Toronto’s Season A Step In Right Direction

I’ve taken my time in writing a year-end review for the Raptors because there are things that have already been said much better than I and at the end of the day I’m not really sure how I even feel about the way this season transpired.

The Raptors were not a great team.  They lost a lot of games.  Hell, they lost twice to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats (quite possibly the worst team in history).  They missed the playoffs again and did not secure a great chance at a top three pick.

Still, I’m a “glass is half full” kind of guy and I still feel the team had enough positive this season to be hopeful for the future.

While we saw problems with the club like the lack of a bona fide star, poor wing play for most of the season and a rash of injuries, we also saw marked improvement in a number of areas.  Our defence was much improved, some unexpected players stepped up to show they belong here and our coaching staff showed that they can strategize with the best in the league.

Overall it was a tough year, but one that has given the fan base reason to believe next year is going to be better.

My Captain, My Captain

It was clear early in the year that Dwane Casey was going to be the voice of this team.  He addressed the media at every turn and preached the same philosophies over and over.  He talked about “building a culture”, improving the team defence and to keep working hard.  His mantra, “pound the rock,” was adopted by each of his players and became a rallying cry throughout the year in the locker room, interviews and on twitter.

In wins and difficult losses his players continued to stick to the plan.

The turnaround in this team is most notable on the defensive side of the ball.  Last year the Raptors ranked near the bottom in all defensive statistics, but this year they finished 9th in points allowed, 8th in Opponents field goal percentage, and 5th in opponents three-point field goal percentage.  This was all with a back court that many thought was too weak on the defensive end.

Who then should be credited with the turnaround?  Look no further than the coach. Casey had a successful first year in charge of the Raptors because his message was simple and consistent and it stuck with his players. He was able to mask the defensive shortcomings of Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani (two players that everyone thought were hopeless on the defensive end) in his zone defense and turned the Raptors into a tough team to score against.

The effort Casey put forth helped make Bargnani a top-tier player during the first half of the season and helped rejuvenate the career of Jose Calderon.

Casey, for his efforts, has already had his contract extended and bigger and better things should be expected from the team with improvements to the roster.

Had Casey been on a higher profile team he might even be a candidate for coach of the year. His extended contract was a no-brainer and a bigger pay day may be coming if the team keeps heading in the direction it is currently pointed.

In this shortened Raptor season, Casey has given Raptor fans a reason to be hopeful for the future.

Jekyll and Hyde

No one knows on any given night which Andrea Bargnani or which DeMar DeRozan will show up.  Both had polarizing years, to say the least, and neither player could put it all together for an extended stretch of games.

Early on it looked as though Andrea Bargnani was going to bust loose on the NBA.  He was shooting the ball with confidence, driving the lane, hitting shots and playing with confidence on both ends of the floor.

For the first month and a half of the season all of the Dirk Nowitzki comparisons were beginning to finally make sense.

Then he got injured.

Bargnani wasn’t the same player when he returned.  He was hesitant, lost his confidence and couldn’t find his rhythm.  Either the injury was not fully healed or opposing defenses made adjustments.  Either way he wasn’t a dominant player in the second half.

Raptor fans are now left wondering which player was the real Andrea Bargnani and which player is going to show up next year.

While Bargnani was having a great start and rough finish, DeMar DeRozan’s season was almost the complete and utter opposite.

DeRozan started the season terribly.  By the all-star break he was averaging 40% shooting and 15 points per game.  He was getting to the foul line five times a game.  He was sputtering and everyone in the city seemed to be noticing.  Journalists, bloggers, pundits, everyone was questioning whether DeRozan was going to be a significant part of this teams future. He looked like a player destined for a career off the bench.

In the second half, he spent a lot less time trying to shoot three-pointers and started focusing on getting to the foul line.  He was able to draw contact and get to the stripe a lot more. In December, Derozan averaged little over two free throw attempts per game.  Later in the year, he bumped that to as high as six attempts per game. A significant improvement.

DeRozan has begun to learn what he does well.  Casey had him attacking the rim, and allthough he didn’t always get the call, he kept attacking.

By the end of the second half of the year, DeRozan began to look a lot more like the player Raptor fans were expecting when he was drafted out of USC.

Now Raptor fans have to hope that ‘First half Bargnani’ and ‘Second half DeRozan’ are actually who these players are.

Supporting Players

The Raptors may not have a bona fide superstar at the moment.  They may have to steal that star from the draft or in free agency, but what the team does have a plethora of is character players.  Guys that come to the court and leave it all on the floor.  A squad of fighters that any coach would love to have coming off the bench.

