Johnson Steals the Love

Playing his first game since his initial snub from the All-Star weekend Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love had money on his mind. Fitting then that his first shot against the reeling Toronto Raptors Friday night was a three-pointer that set the tone for what many expected to be his showcase night. Even without an All-Star snub most nights have been a bit of a freak show for Love, whose rebounding prowess has started to grown in legend and his ability to pass and score becoming just as valuable to the future in Minny. In the end it was a 111-100 loss earned on the back of Love’s counterpart on this night, Amir Johnson. The combination Love’s 20 points and 15 rebounds along with Darko Milicic’s 15 and seven wasn’t enough to extend Toronto’s 13-game losing streak,
iphone 5s refurbished a spell they busted out of thanks to Johnson’s help in containing Love.

In this battle of basement dwellers the Raptors were looking to end the slide while the Wolves were looking to pop one of the few teams they have a shot at dumping, just as they did the week previous in a 103-87 win in Minnesota over the Raptors. With an interior that has been picked apart during their losing streak the Raps were staring down one of the most feared rebounders in the game and were in tough to minimize the impact of the emotional Love.

Love didn’t burst out in a “look at me” game. Not his way. Instead he did what he always does and has done for most of this season in staying level. Even when ESPN cameras followed assistant coach Bill Laimbeer into the visitors locker room about 20 minutes before tip-off to inform Love that he would be replacing the injured Yao Ming in February’s All-Star festiviites in Los Angeles Love was cool.

Early on it looked as though Love was still in rejection mode. With three minutes left in the first quarter Love had five of a possible 13 rebound opportunities for his team and combined with Milicic to shoot 6 of 7 in the opening frame for a 16 point tag-team effort . With the Raptors bigs showing some streak-busting initiative and point guard Jose Calderon displaying solid ball distribution the homers held a 33-31 lead after the first 12 minutes led by an impressive 10 points on 5 for 5 shooting from emerging shooting guard DeMar DeRozan. Calderon chipped in with six first quarter assists to lead Toronto’s impressive 14 dimes on 15 made shots. On the other hand Love’s six rebounds matched the entire Raptors total in the stanza.

The second quarter started off with an extension of the T-Wolves’ first quarter ending run and a mid-quarter three-pointer put them in the lead. Alas, this affair was built to be a shoot ‘em up battle and as the quarter progressed the score remained tight as the Wolves dropped a chain of three-pointers on the Raptors while the home side attacked inside.

Then came an extended stretch of minutes where Love went carom-less while the red hot shooting from a suddenly peppy Sonny Weems and Andrea Bargnani paint game added to the Raptors’ assault. Despite being held off the boards Love still boosted his point total to 14 in the half. The two teams combined to put up 89 first half shots and Toronto entered the half time break with a 59-55 halftime lead.

Love’s second half started out slower than the first but his three-point shooting mark was the light in his rod.. His three of four shooting from the arc through six minutes of the third Q and a tidy 17 points and 10 rebounds by quarter’s end were key in keeping his squad in the mix. With all the hype Love has garnered this season the fourth quarter, when big plays and small mistakes make the difference, has been a struggle. How would Love’s unique brand of ball overcome the offensive show?

With the Raptors bigs finally finding some success after playing the beating stick for most of their season-sabotaging stretch the stage was set for a win. Through three frames Bargnani led all scorers with 24 points – finishing with 30 on the night – while front court mate Amir Johnson had clocked 19 points and 12 rebounds in 36 minutes in the contest while working admirably against Love.

In fact, Johnson stole the show and put another sock in the mouths of many who continue to question the lavish contract awarded to him last summer.

As Love’s low impact night continued Johnson’s hustle-man work complimented big shots from Bargnani and and a devilish 19-assist night for Calderon as ball movement and big plays from the front court feuled the Raptors’ drive. Efficiency was the word of the day and the bottom line in the eventual victory.

SONOFAGUN: Calderon Slipping in New NBA Landscape

November 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Son of a Gun, Toronto Raptors

After a summer of worrying about just how they were going to replace departed all-star power forward Chris Bosh the Toronto Raptors are struggling at the other end of the line up with their guard play, in particular at the point position. While they wait for DeMar DeRozan to answer their questions (and prayers) at the shooting guard spot neither Jose Calderon nor Jarrett Jack appear to be enough of an answer as a starting point guard.

