No Nash, No Problem

I, like many in Toronto, counted their chickens before they had hatched. Steve Nash is not coming home, he isn’t coming back to Canada, he isn’t even coming to the same time zone as us. Nash agreed to a 3 year $27 million contract with Kobe and the Lakers on Wednesday.

Raise your hand if you saw that coming…

Me neither.

One person did however, and that was Bryan Colangelo.

Less than 24 hours after losing out on Steve Nash and watching the phone lines at FAN590 and message boards all over the internet light up with calls for his head, Colangelo orchestrated a quick and effective move to fill the point guard position.

Acquiring Kyle Lowry will not have the same impact on merchandise sales or in the PR department as a Nash acquisition would have. At least not yet.

While Steve Nash is looked upon in Canada as an icon and a saviour for the franchise, Lowry may be the better long-term option for the Raptors.

Nash is 38 years old and could at any time break down. While I think that is unlikely he still is a little too long in the tooth to be a long-term option at the point for a very young Raptors team.

By comparison, Lowry is 12 years younger than Nash. He possesses strong defensive skills and gets to the rim frequently. He is also a very good rebounder for his position.

The Lowry acquisition may, in the end, work out better for the Raptors than Steve Nash would have, at least on the court.

Last year Lowry was instrumental in Houston’s rise back to prominence. He averaged 14.3 points per game and helped his teammates get involved with 6.6 assists per game. Those numbers climbed to 15.1 and 7.2 when he was appointed the starter. He was an integral piece in their late season surge that almost ended with a playoff berth.

Toronto fans will like his game. He takes the ball to the rim regularly and doesn’t settle for jump shots. He isn’t a ball hog and gets his teammates involved in the flow of the offense and is all over the court on the defensive end. He’s a hard worker that will likely have fans at the ACC standing in appreciation. He is a strong free throw shooter (86%) and can hit with consistency from 3-pt range (38%).

In many ways, Lowry is a much better fit for this young Raptors squad than Nash would have been. Makes you wonder why he was even available, but his relationship with coach Kevin McHale was tumultuous.

Lowry won’t have that problem here. Dwane Casey loves to preach defense and he will now have a strong defender at the top of the circle leading his team on both ends of the floor. Casey will likely put his trust in Lowry in a way McHale never did.

The icing on the cake with regard to Lowry is that he scheduled to make $5.75 million this year and $6.21 the next. That is a fraction of what the Raptors would have had to pay to get Nash to sign on the dotted line. The Raptors now still have money and assets to go out and acquire another player.

Perhaps not landing Nash was a blessing in disguise.

For the many who were calling for Colangelo’s head after the Fields signing and the Nash debacle, things now appear to be a bit brighter.

Colangelo, like he has done many times as GM of this franchise, took a punch and quickly responded. Plan B may actually turn out to be better than Plan A.

Fans in Toronto need to learn to wait until all the dust has settled before they snap to judgement. Colangelo has been around a long time and is not one of the more respected GM’s in the league for nothing. The Lowry deal proves Colangelo is a valuable asset in charge of this franchise.

In the end, the success or failure of these off-season moves cannot be accurately judged until the Raptors get on the court in the fall. But Dwane Casey did a phenomenal job with lesser talent last year. Fans wanted to see what he could do with an improved roster. Adding Landry Fields and Kyle Lowry is certainly an upgrade.

Looking forward to seeing what Casey can do with his new talent and what moves Colangelo still has up his sleeve.

Calderon May Be The Odd Man Out

This offseason is going to be a big one for the Toronto Raptors.

First and foremost, they are coming off a 23-43 season that saw lots of positive steps forward, but not enough to avoid missing the playoffs for another year. The Raptors need to take the next step forward.

They have money to spend and tradeable assets that could net them a talented young player or two on the open market. Most importantly, though, is that Bryan Colangelo is entering the final year of his contract extension and needs this team to make significant strides forward if he hopes to return to his current post.

With all of these factors in place, it is no surprise that the Raptors have been linked to all kinds of players already this offseason. Steve Nash, Kyle Lowry, Jeremy Lin, Goran Dragic, Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala and Nicolas Batum are just a few names that have popped up on blogs and message boards over the last few weeks.

Jose Calderon will be front and centre this offseason as the Toronto Raptors try to rebuild their franchise.

While any and all of those players would be welcome additions, it does beg make me wonder about some of the guys we already have. With many point guards appearing on the list of players the Raptors are linked to, one has to wonder where, if at all, Jose Calderon fits into the Raptors future.