Jerryd Bayless showed himself to be a very capable point guard and shooting guard this season and is perfectly suited to a bench role next season, if he stays in town. He can shoot, drive and dish and can potentially cause match-up nightmares for opposing teams.

James Johnson can play many positions and does a little bit of everything.  He can block, rebound, defend and occasionally score.  He plays the 3, 4 and occasionally the 5, and he has a high basketball IQ when he’s on the floor.  If he has not burned bridges with coach Casey he will be a valuable part of the team next year.

Jose Calderon had one of his best seasons as a professional basketball player in 2011/12.  He distributed the ball with ease averaging 8.6 assists good enough for fourth in the league behind only Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash and Chris Paul.  He established himself as a team leader for this team going forward and one that Dwane Casey is not afraid to put full trust in.  He also became a much better defensive player under Casey.  Calderon may just retire here in Toronto and the fans, who have cheered and jeered him over the years, likely have no issue with him staying after the year he has had.

The Colangelo Factor

Raptors fans were subtlety reminded of the fact that they have one heck of a GM in Bryan Colangelo. Though his star is not nearly as bright as it once was in Toronto, Colangelo has positioned his team to be a player once again in 2012/13.  The steady GM has cleared cap space for his team and has drafted a number of strong young players to build around.  He’s also got all of his players signed to team friendly contracts meaning that they are very tradeable.

This kind of flexibility has given the Raptor faithful some hope for next year especially with the arrival of highly touted 2011 first round pick Jonas Valanciunas.  Jonas made Colangelo look even better this year by having a stellar year overseas and raising eyebrows with his strong play on both ends of the court in Lithuania.

Colangelo should also be credited with his very clever scouting of the D-league.  He brought over three players (Anderson, Uzoh, Dentmon) and  in the final two months of the season and all three played valuable minutes and showed they belong in the league.  Uzoh and Anderson may actually have a shot of sticking with the club next year.

No Raptor player, outside of maybe Bargnani, has been as often criticized as Jose Calderon. This season may have helped to prove all the negative voices wrong once and for all.

If that doesn’t prove to people that Colangelo has got some skill as an executive, then hopefully his off-season moves will.

 

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About the Author

Kristoffer Pedlar Kristoffer is an actor and writer in Toronto. He is a regular contributor to and co-creator of The Zan Tabak Herald a Basketball Blog dedicated to the Toronto Raptors.

Comments (6)

  1. Rapsfan

    “Raptors fans were subtlety reminded of the fact that they have one heck of a GM in Bryan Colangelo”

    couldn’t disagree more. This year reminded us just how self absorbed this teams GM is. Cancelled the rebuild before it started, has shown and unwillingness to accept his mistakes and is now going to sacrifice the Raptors long term future so he has a shot at a new contract next year.

    Colangelo did nothing for the last 2 years and called it a rebuild. The team was terrible both years. Thats not a rebuild… thats just a result of terrible management. Now he plans to make the playoffs next year? So the Raps can at best become first round losers for the next few years? Its a joke.

  2. RF – Really? What exactly would you have BC do last season in a strike-shortened season with no cap room? It was an ideal situation to see what was in the cupboard and then move forward this summer. Bargs showed flashes of being an all-star and DeRozan earned an invite to the USA Basketball game. If JV can be a solid player and they can add a few pieces via free agency, then Toronto has a nice trio to build around and a solid coach. I think that BC deserves credit for some of that…

  3. Rapsfan

    What would I have BC do? Trade Bargnani. Probably Derozan to. Look to add additional picks this coming draft. Actually rebuild a team instead of keeping it almost identical for years. The only changes were to the guys who were always expendable in the first place.

    Bargnani showed flashes of being an allstar? Sure, and not for the first time and also not for the last. He also showed flashes of being a complete and utter liability on the floor, and not for the first time and not for the last.

    Demar didn’t improve. Third year in the league now and has the exact same weaknesses he did his rookie year. I picture a Bargnanish future. ‘Maybe next year’, ‘if X or Y could just happen’, ‘he played well for periods’ yada yada yada.

    BC gets credit for a great selection of coach. But that wasn’t savy or difficult. Casey was a no brainer. He was the ‘superstar coach’ free agent this offseason… everyone and their mother wanted Casey.

    The trio to ‘build around’ is terrible. JV I have hopes for, but Bargnani and Demar are bench players or role players on good teams.

    BC is in a great spot right now to get this rebuild started. I’ll give him credit when its starts, until then he is aiming for mediocre to save his own ass. Thats not impressive.