The fault doesn’t lie squarely on one or the other but in most conversations the two are considered to be back up point guards in the NBA, capable of running a team but not in regular extended minutes throughout an 82-game NBA schedule. In some ways the blame lies at the feet of Calderon, whose spotty play and injuries after signing a 5-year, $45M deal in July of 2008 have served to help push Jack into a starter’s role. Not that Jack didn’t fight for it. He had previously beat out more highly favored players for starts while hooping for the Portland Trailblazers and more recently he displaced ex-Raptor T.J. Ford as the full-time starter while playing for the Indiana Pacers two seasons ago. Now it appears Jack has accomplished the same feat with Calderon in Toronto. That said he appeared to have done the same last year only to relinquish the starting duties to Calderon late in the season. Upon his return on January 6, 2010 after missing a month of action due to a hip injury the Raptors were 17-18 and winners of six of their previous seven games. Calderon was used as a reserve and played well to help them to a 14-6 record over the next 20 games but when the team chased that with a 1-9 slide he replaced Jack in the starting line up. At that point the team was sinking and could only manage an 8-11 record the rest of the way, just good enough to finish out of the playoffs. The point guards aren’t to blame for that collapse (Bosh’s late season injury all but sealed the Raptors’ fate) but they didn’t make a difference.

And that’s the thing.

The fact that both Jack and Calderon have been bounced from reserve to starter and back for their entire careers is proof that no regime of any franchise has been sold on either as a full-timer. There are those who dismiss the controversy of who starts as irrelevant but then talk about the importance of the good first quarters teams need to set tones and earn wins. Players have been known to talk in the same way but only the ones who either know their place or avoid ruffling feathers. Foolish talk. Remember that during their time together Calderon dismissed any starting controversy with Ford only to tell his the media in Spain something different. In today’s NBA that position needs to be solid and firm. The point guard as general is in many ways the extension of the coaching staff on the floor, making it the very worst position to attempt to run by platoon or committee. If it didn’t work with Calderon and Ford four seasons ago – a problem Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo was quick to clean up in 2008 – what makes anybody believe it will work now?

What makes the problem stand out even more is that 2010 might be the first year in what could turn out to be the decade of the point guard. Currently the NBA scoring lead is help by Monta Ellis of the Golden State Warriors with 30 points per game ( and 6 assists per game) followed by Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose with 26.8 (10 APG) and both are the clear-cut starting point guards for their teams. Further to that, eight guards (four point guards) or backcourt players register in the top 20 on the scoring list with four in the top 10. Five small forwards are included on that list with the remaining seven to be found in the frontcourt. In order to compete the Raptors must add some dynamicism to their backcourt and no, it isn’t all about scoring… but it helps.

It also wouldn’t be fair to compare Calderon and Jack statistically when it comes to assists because neither will impress numerically while splitting time at the position. Obviously numbers have much to do with minutes and the quality of teammates in the fold. Calderon was a dynamo during the Sam Mitchell era of robotic, paint-by-numbers game plans. With head coach Jay Triano’s desire to increase the frenetics Calderon has struggled to adapt. The exceptional way he takes care of the ball, makes free throws and drives the lane don’t seem as impressive without the punch it seems injury may have robbed him of. He had to pull out of the FIBA world championships in Turkey this past summer because of another serious leg injury while playing warm up games for Spain and took over a month to recover. Numbers never tell the whole story but good point guards can either make guys better or at least make it look that way. When you look at the last five years of Calderon has he ever flat out just made somebody better?

Look around the league and it isn’t hard to tell what the top teams all have in common and that is all-star caliber play in the backcourt. Leaving the champs and the best guard in the league Kobe Bryant out of it, the real contenders for the crown – the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks and Orlando Magic – all possess it. The Raptors hover around the bottom third of the league when it comes to production at the point and when you consider the upside to Oklahoma’s Russell Westbrook, Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday, Washington’s John Wall, Indiana’s Darren Collison, Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings, Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans and Memphis’ Mike Conley the future just isn’t there yet in Toronto. All of the above-mentioned names have become or are becoming integral parts of the future core of their teams and some are already the center of attention. All with the exception of Conley have star power.

