Darrick Martin,
SG: Joey Graham, Alvin Williams
SF: Morris Peterson, Eric Williams, Pape Sow
PF: Chris Bosh, Charlie Villanueva, Matt Bonner
C: Loren Woods, Rafael Araujo

It was the leanest of lean times for Raptors’ fans dating back to almost the inception of the franchise.

Rewind to the start of the season for a moment. If anyone told you that this current Raptors squad would be on pace to best (or should I say worst) that mark, most would have said that person had mistakenly been talking about the Leafs, not the Raptors. Even if you would have explained that the team would be missing Jermaine O’Neal for 15 games, and Jose Calderon for 12, you still would have expected more, especially in the Eastern Conference.

Yet here we sit, at the 44 game mark no less, and the team is not even on pace to win 30 matches!

This isn’t exactly what fans or management had expected, and even the biggest cynics regarding the Jermaine O’Neal trade would be hard-pressed to imagine a club, less than two years removed from being a top four seed in the East, falling so quickly from grace.

The trouble is, even when Jose returns, and assuming JO stays healthy (and stays in Toronto for argument’s sake) it’s getting to the "what’s the point?" stage of the season.

Can this team still make the playoffs?

Does it even matter if the real goal is to beef up talent and retain Chris Bosh?

It’s a dilemma I alluded to over a month ago when the cracks first started to appear and unfortunately with each loss these questions become more and more critical in terms of a response.

The problem is, I’m just not sure how Bryan Colangelo can answer either. With the way he’s presently constructed the roster, he’s "damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t" so to speak. His biggest trade assets Chris Bosh and Jose Calderon aren’t going anywhere. His next biggest, Andrea Bargnani, looked to be a sell high candidate at one point but suddenly now looks untouchable as well. Even in last night’s loss which saw Bargs struggle percentage-wise, the former number one pick was still extremely aggressive with his offence, and was Toronto’s second-leading rebounder, ahead of even Bosh.

So beyond some fringe values like Jason Kapono and Anthony Parker’s expiring contract, that leaves Jermaine O’Neal and his $20 Million piece of bait.

However is anyone really biting on a player who is again being portrayed as a bit of a diva in the media, and one who even with an entire off-season of rehab, just can’t seem to stay healthy?

It doesn’t seem like Miami is.

And with JO’s trade value realistically being a season away, I’m finding it hard to believe he’s going anywhere before this summer.

So that leaves our GM like the low chip-man at a Poker tournament; staring at the cards in his hand, hoping to catch a break on the River. And in reality, I think that’s now how this season is going to have to unfold.

Toronto can’t afford to rest JO and tank completely, because they need to prove to teams that he has value on the court, not just in terms of his mammoth and soon-to-be-expiring contract. They also can’t afford to win too many games, because with few trade pieces, they need to hit one out of the park via the draft. To do that, it would help to get as high a pick as possible.

And let me say this now – there are some solid players in this upcoming draft, but with the exception of maybe the top five players, I don’t see any of the other prospects being able to come in and have a major impact on the Raptors next year. Yes, there is talent, and scouts drool at the "upside" of players like the Luol Deng-ish Aminu, or the Webber-like Monroe, but we’re talking freshmen in college here. Last night Aminu for all his god-given abilities, made more poor decisions with the ball (including numerous offensive fouls) than Joey Graham has all year, and his number one ranked squad fell in upset to V Tech. And even though Monroe has a basketball IQ beyond his years, is he really ready to bang in the paint with the Jason Maxiell’s of the league?

Toronto is going to have to rely on internal improvement to inch forward until Bryan Colangelo has the tools to bring in some serious reinforcements.

And of course it’s hard to improve, when your team isn’t healthy.

Yesterday it was reported that forward Kris Humphries will be out indefinitely with a broken leg. He was kicked during the game against Phoenix and suffered damage to his right fibula. While this is nowhere near as serious as losing say Chris Bosh, in a season when things keep going wrong, this is yet another example.

Without healthy bodies, Toronto is perilously thin at various positions and last night’s 95 to 76 loss to Detroit was a great example of this.

The club fought hard through the first half against a much deeper and more talented Pistons crew, but once they got behind in the second half, things folded up pretty quick. The offence was stagnant, the defence was almost non-existent, and you could see the discouragement in the Dino’s body language. Here was a team dominating the glass in the first half, only to lose the battle of the boards 40 to 28 in the end. Toronto is still so predicated on being an excellent offensive team that when that goes, so does everything else.

Bosh and Parker played admirably, and Jamario Moon showed considerably more restraint in terms of shot selection, but the team got nothing from Joey Graham, very little from Jermaine O’Neal or Jason Kapono and nothing…wait…well…that’s pretty much the roster at present.

And this is where things currently lie.

We have a team that had little depth now being forced to rely on players who shouldn’t have been counted on for much besides practice time this year. And we have other players being forced to play out of position in effort to make up for this roster malaise.

It’s easy to point the finger at Bryan Colangelo and shout "what were you thinking?" but we’re well past that point now. In fact, my emotions this season have gone from "hope" after seeing the early impact of JO’s defence, to "frustration" when the team began losing some games it should have won, to "anger" when injuries confirmed my pre-season worries about some of the moves this club made, to now feelings of empathy and practicality. Toronto is going to need to bond together now and play this thing through.

This club needs to forget about trades or any help that’s on the way (unless Nathan Jawai suddenly becomes a true "Baby Shaq"), and simply needs to get out there and compete. Calderon will be back at some point, there’s really no sense rushing him now, and hopefully JO can start becoming a major defensive factor again, even off the bench.

Things really can’t get any worse at this point (even off-court it’s been a season from hell considering the TSN2 fiasco) so I’m hoping Jay Triano has a good chat with the team and tries to instill an "us against the world" mentality. The 2005-06 team was one lacking talent but they played hard each and every night and at times played with a bit of a chip on their shoulder. Mike James was a bit of a chucker, but he and the likes of Morris Peterson competed hard, and tried to set the tone for a club that probably shouldn’t have even won 27 games.

I mean, look at the roster again above; wouldn’t you rather have Oklahoma City’s current squad?

My point is that it would be quite easy for this team to slip into a horrific losing streak and simply "give up." It would be easy for individuals to start playing for themselves, especially if they’re in contract years.

However if that happens, it’s perhaps telling of what the real problem is on this team.

Not the coaching, not the system, but the players themselves. If this team with more talent than many of the clubs currently in front of them in the standings can’t right the ship, it speaks volumes about the amount of house-cleaning Bryan Colangelo is going to need to do this off-season. These final 38 games will be a true test of this team’s mettle and while I don’t expect them to win 40 games, I want to cheer for a team that fights it out each and every night. I want to see a club that even with the few healthy bodies that it has, fight and scrap its way to some victories, even when the odds are stacked against them.

Perhaps this team isn’t going anywhere this year.

However if they don’t band together now and show some fight until for the rest of the season, then this team might not be going anywhere the next few years either.