Raptors Learning About Chemistry 101

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.

Oops.

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.

It’s A Ref’s World

Last season, my boys team played a game against a weaker squad. They had all of one decent player and a short bench, with no experience, and I was geared up for a massacre.

Then, the referees walked in.

Now, these two refs, for whatever reason, don’t like me. It’s gotten to the point where they’ve been overheard saying that they would deliberately call the game so my team would lose.

The other team ran four feet out of bounds, with the ball – No call.

They two-handed shoved one of my players down – No call.

My players got hammered, dragged down, hit, Metta-World-Peaced under the basket – No call.

We lost by three.

So afterwards, after I’d calmed down enough to make words, I filed a complaint. The response: “I’ll be sure to forward this to the referee’s association so the pair in question can be warned.”

About the game? “The game is finished, the final score stands.”

Referees make mistakes. Point proven by the announcement from the NBA that there was an error at the end of the game between the Charlotte Bobcats and the Toronto Raptors, that Andrea Bargnani had indeed been fouled, and that he should have shot two free throws. The final score was 98-97 for the Bobcats, and needless to say, the Raptors Nation was incensed.

Honestly though, I’m really not here to rant about how terrible refs are, how they’re out to get (insert team name here). All I know is that there’s a problem, and I think we should all just talk it out.

I think it’s safe to say that sports fans and officials have a pretty messy relationship. At any level, referees are the black sheep of the athletic family. And it’s gotten serious: Look at cases of youth coaches being charged for assaulting officials after games. This is the culture that is being taught to young people, who are not only today’s fans, but tomorrow’s stars. Is this where we want organized sports to end up?

So, folks, it’s time to heal. Let’s pull up the therapists couch and go.

The first step here is to realize that referees are only human. They have eyes and ears like the rest of us. Much as we (and they) would love for them to have 360° x-ray vision, it just isn’t possible. They see what they see, and they make the call to the best of their abilities. Guaranteed, there is not one official who hasn’t had extensive training, especially at the elite levels.

Not only are they super-knowledgeable about the rules, but they look at the game differently. I sometimes ref scrimmages, and my own players get so annoyed because I miss a ton of calls. Why? I watch as a coach. There’s a huge difference, and honestly, watching as a referee is a lot less fun.

This isn’t to say that they don’t make mistakes. As I said above, they’re only human. They see what they see, and they do the best they can.

Another reason why the ref-hate gets to me is that, at the end of the day, a team’s abilities has nothing to do with the officiating. I coached a very rough game against a team of young women who were built like gorillas. My teeny little guards just couldn’t compete. They came off the court, ranting about the referees, but really, they were just outmatched. (We lost by about twenty points.)

Referees have nothing to do with the fact that your team has a defensive breakdown, or isn’t hitting their free-throws.

Now, when you have a game like the Raptors one point loss, or my own three point defeat, the officiating becomes quite a bit more significant. And that, in itself, is frustrating because, really, we don’t play so the officials can determine the outcome. If that’s what I wanted, I would have continued figure skating. (Not that I’m knocking figure skating, but truly, apples and oranges.)

So referees, in spit of their best efforts, do make mistakes. And what are we supposed to do about that? Obviously, the NBA is keeping an eye on the situation, but it’s a little late now. They can’t very well bring both teams back to play an extra 20 seconds, now can they?

They already allow for replays; should there be a fourth official watching the cameras? I know it may seem a little extravagant, but rather than having an announcement the next day, it could make a difference when it counts.

Although that kind of proposal comes with its own flaws: Do they have the power to make an independent call, or simply review the ones already made? Is it at the coach’s, or the referee’s, discretion whether to turn to this fourth official? How much authority would they have? It would be an added expense, and I honestly don’t see it as being feasible. It becomes an issue of limits, like getting a toad to catch a fly, and a cat to catch the toad, and a bear to catch the cat.

Much the same as my ranting about flopping and fouling from last season, I don’t have an answer, only an opinion. Referee mistakes, innocently made, cheapens the effort put out by the athletes, and leaves a bitter taste for fans. There needs to be a productive way to deal with them as they happen, rather than a belated-mea culpa.

How about a rock-paper-scissors for the win?

An end-note: Back to my boys game from the start, we ended up facing that team again in playoffs, and won by 21 points. I think that says enough about the officiating problem.

For those of you who believe that the officiating is fixed anyways, feel free to bring on your comments below.

Toronto Raptors: Playing To Lose

Back in July, I’d written a piece on the Toronto Raptors, or, more specifically, the team’s identity issues. The gist of it was that, due to a lack of cohesive leadership, there was no real direction for the Raptors, no one to set the pace, and thus, no way for them to truly succeed.

A lot has been said already about how the team has been doing. They are currently 2-6, a dismal statistic to see, and one that many people are taking to mean that, in spite of all the preseason hype, it really is just business as usual for the poor Toronto Raptors.

They couldn’t be more wrong. And I’ll tell you why.

Let’s look at the roster. We’ve got a pretty solid group of returning players, and an equally large number of new faces. Anytime that a team has to integrate a slew of new players, there will be an adjustment period. Look at the Lakers, who are stacked with superstars and started with the worst record in the West! The only team that seems to be bucking this assumption is the Dallas Mavericks, who hardly have any recognizable faces left!

Of all the new Raptors, let’s take a moment here to really examine two: Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Lowry.

