Solving Problems: Raptors Desperately Need Defense
In general it’s difficult to be content today with the promise of something better tomorrow. Such is the case with the Toronto Raptors, except the promise of better basketball is more like next year.
Looking strictly at the numbers, one might draw the conclusion this team is in trouble. Last season’s record of 22-60 was the worst since their 1997-98 season and a drop from 40-42 in 2009-10. Toronto was in last place of the Atlantic Division, second-to-last place in the Eastern Conference and third-to-last place in the entire 30-team league.
They were below league averages in points, turnovers, steals, free throws and free-throw percentage. Further, they were well below league averages in defensive rebounds (27th), opponents’ points per game (26th), blocks (26th) and three-pointers made (29th). And they were dead last in three-point percentage and Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions).
Considering this was the Raptors’ first season in the past seven years without Chris Bosh – who developed into their star player – jaws did not drop over the dismal 22-60 record or most of the above numbers.
How do you recover from the loss of a player who averaged 24.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.0 blocks the season before last (2009-10)?
And the Raptors have already started the process…starting with attention to defense.
Things To Be Excited About
Jonas Valanciunas: In the 2011 NBA Draft the Raptors surprised many by choosing the seven-foot Lithuanian center with their fifth pick. It was a pick for the future as he won’t be playing in the NBA this upcoming season due to international contractual obligations. When he does join Toronto, it should send Andrea Bargnani to his favored position of power forward.
During the summer Valanciunas led his Lithuanian team to gold in the U-19 World Championship, averaging 23.0 points and 13.9 rebounds. He even won the MVP award and was added to the Lithuanian roster for the EuroBasket tournament.
DeMar DeRozan: The ninth pick in 2009 jumped from the teams’ sixth-best scorer (8.8 ppg) in his rookie season to the second-best scorer (17.2 ppg) last season. He was the only Raptor who appeared in all 82 games.
Ed Davis: The 13th pick in the 2010 draft showed great promise, averaging 7.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.0 blocks at .576 field-goal percentage in 24.6 minutes last year. The 6’10” player’s Per 36 Minutes numbers were 11.3 ppg/10.4 rpg.
Dwane Casey: The Raptors hired ex-Dallas Mavericks assistant Casey just nine days after the national champions grabbed the title in June. Mavs’ coach Rick Carlisle reached out to Raptors’ general manager Bryan Colangelo pushing the hire.
First order of business for Casey? Teaching his young players the fundamentals of defense. Without a doubt, he’s focused on that part of the game, fully aware the team allowed an average 105.4 points per game last season. Casey, careful not to totally bash the efforts of previous coach Jay Triano, promises a new coaching philosophy better suited to this particular group of players.
Offensive Rebounding: Toronto ranked eighth in the league last season.
Toronto’s Free Agents
Of the many free agents – Reggie Evans, Alexis Ajinca, Joey Dorsey, Sonny Weems and Julian Wright – Evans has a chance of returning.
Evans, 31, turned heads by averaging 11.5 rebounds in 30 games, but his average 4.4 points per game certainly did not. If they can’t re-sign him on the cheap, he’s probably gone with more focus on developing like-positioned Davis and Amir Johnson. Plus, injuries have limited him to an average of 29 games over the past two seasons.
The Raptors extended a Qualifying Offer to Sonny Weems who lost his starting job to James Johnson late last season. Weems accepted a one-year contract in Lithuania with no out clause.
The Raptors have some options in free agency; they owe approximately $47M in 2011-12 salaries. Of course, the salary cap figure remains unknown with a still-unresolved Collective Bargaining Agreement. If speculations are correct, they may have around $7M in cap space.
Note – Forward Linas Kleiza (who’s owed $4.6M next year) was sidelined last February after undergoing microfracture surgery. He may not return until early 2012.
The Raptors must decide if they’re comfortable with another year of Bargnani playing center while awaiting Valanciunas or if they should make a move for a center.
Perhaps the wisest choice would involve the acquisition of a veteran center to provide assistance for Bargs and to mentor Davis, as well as helping with the transition of Valanciunas into an eventual starting center role.
Affordable free agent considerations include Jason Collins (still a tough defender), Kwame Brown or now-healthy Jeff Foster. Kyrylo Fesenko was a big-body thought, but he recently injured his knee in Ukraine and may be out up to three months.
Forget notable free agent bigs such as Marc Gasol, Nene, Tyson Chandler and Samuel Dalembert. Young, talented DeAndre Jordan would be a perfect fit. Each present exciting concepts, but the Raptors probably don’t have sufficient cap space to sign any of them.
The best option is to keep developing Davis and Johnson and perhaps look at giving 7’1” Solomon Alabi minutes. Before rejecting the latter name, consider that Casey told Alabi if he brought what he showed in June’s mini-camp to (the now-postponed) training camp, he could well compete for the starting center role.
Defense is a problem for sure; so is long-distance shooting. Let’s talk about the backcourt.
We would be remiss in not pointing out that Toronto was ranked seventh in field-goals made and ninth in field-goal percentage.
Jose Calderon averaged 8.9 assists and 9.8 points last season. His field-goal percentage has steadily declined over the past five seasons (.521 to .440). In addition, his three-point percentage has steadily declined over the past four seasons (.429 to .365). His scoring also declined over the past three years, and turnovers were at a career high (2.2). Calderon is what he is; he’s owed nearly $20M over the next two years.
Leandro Barbosa contributed 1.2 threes per game and can handle the one position in a pinch. Bargnani even tied Barbosa in threes to lead the team.
Jerryd Bayless averaged 6.8 points per game, 3.2 assists, 0.6 three-pointers at .379 field-goal percentage in the first 63 games last season; in the last eight games (starting in seven), he posted 22.5 ppg, 5.6 apg, 1.75 threes at .484 FG%. Those late-season numbers should translate to more playing time next year.
However, the Raptors may consider adding a veteran player like Anthony Parker to stretch the floor, or even Michael Redd or Tracy McGrady if we’re really thinking outside the box.
Oft-discussed trades involve Bargnani and Calderon, both of whom displayed solid performances in this year’s EuroBasket.
Bargnani was the Raptors’ leading scorer (21.4 ppg, a career high), yet his 5.2 rebounds have caused some folks much grief. By all accounts, it appears Bargs is going nowhere. Colangelo wants to give this Valanciunas/Bargnani pairing a shot, even though it won’t happen until the 2012-13 season. Remember Bargnani is only 25 years old and is under contract through 2014-15.
Rumblings of a Barbosa/Calderon trade have been detected over the summer. Since the Raptors didn’t take a point guard in the draft, it wouldn’t make sense to test the market for these two.
We see a stop-gap free agent center signing should Colangelo elect to appease Bargnani’s wish to play the true power forward position.
Patience is key here; let the rebuilding process unfold.