Mind you, Calderon is a very humble player and has happily embraced a backup role when asked by his team in the past. But one has to figure with a Nash or a Lowry in the fold, Calderon may have seen his last game in Raptor red. Such a thing is almost unimaginable. He is the longest-serving Raptor, a fan favourite (for the most part) and is coming off of one of his most important seasons yet. This season he raised his game (10.5 points, 8.8 assists in 34 minutes per game) and became a leader in the locker room. He also became a different player under the watchful eye of Dwane Casey.

Casey is widely credited with finding a way to make Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki fit into a successful defensive system. He was asked to do the same with Calderon, who was thought by many to be one of the worst defenders in the league. This season Casey helped Caldeorn adjust to a new defensive system and minimized those defensive miscues that had Raptor fans calling for Calderon’s head a couple of years ago.

Casey trusts Calderon with the team on both ends of the floor which is evidenced by the number of minutes Calderon played this year. He gave everything he had on the floor and led the team by example throughout the entire year.

Calderon showed marked improvement across the board and worked hard on his defensive game under coach Casey. He became the leader of the Raptors team this year.

So, if Calderon plays a key role on the team, is coming off one of his better years as a pro, has taken to Casey’s defensive system, and the fans love him, why then are we looking for point guards? Obviously the talent and allure of a Steve Nash or Jeremy Lin is too much to pass up if you are Colangelo. And Calderon provides a host of other possibilities for the Raptors boss.

Calderon could become part of a point guard tandem, something that certainly is not unfamiliar to him. He broke into the Raptors starting five by battling TJ Ford for the starting point guard spot in 2007. That tandem, colourfully called “Forderon” by many, was not as successful as the Raptors had hoped. Calderon was solid in a starting role, but Ford couldn’t handle what he saw as a demotion and the whole experiment crumbled.

Calderon and Jerryd Bayless were not able to find harmony either as a tandem this past season. Bayless, like Ford, was only able to raise the level of his game as a starter despite the fact his skill set appears more suited to coming off the bench. In both instances, Calderon eventually returned to the starting lineup.

To his credit, Calderon has shown a willingness to step aside and let others contribute. Bayless had a pretty solid stretch of games, where he looked like the heir apparent and Calderon stepped aside without incident or noise.

Can he do the same if the Raptors acquire a Steve Nash, Jeremy Lin or Kyle Lowry? Would he be okay sharing the time? Would the team benefit from having two point guards of different abilities on the court? I mean, we’ve already seen this story, right?

Calderon is a Ying to most Point guards’ Yangs. So while a Nash or Lowry might push the tempo up and take larger risks, the Raptors can always depend on Calderon to come in and slow things down and play it safe when need be. This is something he has been one of the best in the NBA at over the last few years. Assist to turnover ratio is one of the beacons of light from Calderon’s stat line every year. He provides a good contrast to the younger, flashier point guards the Raptors appear to be targeting.

He could also be a great teacher and veteran presence to a young point guard like Jeremy Lin or Kyle Lowry. He could help them develop ways to protect the ball, teach them when and how to play in control and would provide that veteran presence off the bench when the younger point guards make the mistakes that young point guards do. Or provide extended backup minutes to allow the aging Nash to rest.

The only issue with this creating a tandem is Calderon’s large contract. Calderon will be paid $10.5 million this season in the final year of his contract. That’s an awful lot of money to be paying a backup point guard. It’s also a lot of money coming off the books at the end of the year and, thus could be very appealing trade bait for another team with a small forward or a shooting guard to spare. It wasn’t long ago that Calderon’s contract was considered one of the worst in the association, but now it is gaining popularity with each passing month and may be worth packaging with a draft pick or even keeping until the deadline.

Calderon, then, presents a conundrum for Colangelo. He has value if he stays and a lot of potential value in a trade. What is the Raptors boss to do with the popular point guard? If a Calderon package (with a draft pick and Ed Davis) could attract a top flight shooting guard or small forward, then the decision to move Calderon becomes more logical. His value may never be higher than this year because of the 10.5 million coming off the books, and the opportunity to acquire an Iguodala, Batum or Rudy Gay may be too tempting to pass up.

Be assured that the point guard position appears to be one of the first areas Colangelo intends to address when he is finally able to start (officially) making changes to the roster on July 1st. No matter what happens for the Raptors this offseason, Calderon is sure to be right in the middle of the action.