On the other end Boston’s Rajon Rondo, Utah’s Deron Williams, New Orleans’ Chris Paul, New Jersey’s Devin Harris and Orlando’s Jameer Nelson are class leaders, young all-stars with many more all-star years to give. Then there is the third corner with Dallas’ Jason Kidd, Phoenix’s Steve Nash and Denver’s Chauncey Billups as hard-to-kill veterans who still threaten to steal all-star selections from the mouths of babes. Calderon stands out here too, again, through no serious fault of his own. He isn’t young enough to posses the quickness to keep up with the next generation – or even his own – and not old enough to fool the competition with his smarts. His physicality doesn’t allow him to overpower opponents and defensively he has always been average at best. He isn’t a bit of all of it like San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker. Even his contract sits in the middle ground of the NBA market; not quite an albatross but far from friendly as failed attempts to move him will support. In that sense the best-case scenario for the Raptors and Calderon is if he just plays better but it would mean reversing an alarming spiral.

Starting at the 2006-06 season Calderon enjoyed a steady climb statistically speaking, peaking at 12.8 PPG and 8.9 APG in 2008-09. In four games as a reserve this season he is averaging a career low 4.8 PPG after finishing with a 10.3 PPG average last tour. It should be noted that he has maintained a respectable 5.5 APG, ranking him fifth in the NBA per 48 minutes played. His 21 minutes a game ties a career low and his 28% field goal shooting and 25% mark from three-point range is eye-popping. Jack’s stats (not shooting) have followed a similar trajectory but his decline has not been as dramatic. He’s moving at a 9.4 PPG clip so far this season after recording 11.4 PPG last and 13.1 PPG in 2008-09 while with the Pacers.

Durability is an issue as well with Calderon dealing with severe hamstring and hip injuries that have limited him to 68 games played in each of the last two seasons. His only 82 games-played season came in 2007-08 and he made just 39 starts in 2009-10. By contrast Jack is coming off his third straight 82 games-played season following two 79 games-played efforts to start his career in Portland. He made the other 43 starts for the Raptors in 2009-10, which actually gives him 14 more career starts than Calderon and comparable lifetime numbers at half the price.

This isn’t a slam on Calderon as much as it is a reflection on the sudden shift and evolution of a game that seems to be awkwardly passing him by. One thing that is missing is the youthful, almost boyish glee he took in playing both for Spain’s national team and his early days as a Raptor. He is still a go to guy in the locker room but other voices have emerged and he seems more inward both on and off the court. Calderon has shown that he can be an impact player in the NBA but returning to form and catching up with the league’s best will be difficult. At 29 years of age Calderon should be entering his prime but speed and creativity are difficult add-ons and near impossible to develop significantly at this stage. In the same way both he and Jack have been demoted to reserves at various times throughout their careers both have clawed back, which is its own kind of testament. If that bark wasn’t there, if two equally talented point guards aren’t fighting and competing for burn, there would be even more concern. That would call into light their heart and spirit, which has never been in question with this duo. The hunger and the competition that ensues for that number one spot is healthy but isn’t meant to rage eternal. At some point somebody’s got to take the lead and be anointed as such.

New addition Leandro Barbosa is sure to steal some time at the point guard position because of his much-needed speed. Two-guard cornerstone candidate DeRozan is young and it is way too early to make the call on the USC product. The key with D-Ro will be patience and playing time and he has shown enough to warrant the consideration. He might even be good enough in a year or two to help mask some of the limitations currently facing his backcourt partners because with players like Calderon and Jack you get the feeling that you’ve got as much as you are ever going to get, and that’s not a bad thing. They are good and on most night’s they play like it, but in today’s NBA that just isn’t enough.

RAPTORS: Evans Dunks Doubters in Return

October 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Team Reports, Toronto Raptors

There just isn’t that many people outside of the Toronto Raptors organization who know how difficult the road has been for power forward Reggie Evans over the past year. During the 2009-10 season, when injury limited his impact on the court and caused him to miss 54 games, confusion as to when and if he would return to form reigned behind the scenes.

“If you just look at my track history I don’t really miss no games,” said Evans, who prior to last season had missed 60 games out of a possible 574. “I’ve missed games because I was sick or had the flu but other than that you can take my whole NBA career or my whole college career, my whole junior college career and my whole high school career and really that was the first major injury I ever had.

