Raptors Need: Point Guard Vs. Small Forward
It is no secret that Toronto Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo is building his team around DeMar DeRozan, Andrea Bargnani and last year’s draft pick Jonas Valanciunas and, barring something unexpected, the team is concentrating on improving the point guard and small forward positions this summer.
In his first public presentation after the lockout ended, Colangelo made it clear that the team was looking for a point guard of the future and based on the moves made last season, he hasn’t found one yet.
While Jose Calderon quickly became a favorite of new head coach Dwane Casey and put together a solid 2011-12 season, we didn’t see anything from the pass-first Spanish guard that wasn’t already known other than he can get through an entire season without a significant injury. The Raptors backup point guard Jerryd Bayless showed he can put up impressive numbers when starting, but he missed over half the season due to injury and if he wasn’t Colangelo’s point guard of the future in December, he didn’t do anything to change that opinion.
James Johnson, who was acquired at last year’s trade deadline from the Bulls for Miami’s first-round draft pick, got his chance to prove he could start at small forward and had the team’s best defensive numbers. Unfortunately, he still couldn’t shoot straight and his decision-making at the offensive end of the floor left something to be desired. The Raptors 2010 free agent acquisition Linas Kleiza returned from knee surgery mid-season and demonstrated that while he still had three-point range, his knee was not fully recovered. The Raptors may not know what they have in Kleiza until after the Olympics and possibly not until training camp. Also, both of the Raptors small forwards are really combo-forwards who are most effective offensively when playing at the power forward position in smaller lineups.
It‘s clear that both the point guard and small forward positions on the Raptors are in need of an upgrade.
In a NBA that has become dominated by guard play, it is hard to fathom a team challenging for a spot in the NBA Finals without a star quality guard to handle the ball and conversely, many NBA teams operate on the wing with an offensive-minded player paired up with a defensive specialist similar to what Toronto was doing with DeRozan and Johnson. As both Colangelo and Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Ed Stefanski have stated that the Raptors goal is to build a contender, it seems straightforward to identify the team’s biggest need as Colangelo’s point guard of the future.
Heading into the draft lottery, the Raptors have an 86.88 percent chance of picking either eighth or ninth in June and at least one of the two top point guard prospects should still be available. Damian Lillard averaged 24.5 points per game for Weber State and Kendall Marshall averaged 9.8 assists per game for North Carolina. Either prospect is intriguing, a true scoring point guard whose game progressed steadily over four seasons versus the sophomore floor general who made his teammates much better.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Harrison Barnes represent the best small forwards in this draft, but these prospects will be snapped up long before the Raptors can pick at eighth. The best small forwards available to the Raptors likely include Terrance Jones, Terrence Ross, and Moe Harkless. Where Jones seems just a little too much like the Raptors’ Johnson and Ross like DeRozan, the 19-year-old Harkless thinks he is going to surprise a lot of people. However, Harkless will have to show a lot more than he did at St. John’s to be a mid-lottery pick. It seems unlikely that the Raptors will find a difference-maker at small forward in this draft, but if they do, one of Johnson or Kleiza will be on their way out.
Drafting a quality point guard allows the Raptors to consider trades for Calderon, but with just one season left on his contract and a strong team-first attitude, Calderon would make an ideal mentor for a rookie. Also, drafting a guard would solidify Bayless’ role as an off guard who can cover the point when needed and with the Raptors history of point guard injuries, having a third guard who is capable of running the team is prudent. Drafting a point guard of the future could also preserve a significant amount of salary cap space to pursue free agents or make unbalanced trades.
Recent news suggests the Raptors may have other alternatives to the draft in resolving the point guard question. The Rockets’ Kyle Lowry opened the door to trade possibilities with his recent comments and the Rockets’ Goran Dragic is a free agent in July. Over the past two seasons, the 26-year-old Lowry took the starting job in Houston and proved his effectiveness at both ends of the floor. Then when Lowry was hurt this past season, the 26-year-old Dragic started 28 games and put up slightly superior numbers to Lowry.
Another alternative for a starting point guard is the Raptors’ dream scenario of Canadian Steve Nash ending his career in Toronto. There is no question Nash would change the profile of the Raptors and help sellout the Air Canada Center next season, but there have been no indications that this dream has a real chance of coming true.
If the Raptors acquire either of Houston’s guards, they will have acquired a young veteran point guard who is ready to start immediately. The move would use up much of the team’s salary cap space and make it necessary to move Calderon to avoid controversy.
Colangelo spent the entire season creating the most flexibility he could heading into the draft and free agency and Toronto will be looking for multiple opportunities including draft day trades. Colangelo made sure everyone at his end-of-season press conference knew that he was raring-to-go after holding back on deals all season long. Acquiring a potential star point guard or point guard of the future may not be the first move Colangelo makes, but in today’s NBA, it will be the most important if the goal is to eventually create a contending team.