Is This Season Salvageable?

Posted on March 31, 2010 | No Comments

I haven’t posted much in the last couple of months. It’s been a combination of me simply being too busy and also not really having much to say. I had actually started a post about what makes a good GM, but after recent happenings, I decided to put it off.

Now, I’ve tried to remain fairly even keeled on this blog, and scolded Raptor fans time and time again for overreacting, which they tend to do. Just before the All-Star break, I looked back at the predictions I made at the beginning of the season. For the most part, they were looking very good. At that time, the Raptors were solidly in the 5th seed in the East, a few people outside of the Canada were actually saying there was a possibility that Bosh was going to re-sign with the Raptors, and their defense, while never great, was looking, for the most part, half decent.

What a difference a month and a half makes.

At this point, getting anything higher than the 8th seed seems unlikely, and the only thing preventing the Raptors from completely falling out of the playoff race is that the Bulls are losing just as much as the Raptors are. It’s like watching two paraplegics race for the finish line without wheelchairs.

Now, there have been quite a few who have predicting gloom and doom for the Raptors from the beginning. Some have even said that nothing has changed, that they just don’t have the same soft schedule. Apparently they haven’t watched the Raptors much this season. Despite what some claim, the descent we have seen was not inevitable. It’s not just a tougher schedule that are doing them in. Wins against the Magic, Mavericks, Spurs and Lakers during their good run debunk this theory. Sure, they’ve never been a very good road team (their recent win against Charlotte, notwithstanding), but even during their horrid play in November, they never had trouble scoring, even on the road. In March, they failed to score 100 points seven times. That’s more than November and more than both January and February put together. Obviously this isn’t simply a matter of their defense failing.

The question, apart from why, is what happened?

Things were going well for the Raptors even after the All-Star break. The fall, however can be traced back to February 17th in a game against Memphis. Bosh came down awkwardly on a play late in the game, injuring his ankle. He was having a good game, too. Including that game, Bosh had been averaging 28 ppg, 12.4 rpg and even 3.8 apg.

On many teams, when the star player goes down, it gives a chance for the secondary players to shine, which can be a benefit to the team down the stretch. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen with the Raptors. No one stepped up, and in fact, a couple of players seemed to get worse. Bargnani defenders always claimed that he would play inside more and rebound more without Bosh. Not surprisingly, this proved not to be true. Bargani suffered when the defenses were able to focus their attention on him. As I’ve said in previous posts, a high percentage of Bargnani’s shots are assisted, which tells you a little about his ability to create his own shot. While Bargnani is a gifted shooter, he has very few one on one moves. Outside of his pumpfake and drive, there’s little in Bargnani’s arsenal that would allow him to get a good look at the basket without a lot of help from teammates. He’s still not comfortable enough in the post to be able to get points there on a regular basis, and has an annoying habit of fading away on shots even when being covered by much shorter defenders. And his rebounding didn’t improve at all without Bosh. The blame cannot be laid only by Bargnani’s feet though.

When Turkoglu signed with the Raptors, the hope was that he would make up for his defense and rebounding woes with great playing making and end-of-game play. While he has never lived up to his big contract, when the Raptors were winning it was easier to overlook because he was helping them win, even if he wasn’t playing like he was expected (or at least hoped). Without Bosh, he needed to step up. It did look like he might turn the corner after Bosh went down, and even had his second highest point output during this time, but then started playing poorly again and then got hurt himself. Not that it mattered, the team might have played better in his absence. More on him in a moment.

Bosh returning didn’t help. The team didn’t return to it’s winning ways and Bosh didn’t seem like the same player. In the 20 games before his injury, Bosh only failed to reach double digits in rebounding 5 times. In the 12 games since he returned, he’s already missed double digits 6 times. And his scoring is down considerably. More importantly, though, he doesn’t seem to have the passion he had before the injury.

The team played so poorly, that Triano re-inserted Calderon into the starting lineup, realizing that Calderon often had the second unit playing better than the first. It didn’t help.

And while the defense had resorted to November-like numbers, the offense often struggled just as much. The team would go through long droughts at the worst time. Things like that simply weren’t supposed to happen with this team. Defensive problems were expected, as were rebounding deficiencies, but this is one of the potent offenses in the league.