“To be honest with you I thought that I’d be back. When it happened I knew something wasn’t right but through the process within a week or two or a month I was like ‘Alight, I’m going to be back on this date.’ They were like; ‘There’s no way possible you can come back.’”

According to Evans “They” were doubters both outside the organization and within.

“There were a lot of people kind of doubting me throughout the whole process,” said Evans. “Top notch people just didn’t believe it was going to go down.”

In the summer of 2009 Evan was acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for three-point specialist Jason Kapono in an effort to add some much-needed toughness and rebounding to the Raptors. He reputation as a blue-collared workhorse preceded him but before he could unveil the hustle he suffered a debilitating left foot injury on October 14th during a preseason game versus the Boston Celtics. What followed was a season full of doubt and mystery surrounding Evans.

After a oddly prolonged period of diagnosis following the injury Evans’ crippling was commonly accepted as a Lisfranc sprain, a ligament in the forefoot that – when torn – causes severe pain when jumping or pushing off. A Lisfranc sprain can be difficult to diagnose according The American Family Physician, which could be why Evans went from complaining about a sore left foot to it being placed in an airtight boot cast by Charlotte-based specialist Dr. Bob Anderson soon after. Anderson has extensive experience in treating Lisfranc injuries. After an intense three-month rehabilitation process he returned to team practice in January but didn’t participate in full-contract drills until closer to February, finally working towards a February 10 return against his old 76ers team. Few were aware of the challenges Evans had faced just to get that far.

“I had to learn how to walk again,” recalls Evans. “I had to learn how to run. I had to start over from a baby. I was walking with a limp and I could feel it in my hip so it was very difficult for me then. When I was hurt I could only work out my upper body, I really couldn’t do any major conditioning because I had a leg injury so it was definitely something serious. It was frustrating because you may hear you’ll be back this day or that day but you know, the feeling is a crazy feeling because you know you can’t come back. It was definitely a battle mentally.”

When Evans finally returned he snagged three rebounds and two points in five minutes of action in helping to stop Philly’s 5-game win streak. However, over 28 games to follow Evans averaged just 3.4 points and 3.8 rebounds in 11 minutes per game. The doubters re-emerged but Evans already knew he had more work to do.

“I just went back to rehab and started to rehab my feet more,” said Evans about his off-season training. “Things didn’t work out for me when I came back so I had to go back to the drawing board with the rehab. Then I went to the athletic part once the rehab was over with. My whole conditioning was different because of that injury so they (trainers) put me through a lot of stuff for pretty much the whole summer.”

While tending to that business Evans also kept an eye on what the Raptors were doing in the off-season. Not only had he missed most of the season but also the Raptors had missed the playoffs and franchise player Chris Bosh was already shopping for homes in Miami. Change was on the horizon. By mid-July Evans was almost part of the turnover when he was nearly dealt to the Charlotte Bobcats along with point guard Jose Calderon in exchange for center Tyson Chandler and forward Boris Diaw. Before team owner Michael Jordan bailed on the deal a day later Evans had already tweeted his departure to Toronto fans, so sure he was that he was off to his fifth NBA team. The season of struggle, rehab and doubt about his game from within his very own club probably didn’t leave much room for another conclusion. There was no guessing as to why Evans was on the block.

“Sometimes people just have to see it for themselves,” sighs Evans with an underdog’s understanding. “When they saw it for themselves it was almost like, ‘Wow, OK. This is a whole different person than when he came back with 27 games left until now.’ At the same time I had to prove it to myself.”

Evans has been there before, proving organizations wrong. As an undrafted rookie in 2002 he earned a free-agent contract with the Seattle Supersonics in October of that same year through a gritty training camp resolve. Not a big minute player, he has made the most of his limited action by becoming one of the most efficient rebounders in the league. As an “undersized” power forward Evans is often asked to guard the best frontcourt player on the opposition regardless of size differential. It has helped to build an undying confidence that fueled him on his journey back, a journey he was very much alone in.

