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.

 

No Rest For Davis This Summer

Ed Davis continues to show flashes of potential as his sophomore season in the NBA winds down, but the summer break won’t be the time for the young big man to take it easy.

Instead, his head coach would love to see him take a quick break after the season wraps up and then attack this offseason with vigour.

“He has got to go into the summer as soon as the season is over with and not take a month off,” Dwane Casey said of Davis over the weekend. “Our young guys are not 10- or 12-year vets who need a month to rest their bodies. He might need to take a few days off to recharge, but then he has to get right back into the gym and the weight room because we are going to be finished a lot quicker than these playoff teams so we are going to have a head start working with guys.”

Instead of fighting this idea, it appears Davis is onboard with the notion of dedicating his summer to working out and improving his game, far from the glare of the media or fans.

Kudos to Davis for being quick to admit he won’t have the luxury of taking a long vacation and embracing the offseason of hard work because I know I wouldn’t be excited about spending a five-month break from my job sweating through grueling workouts in empty gyms.

“It’s going to be real big,” Davis admitted when I asked him about how important this summer is to his development. “Once the season is over I’m going to take a week or two off, but after that I’m going to get right back at it. It’s a big offseason for me and I plan on taking advantage of it. To get stronger is my main goal. I need to put on some weight and muscle mass to be ready for next year.”

Davis has posted modest averages of 6.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game over his first two NBA seasons. Not bad numbers, but not great either. Clearly there’s plenty of room for growth in the 6-10 forward’s game.

Besides needing to add some extra pounds on his still-somewhat wiry frame, what many feel has hampered Davis’ adjustment to the NBA is the fact he has yet to have the benefit of a summer working directly with an NBA coaching staff. Davis had a wrist injury that prevented him from being able to develop his game prior to his rookie season. Last summer of course, the NBA lockout prevented Casey and the Raptors from working with him.

The inability to receive full instruction either summer clearly isn’t an ideal situation for any young player.

“We couldn’t touch him last summer due to the lockout and then we only had two weeks of training camp,” Casey lamented. “So basically, he hasn’t had a real, true NBA training camp. This summer and going into training camp are going to be big for him.”

What are the goals for this summer for Davis now that he will have full access to Toronto’s coaching staff?

Hitting the weight room and working on his free throws — not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but pivotal to him being able to bang down low against some of the larger post players in the NBA.

“This summer is going to be huge for him in regards to getting stronger in the weight room,” Casey explained. “He needs to get bigger. He needs to put the power into that power forward.”

Granted, this offseason is key in Davis development, but the coaching staff has taken noticed of his growth over the past few weeks.

“He has made a lot of progress the last two or three weeks,” Casey pointed out. “There’s a pep in his step. Offensively, he has a good feel. He’s got a nice little stroke on his jump shot. His free throws still need a lot of work, but coach Davis has been working a lot with him individually after practice. He has kind of put him under his arm. He has been doing it all year, but a little bit extra these last few weeks. Ed has responded and I’m really happy to see that.”

While Davis is shooting a high percentage from the field, there have been no delusions about his touch on the offensive end so far during his NBA career. Thanks to working with assistant coach Johnny Davis, he is finally able to refine his touch on the offensive end.

“It’s helping me out a lot just working on go-to moves,” the Raptors forward explained. “We’ve also worked on a couple of countermoves. By working with (Johnny Davis) it’s going to help me continue to get better on the offensive end. Working with him is (clearly) helping my game.”

Still, just because Davis has shown glimpses over the final few games of this season, it doesn’t mean he can take it easy once the season ends. Hopefully he is able to stick with the vision the coaches have for him so that he can have a big impact on the Raptors next season. While far from glorious or enjoyable, a summer of working hard in the gym is just what Davis needs his help his game progress to the next level.

Toronto Won’t Roll Over

Nobody in the Toronto Raptors’ locker room is buying into the idea of tanking games this season.

In fact, before the game against Washington, Dwane Casey fell into a foul mood when the term “Take Nation” was brought up.

“I despise it,” Casey spat out through gritted teeth when I asked him about the term Tank Nation. “I despise even talking about it because that’s just against my nature. It’s just against everything I stand for. I understand that fans want that and hear that, but again, my job is to develop this program. You don’t develop a program by tanking games. Hell, it’s hard enough to go in trying to win. My job is to develop learning how to win and we have a big enough problem doing that.”

Granted, the head coach of an NBA team could never admit to tanking, but it’s clear from dealing with him this season that neither he or his players are willing to throw in the proverbial towel. Close loses against Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago where they fought to the final buzzer attest to that fact the team isn’t giving up on the season.

Not only that, but the Raptors are on the cusp of putting together all of the lessons that Casey has been trying to instill this season.

