Rewind to Hallowe’en night.
It’s the home opener for the Toronto Raptors, they’re playing inspired basketball against the Golden State Warriors.
Jermaine O’Neal is blocking shots and doing just what we expected he’d do when he was traded for, Chris Bosh is destroying anyone who attempts to guard him, Andrea is suddenly looking like a top pick, Anthony Parker is playing tight defence, Jose Calderon is dropping dimes, and somewhere, Bryan Colangelo had to be smiling at what he had put together.
Of course that smile started to fade two games later and as we know, probably hasn’t been back since.
Instead, the Raptors wake up this morning having won only 19 of their first 51 games and while only four games out of a playoff spot, look to be realistically headed for the draft lottery this summer.
This is probably even more true now that Chris Bosh could be done for some time, having sprained his knee in last night’s loss to LA. No word as of early this morning on the degree of the sprain, but it’s just more bad news in what has been an extremely rough season for the Dinos. The major concern is that this again was Bosh’s right knee, the same one that caused him to miss 10 games in March of last year.
While Bosh again struggled at times last night, it’s very difficult to see how this team can win many of their remaining games with over a fifth of their scoring unavailable. This is even more true considering that Jose Calderon, who did not even make it to the Raptors’ bench last night, is also not 100 per cent meaning that Toronto will need to rely increasingly on their bench players and "depth."
This depth is really what I want to discuss in today’s piece, and having attended last night’s affair with a friend from work, and being seated fairly close to the action, I got a chance to see just how bad off Toronto is in this department.
In fact, last night’s match was in essence the perfect one from a valuation standpoint.
Here was a very shallow Raps’ squad playing the deepest team in the league, a true NBA Finals contender. The teams match up well with similar players at positions in terms of shooters (Vujacic and Kapono), athletes (Moon and Ariza), non-traditional post-presences (Bosh and Gasol) and glue guys (Parker and Walton.) The Lakers of course probably have the superior talent at most of these positions, oh, and some guy named Kobe, but last night represented a true litmus test for the Dinos. They were playing the team I still feel is the best in the league, and therefore the outcome and some of the individual battles should have been good indicators of just how far Toronto still needs to go.
So in the end, how far do they need to go?
Well, no question the team needs upgrades in certain spots but I think two things really stood out for me:
1) How shallow this team’s talent-base is and
2) That the club is not that far away from being pretty good.
Let’s tackle the top point first.
My friend last night was telling me that Toronto is one of the top teams in the league in terms of record based on first quarter.
Sure enough, heading over to good ol’ 82games.com revealed an incredible statistic; the Toronto Raptors are behind only Cleveland and Boston in terms of being ahead at the end of the first quarter!
How about the Rockets, Lakers and Magic.
That’s pretty good company to keep but doesn’t that speak volumes about your bench performance?
Contrast that now with second quarter performance and it’s the inverse story; Toronto has the third WORST league record after second quarters ahead of only New Jersey and Sacramento.
And if you needed some visual proof of this, all you had to do was watch last night’s second quarter.
Thanks to some great play from Bosh, Bargs and JO early on, and some huge and surprising contributions from Joey Graham, Toronto raced ahead to an early first quarter lead backing up the previous statistics.
However things started to come down to earth the very moment coach Jay Triano had to go to his bench.
Watching Moon, Kapono, Roko, Bosh and O’Neal operate against the Lakers was ugly. Shots started to be forced, turnovers piled up, and the free-flowing offence that existed in the first quarter was nowhere to be found. In fact, it could be argued that with that line-up, Toronto is essentially playing five on two and a half. Bosh and O’Neal are obviously legit offensive presences but Moon? Roko? And Kapono due to his woeful shooting of late, not to mention inability to create his own shot, only gets half marks here.
And unfortunately, with Calderon hurt, and Joey Graham starting, coach Jay Triano had no other options. Will Solomon? Nathan Jawai? Jake Voskuhl? No thanks.
And let’s build on this some more.
Even when Joey is coming off the bench, or O’Neal is as well, the team is still forced to play one of these other inefficient offensive players and therefore the club is never playing five-on-five essentially. Against a deep club like the Lakers, this becomes even more apparent. I remarked at the outset of the match when I saw that Jose was a no-show, "if Toronto wants to win this game, the starters are going to have to play 40 plus minutes each."
Outside of Chris Bosh, the starters did get close to those numbers with O’Neal and Andrea getting 43 each, but stretches of Moon and Kapono allowed the Lakers to keep within striking distance until it was Kobe time.
I’m not putting this loss on Moon and Kapono as an aside. In fact, for a while now I’ve realized that getting mad at Moon is akin to asking a snail why he’s not a tiger.
So here’s a question. Why again do we have Moon AND Kapono?
I got thinking about this last week during the Bucks’ contest. Here we are paying Jason Kapono an exorbitant amount to hoist 3-pointers with accuracy. However not only is he not doing that, he’s not shooting that great of a percentage from anywhere on the court. Moon on the other hand, has turned into a threat from long-range, and comes with a much cheaper price tag attached. I found it interesting that Mickael Pietrus, a player who Toronto looked to have an eye on during free-agency at one point, came off the bench to completely decimate the Dinos last Sunday. This was a player that seemed to be a good fit for the Raptors yet Bryan Colangelo decided to splurge on JK. I worried about the Kapono signing the day it was announced and I think it’s pretty obvious how incorrect that decision was by Colangelo. Pietrus is no Jason Richardson, but his physicality and athleticism simply dwarf that of anyone on the Raps.