“I stayed mentally strong throughout the whole process,” said Evans before starting and grabbing a game-high 16 rebounds against the New York Knicks in the Raptors 2010 regular season debut at home. “Even though I was going through that, whatever I could do I went at it hard. I just didn’t sit around. I did a lot of lifting and stuff like that because that was pretty much all I could do. Now that I’m back I just do my best not to think about it. Tape it up and ready to roll.”

Introducing… Ed Davis

June 24, 2010 by  
Filed under NBA Draft, Toronto Raptors

TORONTO – The selection of 6-10 power forward Ed Davis by the Toronto Raptors in the 2010 NBA draft was not expected. Fitting then, that most observers see much of Toronto’s summer going the same way with so many question marks hanging above the franchise. For now though, Davis has been tapped as a possible answer to the team’s defensive woes despite not having worked out for the Raptors during his pre-draft tour. Word out of New York – where Davis was present at the draft – was that Davis and his reps might have been unpleasantly surprised when the Raptors made him their top choice.

“I worked out for teams seven through ten,” said Davis on a conference call with the media shortly after his selection. “I didn’t really know exactly where I was going, but then a lot of people are surprised. That’s what this draft is about.”

The Raptors have selected a big man in six of the last seven drafts they have participated in and it isn’t the first time they’ve chosen a frontcourt player that didn’t work out for the team. That much beloved beef and yet still no real big man coach to speak of? It may only be a minor issue in the grand scheme, but relevant since the Raptors frontcourt just got smaller and younger should Davis stick.

“I think my game is just going to transfer,” said Davis. “Where I’m rebounding (and) running the floor to block a shot. It’s things like that that always translate.”

The mood around the Air Canada Centre was amusingly light in the back room media centre where a larger than average group of local beaters had gathered to witness the 2010 NBA Draft proceedings. With general manager Bryan Colangelo pacing the Raptors’ war room floor down the hall – his 13th overall pick in play – the uncertainty of what was to unfold before him was surely enough to preclude any definitive plan of attack. Outside of the free agency (Chris Bosh), trade demands (Hedo Turkoglu) and the sudden youth movement that seems to have crept up on the Raptors, the business of this draft represents the first domino to fall in what is guaranteed to be one of the busiest of Colangelo’s career.

The first end of the draft played out the way most predicted with Kentucky point guard John Wall, Ohio State forward Evan Turner and Georgia Tech big man Derrick Favors being selected first, second and third overall by Washington, Philadelphia and New Jersey respectively. Going deeper the big men continued to get taken off the board with Derrick Favors, Wesley Johnson and DeMarcus Cousins the next to be selected. Slowly, as the considered elite of the draft were pulled out of the pool, the first of Toronto’s realistic desirables – Baylor center Epke Udoh – was taken by the Golden State Warriors with a surprising sixth overall pick.

That’s when things got predictably wacky.

“Maybe his injured hand held him back a little bit this past season,” said Triano trying to offer some reasoning behind why Davis’ stock seemed to drop on draft night.

“I think more than that is that everybody expected him to go a lot higher so he didn’t work out for teams below a certain number. When he doesn’t work out for teams, teams don’t get a feel and he slides. You guys have seen part of the workouts, what do they really show you? It’s the scouts who watch games all year and evaluate these guys. We were surprised. We really didn’t have him on our radar because we didn’t think he fit into the five players that were going be available at thirteen. We thought he’d be long gone. To have him keep sliding – we kept crossing our fingers that he’d slide one more and one more and he falls right into our lap, which is great.”

With names like Kansas center Cole Aldrich and Fresno State biggie Paul George taken off the board next, freshmen guards Avery Bradley and Eric Bledsoe remained on the Raptors’ short list and were available, Colangelo’s selection trickled through the wire when the eventual 13th pick came around. League commissioner David Stern announced North Carolina’s Davis as Toronto’s final answer and the determined rebounder with a defensive edge took the stage and shook Stern’s hand in the traditional rookie introduction. The Raptors are no doubt hoping that Davis can aid their limited stopping power and who knows what kind of domino this son of an NBAer represents and how his selection and skill set will effect the summertime movement party the Raptors have almost been forced to throw.

The 225-pound Davis first came under the national spotlight when the University of North Carolina won the NCAA championship in 2009. Following that triumph he averaged 13.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocks over 23 games for the Tar Heels in 2010. The kid knows winning with two state championships as a high-schooler under his belt and a father – Terry Davis – who played in the NBA with Miami, Dallas, Denver and Washington.

