Sunday, March 27, 2011

SPORTS: Come Fall, What May The Raptors Look Like?

Well, the easiest answer is ... like too many of us, unemployed. Certainly a work stoppage does threaten the NBA. Which might or might not be a bad thing for the Toronto Raptors.

The new landscape come fall (or whenever) might turn Toronto's pending salary landfall into a bonanza. The Raps will be under the cap and have some pieces that might combine with just the right incoming talent to become a middle of the Eastern Conference pack team. Or it could be the start of another long year in T.O.

Mitch Lawrence in the New York Daily news opined that the Raptors could very well be open to dealing Andrea Bargnani this off-season, would replace head coach Jay Triano with Mike D'Antoni if given the opportunity and will eventually build around DeMar DeRozan and rookie Ed Davis. Well, to all of that, I say 'Yuck!'

I'm pretty disappointed in Bargnani. He's shown the offence I knew he had. He's 15th in the league in scoring, basically replacing Chris Bosh as the scorer on a losing team that gets numbers, not all of which are important to the central task of winning. I've never been ticked off at his rebounding numbers. He plays outside and when you are 25 feet away from the basket offensively, you're going to struggle to get offensive rebounds. I'd like his defensive rebounding to be stronger, but it's not egregiously bad. But the guy who spent his first season doing a half-decent job of trying to defend small forwards (back in the day of the experimental O'Neal-Bosh-Bargnani front line), doesn't  give much of an effort on D these days. Aside from the odd charge, which involves standing still, Bargnani has regressed and doesn't seem inclined to give effort. Well, enough effort. And he's lost me as a supporter because of it. You can't teach effort and effort is a talent because not everybody does it, as Jack Armstrong frequently points out. I would have thought 10M bucks might prompt that effort, but I've been wrong before.

IF the Raptors were to trade Bargnani, and got good return for him, I could live with the move. The fact is, Bargnani might be the perfect sixth man, instant offence and all. He's a nightmare matchup for the opposition defence on most nights. Up against second stringers, he'd be a seven-foot tall Microwave. But Bargnani really struggled in the sixth man role as a young player, and given his lack of progression defensively, it's quite possible he couldn't adapt to the role. At least in Toronto. So, let some other team have the opportunity to get the potential out of the Son of the Adriatic.

On the other hand, if the Raptors are going to build around Davis and DeRozan, I say keep Bargnani. I don't have a lot of hope for either of the two kids either. Let's deal with DeRozan first. The high-flying athletic shooting guard suffers from a few deficiencies. He's no better on D than Bargnani, he has no handle whatsoever and I might be a better three-point shooter than he is right now. He's got the Richard Hamilton shot down fairly pat, a consistent 17 footer that has become deadly. He has that 360 spinarama that teams have now come to expect and by bumping him out another five feet has reduced its effectiveness. Still, a pretty move. And he alley-oops with the best in the league. But my REAL problem with the kid is his reaction to not getting calls. He's become Jamario Moon and early Matt Bonner, always going running over to Triano (or at least in the general direction), seeming to plead "Daddy, he HITTTTT MMMEEEEEE!" Yes, he's getting the raw end of the ref's whistle too much, and he's not crossing the line vis a vis the refs. But you can see his willingness to blame something gone wrong ON the refs. There's hope for him and a LOT of people like his progression from caught in the headlights deer to young stag this year, having developed that 17-footer. But I hate that he skates on the poor defence.

Now, Ed Davis. I hated, truly despised, this draft pick last summer. He was EXACTLY the wrong guy for the team, despite being higher rated. Patrick Patterson, who didn't exactly bloom in Houston, but who I believe would have in Toronto, was my pick. And I stand by that selection order even now. And that's despite acknowledging that Davis has a long NBA career ahead of him. I will bet dollars, not always hard-earned, but dollars nonetheless, that Davis ends up developing into a 6-10/6-11 Reggie Evans. And, as any Toronto fan will tell you, that's plenty high praise. Davis has a nose for the ball, soft hands and can do Evans one better by being a shot blocker. Unfortunately, like Evans, he's nightmarish on the foul line and, while I've seen him take and make 15-footers, his shooting range and arm length are one and the same. Still, rebounding, especially on the Raptors, has been a position of need for so long, it's hard to really hate on the kid for doing that one thing oh-so-well. And he'll get better at it, which is a bit scary as he packs on some pounds and gets some of that experience that makes Evans a marvel. Plus, there's a chance Davis can improve his shooting. I mean, Amir Johnson has had a shooting renaissance this year and is actually one of the better free throw guys on the team.

But there's the rub. Toronto already had an Ed Davis. His name is Amir. And, like Bargnani, he's got a long-term contract. Plus, Reggie was going to be back. He won't be back next year because Davis is essentially a younger, cheaper him. Which will sadden the heart of all Raptor fans. Now, imagine if Patterson had been selected (or better yet, let somebody move up to grab Davis and then trade part of that something to Houston to get Patterson one draft pick later). Reggie would have reason to return (about 5M reasons). And Patterson would have fit into the Raptors pretty well. A decent shooting small forward with rebounding tendancies. He's lost amongst a plethora of guys that fit that description in Texas. What Houston needed was Davis. What Toronto needed was Patterson. 