Let’s be realistic: For the past year, JV’s arrival has been treated like the second coming. Daily updates, documentaries, coaches sent overseas to start his training. All that hype… Deep down, we had to have known that he couldn’t possibly live up to it.

Except he kind of has.

Going from any other league to the NBA is a huge adjustment. Rules are different, play is faster, intensity is heightened. And during the first game against the Indiana Pacers, when Jonas had to go toe-to-toe with Roy Hibbert, everyone saw very clearly how much the kid had to learn. What no one anticipated was just how fast he’d pick it up! Already, he’s adjusted his defence to be tougher while fouling less, he’s found his groove scoring, and he’s becoming more productive on the glass.

(The only thing he still hasn’t improved is setting a decent screen.)

From game to game, he’s learning at an exponential rate. Check out the second meeting between the Raptors and the Pacers. Valanciunas was, once again, going up against Roy Hibbert. The difference was incredible. The rookie played like the pro that he needs to be, holding Hibbert to only six points, JV scored nine. In their first match-up, Hibbert had had fourteen points.

Seems the hype was pretty legit, after all!

Now, let’s go back to the article I was referring to earlier, in which I had lamented the lack of a team identity. I had pointed out that, quite often, the pace is set by the point guard. And boy, has that ever proven true with the arrival of Kyle Lowry. For the few games before he was injured, he invigorated the defence, seemed to be psychically linked to DeMar DeRozan, and was well nigh unstoppable on offence. Even when he wasn’t on the court, he had set a tone that everyone else followed.

With Lowry, the Raptors are quick, aggressive and don’t give up. Even with him injured, they have battled back from large deficits to finish with a respectable score. They are becoming scrappy fighters, and once they hit their stride, they are calm, cool and collected.

The Raptors have, for a few years, been a very young team, based on the core trio of DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Ed Davis. It’s impossible to ignore the way that DeRozan has stepped up, finally growing into the consistent and reliable scorer that he’s always needed to be.

I was asked, recently, why that is. Look at last season, and who the big stars of the Raptors were: Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani. Both older and more established players, with different styles compared to the younger DeMar. This year, with the arrival of Lowry (who is, really, only a year younger than Bargnani), whose up-tempo style fits better with DeRozan’s speed and drive, as well as the influx of rookies, DeMar seems more comfortable, playing to his strengths, rather than everyone else’s. He’s driving hard, settling less for jump shots, and seems more comfortable in general.

That’s not to say that he’s the only player who has stepped up. Ed Davis has quietly changed, becoming more effective at either end. He’s worked hard for it, too, having played summer league, and spending time in the weight room, bulking up to face off better against his low-post opponents. And the fact that he’s finally gone through a full training camp with the Raptors, probably hasn’t hurt either.

His efforts haven’t resulted in the same explosive success as DeMar, but it is visible. Last season, if he’d pulled down an offensive rebound, he would have had very little chance of putting it back up, due to lack of upper body strength. This season? No problem. He’s powering through everyone!

Even Amir Johnson is stepping out of his comfort zone, playing further and further from the basket, chancing jump shots more often, and becoming more agile defensively, stealing the ball from outside the three point line to result in a fast break play.

Finally, take a look at the veterans. While Andrea Bargnani is still not back to his pre-calf strain self, Jose Calderon has had no problem picking up the slack. In the games when Lowry was starting point, Calderon was finally free to take on a role that he’d experimented with last season with Jerryd Bayless: scoring guard.

Jose’s style as point guard has always been more as a facilitator than a scorer, and now, without that burden weighing him down, he’s free to prove himself as a stone-cold shooter, capable, when given the opportunity, to take that final shot, and drain it.

All that to say that, no, this is not the same old team. So why, then do they seem like it?

The problem with the Raptors game play has always been mental. They lead going into the fourth quarter, and when the opposing team puts up a concentrated (and not unexpected) effort, the Raptors balk, falling apart in the face of a true, intense will to win.

In early games, the problem wasn’t the fourth quarter so much as the first, and that can be blamed on lack of chemistry. They really have been pushing, physically, mentally, emotionally, to get the W.

A new issue has risen, and now that I’ve noticed it, it’s driving me nuts.

In the gruelling, bitterly fought, triple overtime game against the Utah Jazz, nearing the end of the game (around the second overtime), Dwane Casey went small. Granted, Amir Johnson and Linas Kleiza had both fouled out, but there was still plenty of size on that bench.

Why did he go small? Because Utah was small.

This is the exact issue of “parroting” other teams that the Raptors had so many problems with last season! Only now, it’s at the coaching level! Instead of planting a flag, on home court no less, putting in Ed Davis and Jonas Valanciunas, making Utah play catch up, they let the other team get the upper hand. And the Jazz won.

The lesson here is this: No matter how much talent you have, if you aren’t accustomed to winning, it’s very difficult to train yourself to play to when. The Raptors have taken some steps toward becoming a successful squad, and now they need to believe that that’s what they are: Successful.

Thankfully, in the following game against Indiana, the Raptors played their game their way, played like they knew they would win, and they did, in spite of scoring only five points in the fourth quarter.

Honestly, to see the true change in the team, see their performance against the Pacers. Aside from taking control, when Indiana came out strong in the fourth, the Raptors didn’t lay down and die. Where last season, they would have given up, this time around, they pushed back.

And boy, does that ever feel good.

Agree? Disagree? Comment below.