The other night, while finishing up some work at the office, I’d tweeted, “Safety inspection at work almost done. Will be home in time for #Raptors game. #Win.”
In retrospect, Toronto Raptors fans really can’t be qualified as “winners” in any category, unless you count having a strong stomach. The team has fallen on hard times, and I’m not talking about losses. As a Raptors fan, you get used to the almosts. What has been most disconcerting are the blowouts that have everyone from the coaches to the fans to the players themselves begging the team to just try.
So what happened? This season was supposed to be it, the first season of the rest of our lives. Playoffs were in view. Then the injuries piled up, along with the losses. The lineup rotated, and every game felt like a desperate pleas to survive in one piece.
Yes, I realize things have been looking up lately. That’s great. But the team’s successes and failures are all dependent on one, very basic, thing: Chemistry. This team had very little of it to start, and no opportunity to develop it because of the injuries.
Then, a long road trip and close losses stoked the fires of frustration.
And then, Amir Johnson, consummate nice-guy and cool-head, pegged a referee with his mouth-guard and got booted.
Chemistry, on the court and off, isn’t something you can force. If you could, every team would do it. It comes naturally sometimes, like the way Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan seemed to click off the hop. But usually, it’s as a result of time spent playing together, as with Jose Calderon and Amir Johnson.
It’s the responsibility of the coach to recognize this, and capitalize on it. I’m aware that it sounds like I’m blaming Dwane Casey, because I am. I’m not saying he isn’t a good coach; there’s a reason he has his job. But as the problems within the Raptors became worse and worse, it was his responsibility to re-evaluate who was playing when, and, injuries notwithstanding, we saw very little adjustment from form.
Now, to get to my point, please allow me to regale you all with an epic tale from high school basketball. Last year, I was watching a game in which one team was wildly more skilled than the other. The stronger team also had a great attitude, and demonstrated excellent sportsmanship; the weaker team did not.
In the second half, the losing coach was ejected from the game, and cussed out the winning team the whole way. Then, his players got into it, committing cheap fouls because they’d never learned how to lose with dignity. The parents followed the coach in being ejected, and honestly, I was embarrassed for the sport.
All that to say that deliberate or not, the coach’s demeanor has a serious effect on that of the team. So I suspect that the Raptors recent attitude, their lack of desire and gumption, has trickled down from Dwane Casey himself. He seems to have gotten bogged down in all the negatives, the injuries and the losses and the frustration from fans, and can’t see past it.
Add to that his apparent inability to recognize chemistry among his players, and we have a pretty serious “top down” problem. Which brings me to a great question – Which is better: Talent or chemistry?
So far this season, the Raptors have gone with talent over chemistry. They’ve persisted with a starting lineup that clearly is not on the same page, rather than experimenting with different players to find the right fit. Let’s look at some starting lineup contrasts.
First off, the easy one: Andrea Bargnani vs Ed Davis. Talent vs Chemistry. Now, please take into account the completely irrational emotional attachment that I have to Bargnani. And yet, I’m going to make the argument for Ed Davis because, well, have you seen this season? They have been complete opposites: Davis spent his summer doing everything he could to better himself as a player. He played summer league, hit the gym, bulked up, and can you ever see it! Where last season, he was pushed around under the basket, now he’s carved out a serious presence. Bargnani, on the other hand, seems to have regressed. For so long, we’ve been excusing his lack of defence due to his offensive potential. Well, Andrea, your percolating phase is over; it’s time to start producing. The only positive development he’s made is in the key defensive plays near the end of games.
But aside from that, Davis is your man. He’s far more reliable on the glass, on defence, as a shot-blocker (he’s left-handed, which makes him much more effective at blocking right-handed shooters). And he knows to play within his limits. He never forces his offence, whereas Bargnani has become more and more desperate to get his groove back. Add to that Davis’ ability to work off his teammates, either in a high-low situation with Jonas Valanciunas or Aaron Gray (like we saw against Brooklyn), or in a pick-and-roll with Jose Calderon. As opposed to Andrea-”Black Hole”-Bargnani who, again, is exhibiting a disconcerting desperation to get his shot going, rather than waiting for it to happen naturally.
Let’s skip back a thought or two and talk about Jose. In my last Raptors-related article, I was touting the benefits of having a point guard like Lowry, who isn’t afraid to attack and score. And while that still holds true, I personally appreciate Jose’s style quite a bit more. He’s always been one of the top facilitators in the NBA, and for a team that’s comprised primarily of young (and older) players who aren’t as able to create their own opportunities, a facilitator should be much more highly valued than he currently is. Where Lowry looks for his own shot first, damn the consequences, Jose’s priority is the good of the team. He’s a proven scorer, cold-blooded and deadly from beyond the arc, but realizes the necessity of using every player. Look at the Lakers for a moment: Anytime that Kobe Bryant scores over thirty points in a game, the team loses.
Not to say that Lowry should stop scoring so much, but rather that Calderon should be the one at the helm, getting the team organized and settled to start, getting everyone going. In plain English, Calderon, who averages a double-double as a starter, should be the starting point guard, not Lowry, who should be coming off the bench.
Time and again, I’ve had to explain to my own players that being part of the second unit has little to do with skill or talent, and more to do with the chemistry of the team. The San Antonio Spurs, one of the most consistently successful teams in the league, has one of their core players, Manu Ginobili, coming off the bench. The title of “Sixth Man” is a highly coveted one. Why else would the NBA have an award specifically for those players? The second unit is exceedingly important, requiring the IQ and energy necessary to pick up where the starters left off. Imagine Jose setting the pace, getting everything up and running, and then handing off to Lowry, who explodes immediately both offensively and defensively! Imagine him striding in with the high-flying Terrance Ross, and the perennially committed Amir Johnson!
Seriously, people! Dream with me!
I firmly believe that this, far more than panicked trades, would be a huge step forward for the Raptors. It would result in a more cohesive team, and, at the very least, a lot of very impressive plays, a true “Wow” factor, and seriously reinvigorate an irate fan-base.
Because honestly, the fans aren’t upset with the losing records. What irks people is a lack of consistent effort, an inability to perform at an elite level. We’re spending our time and money to enjoy the best of the best. But when those players can’t find it in themselves to care, it’s insulting.
I’m not accusing anyone of slacking. I’ve been a player; I am a coach. You don’t do this if your heart isn’t in it. I think the players are off-balance because of a lack of chemistry, and the coaches are erroneously trying to remedy the situation by focusing too much on individual talent rather than team (say it with me, now) chemistry.
To prove my point: After a series of disheartening and embarrassing losses, the Raptors, sans Kyle Lowry and Andrea Bargnani, finally fought. Sure they lost by six against the Brooklyn Nets, but I’ll take that. They blew out the Dallas Mavericks in the very next game, still without their two “big scorers”.
It’s a step in the right direction, and we can only hope that Casey realizes that, and puts the emphasis back where it belongs: Team effort, rather than singular performances.