This problem seemed to come to a head in close games against Denver and Miami which saw them score 15 and 17 points respectively in the fourth quarter, giving up seemingly comfortable leads. Incidentally, Turkoglu played in neither of them. The first game, Turkoglu was sick, and the second game, he sat on the bench in uniform as Triano publicly disciplined him for apparently going out to a club the same night he was too sick to play.

In the game against Charlotte, Triano trotted out a very different starting five that played during the Raptors winning ways in January. Bargnani, Bosh, Weems, Wright and Calderon would present a less passive and more defensive minded starting unit. They still struggled to score in the first quarter against Charlotte, but they also stopped Charlotte from doing much of it, allowing Charlotte to score only 18 points, the least they allowed a team to score in the first quarter since December. They still let Charlotte score more than 100 points for the game, but with Triano seemingly content with this starting unit from here on in, it’s a good bet this team will be a little more focused on defense than it was before.

The question is, whether or not it matters.

Yes, obviously the Raptors need to play well for the remainder of the season to keep their playoff berth, but the issue goes much deeper than that. Even if the Raptors win 6 of their remaining 9 games, which is unlikely, the chance of catching Charlotte for the 7th spot is practically non-existent. So finishing a game above .500, the 8th seed, and a first round match-up with Cleveland, is what seems to await Toronto. And this is the best case scenario. Even the most optimistic Raptor fan and writer now sees little chance of Bosh re-signing this summer. Far too much has happened since the All-Star break. This team has proven far too fragile and far too soft for Bosh not to believe he can do better elsewhere, whether it is true or not.

So if the Raptors lose Bosh, is a first round drubbing against Cleveland really going to help the team? Especially if this means losing their first round pick to Miami, which making the playoffs would guarantee? Yes, the Raptors could get back a player or two, or perhaps a draft pick, in a sign and trade, but you can probably count on one hand the number of times a sign and trade has worked out well for the team doing the signing and trading. Ironically, the Raptors signing and trading Delfino last summer seems to have worked out well for the Raptors (getting Weems and Johnson), but nothing beyond equal value would really help the Raptors in a sign and trade for Bosh, and that’s not going to happen. Not with a player of Bosh’s calibre. If the Raptors are a .500 team WITH Bosh, how good do you think they’d be if they, for example, got David Lee in return. Yes, Lee would give the Raptors a poor man’s Bosh a a much lower price, but a poor man’s Bosh is not going to improve the team. Even with an apparently much better coach, the Knicks are sitting at 10 fewer wins with Lee as their best player.

The problem with the Raptors, as evidenced by their collapse when Bosh was injured, is they have absolutely no one who can step into the lead role. Not anyone who will give the Raptors any chance of sniffing the playoffs again. I’ve argued with several readers on this site about whether or not this team is a failure. And that was before their collapse. The one problem with their arguments is that they were so short-sighted. These impatient fans wanted to see results NOW, however unrealistic that was. They tried to convince me that this team would never be a contender, which I never disagreed with. It’s just that I felt that Colangelo had the pieces and ability to make the moves that would allow the team to eventually become a contender. The main component to the Raptors ability to becoming a contender was that Bosh re-sign. And up until five weeks ago, that looked likely.

You see, it’s a lot easier to get good return on players from a good team than players on a bad team. If the Raptors had finished well, and even won a few playoff games, teams wouldn’t be lowballing him for trade offers. A team that is obviously desperately in need of new players are not going to find many good deals out there. The last five weeks has made Colangelo’s job this summer extremely tough.

I asked whether it’s worth it, if Bosh leaves, to end the season in the playoffs, losing the first round pick, or finishing in the lottery, and keeping the pick. There are a few problems with this. The first is that we simply still don’t know what Bosh’s plans are. It’s now likely he’ll leave, but it’s not a certainty. More importantly, though, is that if the Raptors finish out of the playoffs, the only real advantage would be if they finish in the top 3 in the draft lottery. This years draft looks even weaker than last years. No one the Raptors could get in the 11th spot (which is the lowest pick they could get if they don’t get one of the top 3) would likely have any impact whatsoever on the Raptors, at least not in the next year or two. Is it worth missing the playoffs when you’ll have less than a 1% chance of moving up?

If the Raptors do make the playoffs, there is always a chance that they play well, or at least some individual players play well. It’s at least higher than them moving up in the lottery. This, along with the benefit of the younger players getting some playoff experience, is reason enough to hope they actually beat the Bulls in the slow foot race to the post season.

Hey, it gives you something to cheer for!

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