It is also assured that whether he ultimately stays or goes, “Numero Ocho” will be a big factor in the Raptors’ next step forward.

Toronto’s Offseason Starting To Take Shape

It has been an intriguing offseason thus far for the Toronto Raptors, that is to be sure. They haven’t even done anything yet and there has already been plenty of chatter surrounding the team and potential free agent signings since the day the season ended. Whether these rumours are based in truth or conjecture remains to be seen. Regardless of the eventual results, people are talking about the Raptors and fans are getting excited.

I’m not one to get caught up in rumours, but these rumours seem to have some weight to them and all of them could change the course of the Raptors hopes for next season as well as the long-term status of GM Bryan Colangelo, who has one year remaining on his contract.

First came the Steve Nash rumours. Now Steve Nash rumours are nothing new around these parts. He’s Canada’s greatest basketball talent ever and would look fantastic playing for Canada’s only basketball team. Over the years Toronto has heard lots about Nash coming to town, but there wasn’t really any way to get a deal like that done. But now the “Nash to Toronto” rumours have a certain weight to them.

He’s long been rumoured to be leaving the Phoenix Suns after this year and his recent appointment as President and General Manager of Canada’s Mens National Team would seem to indicate he wouldn’t mind spending more time closer to his homeland.

A Steve Nash arrival in Toronto would mean improved play on the offensive end and a whole lot of jerseys being sold at the ACC.

Nash would fit in swimmingly here in Toronto, despite the fact Jose Calderon already occupies the starting point guard spot. Calderon has been quite willing and ready to share time whenever necessary and the depth at point guard could give the Raptors a leg up on competition in the Atlantic division. Calderon seems better suited to the backup role anyway and could become valuable trade bait down the road with a large expiring contract.

The Nash rumours also have weight as his former Canadian National team coach, Jay Triano, is employed by the Raptors and Bryan Colangelo, the GM that drafted and then re-acquired Nash in Phoenix is currently the Raptors President and GM.

Nash has a knack for bringing the very best out of his teammates. Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudamire, Channing Frye, Jason Richardson all owe much of their success (and large pay cheques) to the point guard that gave them the ball.

Nash has always put himself second and his team first. His teammates were the beneficiaries on and off the court. How much could a point guard like Nash improve Andrea Bargnani’s game? or DeMar DeRozan’s? Makes you wonder.

Nash makes good players great. He brings the best out of his teammates and could certainly benefit some of the underachieving Raptor players.

Nash would therefore seem to be a perfect fit in Toronto. Unless, of course Jeremy Lin is. Lin is a restricted free agent and there are now reports from a host of sources claiming the Raptors will be very much in the mix for his services, should the Knicks decide to let him go.

Lin is much younger than Nash, could be cheaper and may fit better into the core that is developing in Toronto.

Jeremy Lin is a rumoured Raptor target this offseason. His acquisition could be the spark this young Raptor team needs.

He is a restricted free agent, so how much stalk can we put into these Lin to Toronto rumours? It is very possible that the Knicks get out-priced for his services. Lin is not a player that has been around long and therefore may not have earned the lucrative deal he seeks in the eyes of NBA GM’s. His stats are good, but the sample size is small, and he was never really able to mesh with franchise player Carmelo Anthony suggesting he may need to be a number one option.

Lin, who missed the Knicks’ run to the playoffs, could be the odd man out in New York, making him very much available to Toronto. A move for Lin would be very reminiscent of Colangelo’s other signing of a young point guard that changed his Phoenix Suns back in 2004. That, of course being, Steve Nash.

Lin has shown he can be a game changer, a superstar, a go-to guy. At the point guard position that is simply something the Raptors have never had.

It is clear that Lin’s stats are a small sample size and his median numbers are not nearly as good as his 2011/12 stats, but he could be worth the risk.

He is explosive and can certainly shoot the ball with confidence. He can drive the net and get his teammates involved in the offense. His defensive ability is weak but his deficiencies could be fit into Dwane Casey’s system. If Calderon worked out, Lin likely could too.

He would also become a big fan favourite here in Toronto, a city with a large Asian fan base. It could be a big marketing opportunity that the new owners at Rogers and Bell, simply cannot pass up.

Still, the odds of landing Lin rest in the hands of Glen Grunwald and the New York Knicks and what they are attempting to do this offseason. The Knicks maintain the right to match any offers the young point guard gets, meaning the Raptors will likely have to overpay to get him.

Lin presents an interesting option for the Raptors, but one that they ultimately don’t have complete control over.