“It’s frustrating for us and I’m sure for the players because they hear the same things in film sessions the next day,” Casey explained to the media Sunday afternoon. “We go through these things when we do have the chance to practice. Again, I keep telling people, the only way for you to learn that is for guys to go through that. I watch Oklahoma City and I saw them go through the same growing pains. (Kevin) Durant making mistakes. (Russell) Westbrook making mistakes. Today they looked like a well-oiled machine.”

While the growth has been great to see, the players and coaches are no longer content with moral victories. After tasting some success this season, they’re craving wins.

A terse Casey summed up this sentiment when he vented to the media after the loss on Friday to Miami that, “I’m not here to play close.”

The problem is fans have struggled through watching the losses pile up and they are searching for a ray of optimism in an otherwise bleak season.

The combination of a season full of tough losses and a recent article by Henry Abbott on tanking helped inspire the term Tank Nation to gain momentum among Raptors’ fans on twitter.

Fueling this line of thinking is the reality that Toronto has a realistic chance of securing the top pick in the upcoming draft. The last time the team with the worst regular season record has “earned” the top pick in the NBA draft was 2004.

In fact, there has only been three times since the inception of the NBA Draft Lottery in 1985 when the team with the worst record in the NBA secured the top pick in the draft. New Jersey in 1990, Cleveland in 2003 and Orlando in 2004.

This has fans salivating at the chance of Toronto securing a top three pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.

While it’s easy to see how fans might clamor for losses down the stretch of a lost season so that the team can earn more lottery balls, the reality of the situation, however, is that the Raptors don’t want any part of tanking games. Everybody involved with the team has too much at stake, whether it’s playing time or a role with the team in the future.

“The only system I understand is to go out and win,” Casey told the media Sunday afternoon. “We struggled some in Seattle. We built, but we didn’t do it by trying to get ping-pong balls. We did it by trying to win, develop our guys and learn how to win. For us, I think that’s our biggest bugaboo is getting to certain situations. We execute great, do a great job defensively and then there’s a stretch where things fall apart. When you’re playing against great teams there can’t be mental breakdowns. You can’t forget to screen or forget to cut or rotate. We can point to certain points in games that really break our backs.”

Losing games have been tough on players, coaches and fans, but the idea of tanking isn’t something that relates to the Raptors. From the onset of the season, the front office and coaching staff were upfront and honest about the need to be patient with this team because this was a rebuilding season where young players would have the chance to learn from their mistakes. All Raptors fans can hope of is that all of these lessons start to pay off sooner rather than later.

A little luck in the NBA Draft lottery wouldn’t be a bad thing, either. Just don’t expect the Raptors to dog it in games to enhance the odds of that happening.

Bayless Gives Toronto A Boost

Just last week I was chatting with some other members of the media who cover the Raptors about how Toronto would limp through any games they were forced to play without Jose Calderon.

Sure, the lose of Andrea Bargnani was tough, but the reality is Calderon does such a great job running the offence that his loss would be a tough one to swallow for the Raptors.

Well, with the Spaniard limping through Toronto’s locker room prior to the game in a walking cast, it looked like the worst fears of Raptors fans were about to become a reality.

I guess Jerryd Bayless didn’t get that memo.

Toronto raced out to a 14-8 lead thanks to the infusion of energy Bayless provided the starting five. Bayless went 2-3 from the field during that stretch while scoring four points while dishing out three assists and getting a steal in his first six minutes of burn.

Watching the game unfold it was easy to be impressed with Bayless in the first half. Toronto finished the first half shooting 54% from the field (24-44) and had an impressive 16 assists on 24 field goals which helped Toronto go into halftime with a 56-51 lead.

In the second half, however, they only had six assists as a team.

“The point I made about Jerryd (Bayless) is you need to make sure you see people as they are coming off the screen and they are ready to shoot,” Casey explained. “It’s timing. Andrea (Bargnani) is a little rusty coming off of screens, catching the ball, handling the ball. All of those things put together with Jerry in a new situation because usually he has the ball in an agitated situation where he is able to attack and pick-and-roll and kind of look for his with the second unit. With the first unit he has the job of getting everybody involved and that’s a new endeavour for him.”

Even though there was some noticeable growing pains, there was plenty of positives like his six assists and only one turnover.

Bayless also scored 16 points while hounding Jennings into one of his worst shooting games of the season.

“I thought Jerryd (Bayless) did a much better job or running the point guard position,” Casey raved. “It’s a difficult thing to get everybody else involved. His job, and his gift, is attacking the basket and scoring himself, but one thing he has got to learn to do himself – and he’s doing a better job of it – is involving other people, feeding Andrea (Bargnani) and seeing other guys on the roll. On one pick-and-roll he made a nice little pass to Amir (Johnson) who was rolling to the bucket. Those are the kinds of things we need to have out of him.”

While the loss was tough to swallow, the fact Bayless was able to run the offense while getting open looks for himself and his teammates had to be an encouraging thing for the coaching staff to see.

Plus, the team didn’t flatline with Calderon out of the line-up like many people predicted. That’s got to be worth something, right?