To be honest, I’ve been struggling with what to write this time around. After the playoffs ended, I knew that current material would dry up, or, at least, current material that I feel qualified to preach about, so I decided to stick with what I know: The Toronto Raptors. My issue was where to start. There’s so much about this team that frustrates, impresses and depresses me, that I hardly knew how to work it all out without it becoming a jumbled mess of capitalized letters and exclamation points.
Then, Steve Nash chose to join the Lakers.
I’m not going to write an article about Steve Nash, or about the Raptors pursuit of him, or anything really related to that saga. Why? Because it makes me nauseous. No, what I want to delve into has to do with what he, and other players that Bryan Colangelo is wooing, represent. And that would be a team identity.
And, for the record, this is going to fall pretty squarely into the “Things That Annoy Me” pile.
Look at any successful team, and try to identify what makes them better than the others. Some people might point to level of talent or experience, but on a more philosophical level, it boils down to the team identity. The players and coaches have established who they are, what they do, and how they play. Typically, this all stems from the team leader, or leaders, with the expectation that the other players would fall in line. On a successful team, the other players do. On an unsuccessful team, not so much.
The team leaders are typically promoted in the media as their big three. Take, for example, the San Antonio Spurs. Their leaders are Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. All older and more experienced players, who guide the team with a patient and organized style. Look at the Miami Heat, with James, Bosh and Wade: Aggressive, impressive and bold.
So simple enough formula: Identify team leaders, and the spirit of the team reveals itself.
Let’s look at the big three of the Raptors. We’ve got point guard Jose Calderon, shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, and power forward Andrea Bargnani.
I’m going to start with DeRozan, because he really does represent the core of Raptors right now. They’re a young team, with a solid chunk of their players being my age or younger (I’m 24). DeRozan is the face of the affectionately nicknamed Young Ones, and while youth is great, without experience and guidance, it doesn’t amount to much. You could have the biggest, baddest, fastest, coolest car on the planet, but without a steering wheel, you won’t get very far.
DeRozan is fantastically skilled. He’s one of those players who drives aggressively to the basket, and is well nigh unstoppable when he gets there. The issue is in getting him to do it. Far too often, he seems content to settle for jump shots, which still aren’t quite reliable, although he has been putting some work into them. Because of this reluctance to drive, his performance is still inconsistent. He either scores four, or goes off for 20+, and hasn’t seemed to make the correlation between Drive-Foul Shots-High Score. He still needs that bug in his ear, telling him not to just shoot, but to Drive! Drive! Drive!
Which is where Calderon comes in. It seems to me that he’s in an awfully awkward position. As point guard, he should be the natural leader within his team. While this isn’t always the case (see: Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic,) Calderon seems as good a candidate as any. He’s experienced, effective, and has a public persona that makes him fairly recognizable.
For example, after months of griping that I was commandeering the living room on game nights, my roommate looked at the TV from her laptop, frowned, and mumbled, “Calderon got a haircut.” My roommate was still at the point of referring to teams by color, and differentiating them by who I did and did not like. And yet, the only player that she recognized was Jose Calderon, of all people?
So he really does seem like an obvious choice for the face of the team, and yet it seems like Andrea Bargnani is being promoted as such.
This sounds a little bitter, but I am definitely not saying that Bargnani shouldn’t be leader. He’s a offensive powerhouse, a double threat with his shooting skill and ability to make uncanny baskets from awkward positions under the hoop. His mere presence on the court spreads the defense thinner, and opens up opportunities for everyone else. His own defensive drive has intensified this season, to the point where he was the only one protecting his own basket in a couple of situations.
The question is not “Should he be the leader?” but rather, does he want to be?
I can count on one hand the number of Andrea Bargnani interviews I’ve watched. He doesn’t use his social networking often, and when he does, I’m fairly certain it’s his staff. While he is a polarizing player, (I’ve argued about him more than I have any other player, including LeBron James) he doesn’t seem to have that connection with the public that his necessary when one his the show-horse of the team.
Now, I’m not an expert, nor do I have any real knowledge about the inner workings of the Toronto Raptors, but I do know a little bit about team dynamics, and I’m going to describe what I see. Calderon has the natural charisma and charm to represent a team well, but he is hesitant to do so because he isn’t in that position. DeRozan is still too young and inexperienced to do it, and his performance isn’t solid enough to back him up. Bargnani has this pressure to lead thrust upon him, but he’s more focused on his performance than his image. Which lands the Raptors with no true leader, no cohesive mandate, and no real identity.
What Steve Nash represented, more than skill and experience, was natural leadership, which is why his loss is so hard to swallow.
And what is the tangible consequence of a lack of identity? A lack of success. The Raptors have enough talent to be a contender. This past season, they beat the Boston Celtics and other playoff teams, they competed with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat, but were destroyed by the Charlotte Bobcats. Why? Because no one is setting the pace for them. They parrot the effort put forth by their opponents, but don’t have anyone to rely on to take them any further than that.
It reads into a lack of fluidity on the court, which undercuts their offense and negates their defense. No player really knows their role, which leads to a lot of scrambling and an atmosphere of disorganization and frustration that serves only to destroy their chances of being any good.
How can this be resolved, without the Raptors nation falling to their knees in supplication to the god of basketball, begging for some kind of miracle? Give the throne of public appearance to Calderon. Let him tell the story of the team, with Bargnani and DeRozan on either side. It would have a calming effect on the younger players, and allow the older, more experienced and effective players the freedom to play to their strengths. Let the team grow naturally, rather than hitching the wagon to their star and he can pull them all. Stop trying to be every other team and accept how they need to operate, given their own unique strengths and weaknesses.
And for the love of God, play some solid defence!