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

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Is now the time for the Raps to be going for broke for Griffin?

Is now the time for the Raps to be going for broke for Griffin?

I woke up this morning with admittedly some feelings of sadness.

The NCAA tournament concluded last night with North Carolina’s thrashing of Michigan State signaling an end to the college season, the Raptors for the first time in two years won’t be playing in the NBA’s post-season…oh…and it’s snowing in Toronto on April 7th.

While March is my favourite month of the year as a basketball fan, April is usually a bit hit or miss. I’m not a big baseball fan (although I did attend the Jays’ home-opener last night), as indicated, the weather can be sketchy, and thanks to the NBA franchise I support, unfortunately more often then not the NBA’s second-season usually begins minus one club in purple.

Or red and black now.

In the past, fans of the Atlanta Hawks understood this sentiment as well.

Outside of last year’s excellent showing against the Boston Celtics, the Hawks had only made the playoffs twice in the previous ten seasons! That’s a record of futility that the Raptors can’t even match! (Worse? The Clippers who counting from this season back have made it once in the past TWELVE years!)

After being picked by many to again miss the playoffs this year, the Hawks however have already guaranteed themselves a post-season spot, and are currently up on the Miami Heat by two games in the battle for fourth place in the East.

That’s why as much as tonight’s game may not mean a whole lot for the Dinos, the Hawks will indeed be looking to close out the season strong, as sixth place Philly still has a chance to catch Atlanta for that fourth spot as well.

For the Raptors, I guess the argument could be made that the team is playing for pride from here on out but really, it’s hard to say if that’s the case or not. After speaking with many of the Raptors post-game on Sunday, many claimed not to even be aware that the loss to the Knicks mathematically eliminated them from playoff contention.

So if that’s indeed the case, do you think fans will actually see much of a difference between tonight’s version of the Raps versus the one that had won six of its last seven?

I don’t, however as mentioned yesterday, I’m hoping the team does look to do some thigns differently from here on out for various reasons.

So instead of our usual "3 in the Key," let’s look at three factors that I’m hoping will guide Toronto’s on-court approach from here on out:

1) Player Evaluation –

Again, this was something I discussed yesterday. With six games remaining on the 2008-09 schedule, let’s start rolling out the reserves early. We know what Chris Bosh can do. We know what Jose Calderon is capable of. So how about an extended look at guys like Patrick O’Bryant and Quincy Douby (who Ryan McNeil of Hoops Addict spoke with post-game on Sunday.)

Perhaps the Raptors have an unsung hero in their midst that can be brought back in even a 10th man role for cheap?

I’d even prefer to see Nathan Jawai be brought back from the D League for the remaining matches. Let’s see just how far he’s got to go and if even with an off-season of play and another Summer League, if it looks like he’ll at least be able to hold down a spot on the roster. The development of guys like he and Pops could end up being crucial to Bryan Colangelo’s off-season ironically. If BC feels that these two or O’Bryant are ready to step into the club’s reserve big-man roles, then suddenly Kris Humphries becomes quite expendable (if he isn’t already.)

2) Draft Odds -

Even with the Raptors’ recent win streak, the team can still jump into the top 7 in regards to the upcoming draft. Lottery balls aside, the Raptors right now sit in ninth, but only percentage points ahead of the Knicks and suddenly Golden State is only two wins away from leap-frogging the Dinos as well. Unfortunately, with games against Houston, Utah, San Antonio and Phoenix on their schedule, it looks quite unlikely that the Warriors will be able to overshoot the Raptors, but stranger things have happened.

Again, this isn’t to say I think the team should go into tank mode, but if losses are the result of point number one, thoroughly evaluating the current talent, or lack thereof, on the roster, so be it.

Is there a huge difference in the end between drafting say 9th or 10th versus 7th or 8th? There are differing opinions on this, even in the local media. On one side we have Michael Grange who looking at the bigger picture, notes that in today’s NBA, you may need to "swing for the fences" via the draft in order to get that "big reward."

On the other side we have The Star’s Doug Smith, who argues against shooting for the best possible draft positioning and points out that the difference between having an eighth or ninth pick is incremental at best.

I do agree with Mr. Smith in regards to the fact that good and great players come out of late lottery picks all the time. The problem with his logic is that having a top choice gives you a BETTER chance of picking a superior player. Sure, guys like Biedrins and Thad Young fall into the late lottery all the time, but statistically overall, the best players are found at the top of the draft. So the goal here is to have more chances to draft those guys rather than less.

I think this is ESPECIALLY true this year, where there are only about four players who look to be "sure things" to certain degrees should they all declare (this would be Griffin, Harden, Rubio and Thabeet.) Not to say they’ll all be stars in the league, but GM’s who select these four will get solid pieces to add to their respective clubs. Being one of those top 5 "worst" teams, even top 7, gives you a solid shot at a top 3 spot, something as mentioned, I feel is critical this year.

The other thing Doug fails to take into consideration is the power associated with having a top pick. Sure, you may not actually draft a better player with a top selection, but in the draft as we well know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So some rival GM may fall in love with a certain player and the higher your own team’s pick, the better chance that you can deliver said player to the opposing GM on a silver platter...for something in return of course.

I’d argue that Toronto right now needs all of the help it can get so being in command of the draft from a higher seed certainly isn’t a bad thing.

3) Early Training Camp -

Chances are pretty good that regarding his future with the Toronto Raptors, Chris Bosh made up his mind a long time ago. Maybe the whole "dead-beat Dad" saga that the Star initiated helped make that decision a bit easier but the point is that regardless of what CB4 has said publicly, I think the past few months have given him all the information he needs in terms of making a decision.

However there are other players on this team that I’m not sure are sold one way or another.

Take Shawn Marion.

I asked Marion Sunday about his fit with the club, and if he felt that he was a lot more comfortable in his role here now than when he first came onboard. While he stated that yes, indeed he felt the on-court chemistry with his teammates had improved, there were still stretches when his abilities weren’t being taken advantage of via mismatches and the like.

Is it time for more Joey?

Is it time for more Joey?

Therefore outside of evaluating the Nathan Jawais and Quincy Doubys of the team, continuing to create cohesion between guys like Marion and the rest of the club could pay big dividends next season. If Colangelo is dead set on keeping The Matrix and Pops Mensah-Bonsu around, then in these final six games, why not look to get them even more involved? One of the excuses for Toronto’s record this season was a lack of an effective training camp for both newcomers to the team, and players who had been dealing with off-season injuries (Jose Calderon.)

So why not get the guys you’re intending to bring back next season to mesh early? We’ve seen Jose slowly start to develop a much better chemistry with Marion but why not get Roko involved in this respect as well? We’ve talked about the team’s financial situation heading into next year ad nauseam but again, if Toronto can really make Marion feel like a key piece for this club going forward, then maybe they get him back for cheap.

There’s certainly no harm in trying this approach, as the worst-case scenario is that the Matrix decides regardless of his increased role, that he’d like to play elsewhere. That of course frees up more cap room, not exactly a huge negative at this point for the franchise.

To a lesser degree, this tactic applies to the likes of Joey Graham and Anthony Parker as well; two players who would be nice to retain at the right price.

As we’ve seen time and time again in this league, players just want to feel appreciated so with six games left and not much to play for, why not look to involve players like this as much as possible?

After all, 36 wins hardly thrusts you back into the NBA spotlight.

But 30 wins, a higher draft pick, motivated individuals and the chance to do a thorough evaluation of your talent might be exactly what you need to get back in said spotlight.