Playoffs Won’t Right Wrongs in Toronto
Nobody can hide from the truth and with one game remaining in the NBA regular season the Toronto Raptors are still ducking. Trying to play the new underdog role as they sit outside the playoff picture sounds like a last ditch ploy at self-motivation in a self-destruct season.
How do you know that the Raptors are uncomfortable with who they are? That they have yet to secure an identity that lasts more than a few weeks? The answer can be found – at least in part – in the moves that have gone down over the last month within and around the team.
A total of four changes to the starting line up have been made during the last three weeks. The broken face that ended Bosh’s season last week forced a move at power forward but it remains the only change that wasn’t by head coach Jay Triano’s own design. The changes began by returning Jarrett Jack to the bench in favor of adding Calderon’s handles and experience to the frontline. Rookie DeMar DeRozan was sent to the bench as well and after a disappointing season and an ill-advised night on the town Hedo Turkoglu’s act finally wore thin with the team. He was benched for a game and disciplined for going out to eat after claiming he was ill and pulling himself out of a blow-out contest at halftime.
Scrambling to find the right mix of players in March is insanity for a team in a battle for the last playoff spot in the east. The various reasons behind the moves, at the end of the day, don’t matter. Either does the emergence of Sonny Weems as a go-to scorer and Amir Johnson as a capable performer on both sides of the ball. Even if you are in love with DeRozan’s upside – if not his current side – he represents a youth movement quietly brewing in the Raptors’ background. Add a newly minted Andrea Bargnani and a young point guard in Jack, not to mention another lottery pick should the Raptors fail top qualify for the postseason, and suddenly the squad seems to be built more for the future than the now.
Listening to Triano give props to his team’s effort after a drubbing at the hands of the Chicago Bulls on Sunday- the team that took over the eighth seed with that win – was an insult to anybody who bought a ticket or watched from home. Triano is a class act and would never throw his charges under the bus but there is a difference between that and simply telling it like it is. Sugarcoating the team’s toughness issues and motivational shortcomings is to downplay a glaring weakness that nobody in the organization seems capable of fixing. It is perhaps the one thing that keeps this team, year after year, from getting over the hump. It is what keeps them faceless.
With the Bulls’ win over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night all the playoff seeds have been set in the east. All except for the eighth spot. To claim it the Raptors must beat New York at the Air Canada Centre on the final day of their season while hoping that the Charlotte Bobcats, who have already claimed their playoff spot, beat a Bulls teams that will be playing the second game of a back-to-back to end their schedule.
In Jett Johnson’s SWAY Sports feature “The Last Stretch” he predicted that the “race for eight” would be decided on the last day of the season and so it shall be. Still, win or lose, the Raptors have serious decisions to make. There is a core of signed players like Turkoglu, Calderon, Bargnani and Jack circled around an unsigned Chris Bosh, who seems further from the team than ever before. His supporting cast is an expensive, hard-to-move collective that may not appeal to him they way they did last summer. His huge All-Star season seems for naught now, and the confounding way this team disappears when it matters helped to make it so.
Alas, even Bosh must be questioned. He was selected the NBA eastern conference player of the week before he injured himself but it isn’t all about the numbers. His aggression has taken a significant slide and his tendency not to force the issue inside has hurt the Raptors. His free throw attempts took a serious dip upon his return and without him the stand-around-and-watch syndrome of some of his frontcourt partners is coming back to haunt them. Without Bosh the team sunk and being more than a one-man show is necessary for success in the L. Bosh could not have liked what he saw in his absence, both during his post all-star break, injury-induced six game sit or now with his season over.
General manager Bryan Colangelo, after returning just four players from his 2008-09 roster, might be faced with doing it all again. Armed with a new contract extension he has some room to stretch but with a second straight season ending on the outside of the playoffs a possibility, how thin is the ice?
Nobody knows for sure and perhaps that is one of the problems with this squad. Mystery surrounds injuries, movement and even accountability at every turn but there is no mystery to the truth. The Raptors as-is are dysfunctional and it is nothing that a playoff appearance will ever fix. The team is a leaderless band of splintered ideologies that rarely mesh and without a uniting presence, be it player or coach, the dysfunction will continue. Its coach and franchise player most often forges a team’s identity. The concern in Raptorland is that it might already be what’s happened.