Then there are the murmurs about Nicolas Batum. Now, none of these rumours are anything but pure and utter speculation, but he would fit very nicely into the Raptors lineup. A small forward with that kind of ability has alluded the Raptors since the days of Tracy McGrady. Batum would instantly become one of the best small forwards the franchise has ever seen. A great fit for the short and long-term. Plus his European background would be a plus in the locker room. He certainly won’t be cheap and the Blazers are very unlikely to let him go for nothing. Expect the Blazers to match everything and anything for Batum and then work out a trade with a team if they have to.

If the Raptors are serious about acquiring Batum, which they should be in my opinion, then they are going to have to put together a trade package that will make it happen. That is much more difficult than just signing a player, but if anyone knows how to work out a complicated off-season trade it’s Colangelo.

So despite the fact the Playoffs are going on without the Raptors, there is plenty for a fan to sit and ponder. This summer will be another chapter in the remaking of this Raptors team and it is exciting to imagine the possibilities. So far three of the most solid offseason rumours would offer the Raptors definite upgrades in talent at two key positions. All three rumoured acquisitions are big name players that would raise the talent level and profile of basketball in Toronto.

Like most Raptor fans, I can’t wait to see what happens on July first. Judging from the early offseason rumours, it is likely to be one of the more exciting ones yet.

Evans Is Leaving His Mark In Los Angeles

Every year there is a player or two that step out of obscurity to become a big part of their teams’ success in the playoffs.

For every Michael Jordan there is a Steve Kerr, for every Dirk Nowitzki there is a Tyson Chandler or Ian Mahimi, for every Kobe Bryant there is a Sasha Vujacic. A player that contributes more in a playoff setting then they may have during the regular season.

For the Clippers this year that player appears to be Reggie Evans.

He’s a banger.  He grabs rebounds he has no business getting, makes himself a pain in the rear on the defensive end and moves around the floor grabbing loose balls and missed shots like he isn’t 250 pounds.

Raptor fans know how valuable Reggie Evans can be to a team, and now the rest of the NBA is now getting a chance to see it as well as he has been a difference maker so far in the playoffs.

Evans is a game changer, an X-factor and in a series as evenly matched as Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Clippers, he might just be the difference maker in this series. A player that tips the scales in his Clippers favor.

Evans has been putting together a nice run in the postseason.  He’s increased his minutes to 22.6 per game and he’s chipping in with 8.7 boards while shooting 50% from the field.  This from a player that averaged 5 rebounds in 13 minutes during the regular season.

His sudden playoff turnaround has come as a major shock south of the border.

Of course, while the rest of the US have been amazed with Evans’ sudden good play, the Raptor faithful in Toronto aren’t surprised at all.  That’s just how he always played the game while he was here. During his two years in Toronto he made himself a fan favorite with his endless effort.  Raptor fans weren’t used to seeing a player haul down rebounds on a regular and consistent basis.  He did.  He earned himself a starting spot during the 2010-11 season mainly because of his rebounding prowess.

Fans here couldn’t get enough of his effort.  He wasn’t a shooter or a flashy player , by any stretch of the imagination, but no player endeared himself to the fans more than Evans.

In fact, on a number of occasions during his time playing on the court and before he came back from injury in 2009 the fans at the ACC regularly chanted “Reg-gie, Reg-gie.” It now seems to be catching on in Los Angeles.

This year he found himself in LA playing a much less important role.  He didn’t get much time and was only able to make a marginal difference with 4.5 rebounds in limited minutes. He played off the bench behind Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and eventually Kenyon Martin, too.  He had to make the most of his minutes and, for the most part, he did.  He was the same hardworking player he was in Toronto but the results weren’t as noticeable on the court as they were the year before.

That is, until now.

The playoffs have been a totally different story and it seems like Reggie Evans was built for this time of year.  In the NBA playoffs players with his skill set become king.  Look at how Tyson Chandler exploded last year or how important Joel Anthony was during the Heats’ run last year.  Reggie Evans can be a difference maker in this series.  He may even become a difference maker in the playoffs in general if the Clippers are fortunate to make it beyond Game 7 in Memphis on Sunday.

Then again, Raptor fans already know how valuable Evans can be.  We had him for two years and were fortunate to watch him beat up opposing offenses.  Now while the Raptors prepare for an important offseason fans can sit back and enjoy watching Reggie get up to his old antics.

Hopefully we will get to see a little more after Sunday.

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.