I no more want to build around Davis and DeRozan than I want extensive dental surgery. These guys COULD be pieces on a good team. But the foundation? Nah, I don't think so.

As for D'Antoni, I think I've come around to the conclusion that Triano is a good coach. A good assistant coach. I'm very, very troubled with the lack of a public putdown of Julian Wright. At the very least, when he refused to go into the game against Golden State, he should have been publicly told to get off the bench and hit the showers (although why, given his total lack of playing time). As likable as Wright and Triano are, as good a man as Triano is, I think you have to have a bit of a bully's willingness to be the boss. And I don't think Triano's got that. Plus I hate the Raptor offence and have for about 16 years. I know Triano does a great job of running plays coming out of timeouts. But where the heck are the picks, double-picks and rotation during much of the game otherwise. Pick and Roll bores me to tears. My favourite play in the whole world is an uncontested gimme layup at the bucket. Love that even more than an alley-oop. Cuz it means the flow of the offence created a basket. We see stagnate offensive sets waaaaaaay too often in T.O. I do think it's time for a change. And, while D'Antoni has coaching warts too, why not give it a try?

The draft will be the first step in determining the new Raptor outlook. Depending on the vagaries of the dropping balls, the Raptors could draft anywhere from first to seventh. The top pick will be Kyrie Irving out of Duke. If he comes to Toronto, Jose Calderon will almost certainly have to exit stage right. Ideally, the Spaniard would stick around as mentor, but his trade value and Jerryd Bayless's lack of same and potential would make Calederon the packer. Still, I'd worry about Bayless once the future path to starting would be snatched away from him. He's been as advertised, a young Jarret Jack. Tantalizing, but bull-headed and I question his ability ultimately to be a floor general. Calederon would be worth his weight in gold in Miami and I wouldn't rule him out as a key contributor to next year's Anaheim Royals either.  But Irving would have to be the Toronto starter from day one.

On the other hand, the Raptors could end up with Kemba Walker. More or less the same story as with Irving, although Bayless would get more playing time paired with Walker and as his backup.

Moving on, what if Derrick Williams becomes a Raptor. Better than Walker, less good than Irving. But plenty good nonetheless. Williams becomes the athletic, decent-shooting wing they've been looking for, for a long time. He and Linus Kleiza would be an effective tandem. It would leave James Johnson a bit in limbo, but that would only occur after Kleiza comes back. At that point, either he or Kleiza would have to be traded. And hopefully, he would have found enough of a shooting stroke to bring back something good. Williams' defence is still an unknown at this point. But there's nothing else about his game that brings me fear.

Who else on the draft board interests me? Enes Kanter, the would-be Kentucky Wildcat? No. Not without dealing Bargnani first and probably not even then. Canada's Tristan Thompson? Not even close. Should stay at Texas, although the rumour is he's jumping in with both feet, having reputedly hired an agent. A BIG mistake. Perry Jones out of Baylor? Didn't see enough, but when you hear mercurial applied to a college kid, let somebody else take him. Terrence Jones of Kentucky? Too raw. I DO like the Carolina kids, John Henson and Harrison Barnes. My gut tells me Barnes is better long-term, but that Henson is a quicker helper. There's a bunch of Euros, led by Jan Vesely. But I think a big, good shooting Euro with suspect defensive talents is exactly NOT what Toronto needs moving forward.

To my way of thinking, the Raptors end up with one of the point guards, who will start ahead of Bayless this fall. DeRozan, Bargnani and Davis will all be back, as will Amir and James Johnson. Kleiza comes back mid-season. That's eight guys. Project Solomon Alabi, currently lost in the wilds of Erie PA makes it nine. And I think Joey Dorsey finds a Raptor contract available to him too. The rest will be new guys. Calderon, Evans and Sonny Weems will be elsewhere in the NBA. Wright and Alexis Ajinca will be in Europe. I don't know about Leandro Barbosa. I think he opts out, but the new CBA will play a big part in that decision. I'd like to see him back.

Now, given Bryan Colangelo's ability to divest Toronto of that dog of a player Hedo what's his name last year, maybe there's a franchise-transforming trade out there. How 'bout stiffing the Golden State Warriors for Stephen Curry and oft-injured one-dimensional Andris Biedrins for Bargnani and Calderon? It'd be an interesting move. You'd have three big men who could all rebound and score between 10 and 15 points a game, but that would mean getting consistent scoring from the wings. Plus some defence, because Curry's no improvement on Calderon there. But that's what free agent money's for. Unfortunately, Don Nelson doesn't run the Warriors any more. So THAT's not going to happen.

Generally speaking, I'd deal off DeRozan while the dealing's good. I think he's already reached his top level. In my opinion, the kid guard draftee, the two Johnsons and Davis would be the only sure-fire Raptors come fall. And, to be honest, I'm a bigger Alabi fan that just about anybody in the world not directly related to him. I'd keep Calderon around too, but there isn't much worth trading on this team and he's amongst the better pieces. Reggie could come back. And I've already said I'd like to see Barbosa in Raptor red and black. Everybody else could (and should) go. 

The draft will bring its own intrigues and then we will have to settle in to await the results of the new CBA. Depending on what lies within the new agreement, the Raptors could be in major rebuilding mode next fall, back into lower playoff spot contention or a surprisingly solid fourth-place team. My bet? Well, the first, obviously. But time will tell.

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