  4. Trevor

    @ Rapsfan – I agree with you that Derozan has for the most part stagnated; he really didn’t improve in any particular area, other than raising his 3pt% from a horrid sub 10% to a still cringe worthy 26%… he still has a poor handle and no range, so his chances of becoming the lead wing on a contending team are slim because I think if he was going to develop in either category he would have done it by now (its not like the guy hasn’t been playing basketball since he was a little kid). HOWEVER, I don’t think you can write him off as a useless player, as he’s shown when used properly he can provide some effective play by running in the fast break, by coming off screens and getting open mid range jump shots (a range where he is effective), and when guys crowd his mid range game he is athletic enough to get to the line a bit. To say that Colangelo should have traded him last year is a bit premature, he was on the upswing after his sophomore year and it was worth seeing where his development went. So even though he didn’t light the world on fire, he can still be a contributing NBA wing if surrounded by players who offset his lack of range (i.e. They would need a 3 who can stretch the floor to justify his limitations… think of what RIP Hamilton used to be, just not as deadly a shooter but a more athletic version, that’s the best he’ll ever become).

    I vehemently disagree with your take on Bargnani, and this is coming from someone who used to bash him constantly. As poor a rebounder as he is, maybe the worst starting center in history, you can’t just move a guy who was borderline top-5 in scoring when you have nobody else on the roster who can score. If you think getting a middling lotto pick is an improvement over a 20+ ppg scorer who creates match up problems than you’re letting your blind hatred of his game get in the way of fair analysis. We managed to finish in the top 15 of most defensive categories even when he was on the floor, and the inclusion of a Center who can erase mistakes like Jonas V can should only further help mask his weaknesses. For all his Rebounding and weak side deficiencies, Bargs is really not a bad on-the-ball defender with enough size to not get bullied and enough length and quickness to challenge face up guys. Why he doesn’t use those same attributes to rebound is beyond me, but as with Demar, he is who he is and that is still a good piece to a winning team.

    In terms of the job Colangelo has done, I’m not going to say he’s been amazing, but he does have a GM of the year award to his name (which was well deserved) and he is one of the best GM’s at making under the radar acquisitions in my opinion. Where he has faltered are the big name additions he’s tried to make. Jermaine O’Neale was a total flop, and Hedo Turkoglu was overpaid and he brought a non-chalant attitude that should have never made anyone think it would help keep Chris Bosh. Despite these mistakes, he’s always acted quickly to remedy them. O’Neale was brought in for Marion and allowed Bargnani to get more minutes and begin to develop plus he helped at the 3 defensively in a front court that featured Bosh and Bargnani. He moved Marion as part of the Turkoglu sign and trade, but he quickly turned the Hedo mistake into Barbosa who was a great 6th man and not nearly the financial dead weight that Hedo was. We’re now cleared of all the salary issues that could have come with that Hedo contract, and are positioned with $12 mil in free agency, plus a lottery pick, plus Jonas V. Add that to a young mix of players including the likes of Bayless, James Johnson and Amir Johnson who were obtained for nearly nothing and toss in’s to other transactions. Are they all-stars? No. Are they young guys under 25 who all can get minutes in an 8-man rotation to a playoff NBA team? I sure as hell think so. The fact we didn’t go after the quick fix is why I think Colangelo can be given a break, because despite the losing he hasn’t strayed from the plan that you let these young guys grow to see what you have and then fill in the gaps responsibly as you go. Would you rather be Detroit and throw money at Charlie V and Ben Gordon just because you could? or how about trade be Charlotte and trade away Tyson Chandler for next to nothing just because?

    I’m cool with what we have right now, I think if the money is used correctly along with a shrewd draft choice that we can make the playoffs as a high seed, but the difference is that we’ll be a team filled with guys under 25 years old and who can legitimately improve together as the grow. We need an All-star level wing man (whether a 2 guard or Small forward) and it doesn’t matter if he comes via free agency or the draft, but once we secure that piece I believe the rest fits in VERY well and would allow us to take the next step.

  5. RapsFan – Trade Bargs? And get what in return? He’s got a relatively low contract and he has shown flashes. That means getting fair value via a trade is rough.

    I like the idea of trading DD… but again, what would you get? You could package DD with Davis or Bargs, but I don’t see that bringing a lot back.

    Casey may have been a no-brainer… but that means he had to sell Casey that Toronto was his ideal landing spot. That means BC deserves credit for that, right?

  6. Trevor – I’m curious to see what a summer working on his handle will do to DD’s game. But, like you said, his shooting scars me. His FG% had dipped each of the three years he has been in the NBA. Yuck!

    We see eye-to-eye on Bargs and BC. Great minds think alike, eh?

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