Kapono on the other hand? Well after watching him the past few weeks I started wondering if he’s even been a better shooter overall than Moon this year. Moon on the season is actually hitting 34 per cent of his shots from downtown while Kapono, for all his 3-point prowess, is only shooting 41.6 per cent this season. Now do I want Jamario jacking up those shots? Well…I’m not sure I mind anymore and here’s why.
Moon has started to prove whether fans like it or not that he can hit that shot. Let’s face it – he’s not the answer at the 3 and never will be. He’s not a good enough ball-handler and shies away from contact. But would you rather move Kapono and re-sign Moon for less than half the price of JK, and as a an eighth man hopefully, considering he’s a much better help (notice I said help, not man-to-man) defender and possibly as good a shooter overall?
Right now readers are saying "wait, MOON as good a shooter as Kapono?"
Hear me out.
Yes, Kapono has one of the sweetest strokes in the league but in terms of his efficiency as an offensive player, I have my doubts.
That lead me to basketball stat guru John Hollinger’s "true shooting percentage," which "calculates what a player’s shooting percentage would be if we accounted for free throws and 3-pointers," and I saw that I was correct.
Moon ranked 17th among small forwards in terms of true shooting percentage at .562.
He wasn’t even in the top 45 at shooting guard and his percentage sat at .521.
I think Kapono’s free-agent signing was Colangelo’s first big error as a GM and while Kap-One has at times lit things up from outside, he’s not enough of an offensive factor to mitigate his defensive deficiencies. On top of this, I don’t think there’s enough talent to surround Kapono to make him as efficient as he should be. You see this in the bench group where suddenly Kapono can’t get open looks without a true, experienced point guard leading the charge, and he’s forced to make head-fake after head-fake.
It’s gotten to the point where my friend joked to me yesterday that during the 3-point contest which Kapono will once again be participating in, he wouldn’t be surprised to see JK fake the 3 and duck inside the arc for the 2.
Again though, as inefficient as Kapono, Moon and the rest of the bench has been at times, it’s tough to place blame on them. Toronto is essentially playing a cast of borderline NBA players in key moments (and sometimes in starting roles) so I’m not sure there’s any point getting mad as fans at these guys. The anger and frustration should be directed at management for overvaluing the "talent" that they had, and for foolishly thinking that the club had enough experienced support at key positions.
That being said, watching yesterday’s game you also had to feel a bit for BC.
If the team had been healthy and able to play as a unit from day one, I guarantee the Raps wouldn’t be sitting with 19 wins.
Last night you saw just how effective pieces of this club can be which brings me to my second point.
Really, with the play of the starters last night, wouldn’t one more solid contribution have done the trick in terms of getting that win? TO got 10 points from its bench compared to 21 from the Lakers but the starters were enough to almost get the W. Now imagine if Joey Graham continues to produce similar numbers but off the bench as a sixth man and the team adds a true 3? Suddenly this team doesn’t look so bad.
Add in a solid back-up point guard, have Moon come off the bench as an eighth man and now we’re really getting somewhere.
My point is that with last night’s loss, not only did it probably end Toronto’s playoff hopes (especially with Bosh down), but it also made clear that with max effort and an injection of talent at the aforementioned positions, this team could be right back up in the East’s top 5.
-Bosh is one of the best in the league.
-Bargs is looking week-by-week like the player BC envisioned when he drafted him. (How about the ferocious second-attempts on the glass last night – where did those come from?)
-Jose when healthy is one of the league’s best at initiating an offense.
-Joey Graham is finally starting to understand how good he can be. (And how much better of a ball-handler is he now??)
-Anthony Parker is that glue guy who does a bit of everything.
-Roko needs a few more years of experience but already has some nice skills at the 1…
That’s a few solid pieces right there to build around.
If Colangelo can extract some more help by dealing Jermaine O’Neal in the next few weeks or this off-season, then that might add another significant part. In some ways though it will be tough to see O’Neal go as he does, when healthy, give Toronto a defensive presence they haven’t had since Antonio Davis left town. O’Neal looked like the dominant pivot from his Indiana days last night (ahem, Pat Riley) as he nearly had a triple double falling one block short and one rebound short.
I mean nine blocks? Those numbers aren’t easy to replace so if he is dealt, BC is going to have to find some other players eventually to replace that defensive swagger. Perhaps if JO was making half of his current salary, or Toronto, much like Los Angeles, was allowed to go into luxury tax zone things would be different.
But right now, this team is just going to have to ride out the season, looking for incremental improvements here and there and the continued development of key future pieces. My hope is that BC now keeps Jose (and maybe Bosh) on the shelf for a long time until they’re 100 per cent healthy, as there’s no sense hurting the future of this team just for a shot at an eighth playoff spot.
In that sense the injuries to Bosh and Jose right now (assuming they’re both fairly minor and don’t linger into next year) might be a blessing in disguise. Now Colangelo and co. can stop worrying about that last playoff spot and Jay Triano doesn’t have to worry about rotations regarding Bargs and O’Neal. These will be his two starters and this might be the best thing possible for O’Neal’s trade value. The situation also means Triano can give guys like Joey, Roko and even Jawai some extended minutes.
Oh…and of course it probably improves our shot at a top five pick in the draft.
Last night the collective of present and future pieces just couldn’t quite get it done and in the end, it was Kobe Bryant, to no one’s surprise, that put one of the final nails in the coffin.
It might have been the final nail in the season as well, but perhaps we’ll be looking at this game come next year as a key turning point in the Raptors’ re-ascension in the East.