“He taught me a lot about this business,” said Davis of his senior. “It’s really helping me just understand how it is to be a professional and how to be a man.”

By selecting the big man what does it say about the plans for free agent power forward Chris Bosh? Perhaps little since the Raptors frontcourt, even with Bosh on board, lacks the depth up top to compete with the better teams of the conference. Maybe it means more since at best, Davis represents improved rebounding and defense; the most glaring weaknesses in Raptorland. Ironically, Davis called Chris Bosh his favorite player so there is some comfort for him, though it’s more likely that the two will be headed in opposite directions in Toronto should they cross paths. In recent days the speculation that Bosh will bolt from Toronto has increased and with strong words coming out of Miami and Chicago the envelope looks just about sealed. Colangelo took to local Toronto airwaves and admitted as much, calling Bosh’s free agency situation “the perfect storm” for him to depart, calling the possibility “likely”.

After making sure that his hand is healed properly Davis will play for the Raptors’ summer league entry. No doubt a training regime will be presented. The left-handed big man has modeled his game after Bosh in some parts though nowhere near the reputation Bosh had coming into the NBA. There’s more work to do with Davis but as it seems to be turning out, the youth movement in Toronto may be just what Davis needs. Despite the looming shake-up the Raptors appeared confident, even lucky, to have Davis on board.

“When you look at the free agents we have,” explained Triano. “Chris Bosh, Amir Johnson, Patrick O’Bryant… that’s four bigs. The fact that we got a big (in the draft) is great. Regardless of who signs, who comes back and who plays he’s a big body and he’s athletic and he fits the trend of what the NBA is starting to move towards. That’s what we want to be.”

With that, young Mr. Davis will be charged with helping to ring in a new era amid the chaos that is sure to ignite yet another overhaul of the Raptors roster that just began with him.

Raptors Struggle Without Bosh

March 3, 2010 by  
Filed under Team Reports, Toronto Raptors

The belief here is that the biggest contribution a franchise or cornerstone player can make with their team besides stellar on-court performance is the mindset they instill in the rest of the players, especially when they are absent through illness or injury. As the focal point of a 12-15 man roster in the NBA there is a lot of weight resting on the shoulders of 25-point a night scorers. That is why the top teams, the ones that make the conference finals, always have two or more legitimate offensive threats, usually of the all-star variety. If they don’t have that they employ a high-caliber defensive stopper, sometimes more, to make up the difference. Everybody else makes due without such luxury.

Over the grind of an 82-game schedule bodies fall and for the Toronto Raptors the wounded have been many… and key. Forward Reggie Evans missed 51 games with an improperly diagnosed foot ailment. Point guard Jose Calderon has missed 14 with varying bangs and bruises, most notably a hamstring setback. Antoine Wright has missed 10 games after getting off to a slow start to the season, though some of those absences were DNP-CD’s (coach’s decision).

Hedo Turkoglu was another slow starter, obligingly given time off after a busy summer of playing basketball. The Raptors as a club actually made it sound like Hedo playing basketball all summer was a bad thing, with everyone from management to in-house broadcast teams waxing on about the fatigue Turkoglu was battling. For what? Most observers would agree that so far Turkoglu has only shown up in full force on occasion and they might also tell you that he is coming off like a one-man San Antonio Spur; he doesn’t make noise until the stretch run of the season begins. That would be right about now but the problem with Turkoglu’s theory is that it does not take into account other factors – not unlike the above-mentioned – that require a ready, steady hand should the cards be suddenly reshuffled. It is a theory that works well when teams are stacked with multiple all-stars, as they have been for most of Turkoglu’s career. In San Antonio, Sacramento and Orlando high-end pieces were plenty, which is not the case in Toronto. The Raptors simply are not good enough for that approach.

In Toronto they are missing their franchise player Chris Bosh and they don’t quite know what to do. Except for wait that is. Wait and keep it together long enough to solidify their seeding in some way. Alas, they have gone from seven games above .500 last week to just three games over the line this week. As close as they were at making that final strike for home-court advantage two weeks ago, they have lost serious ground and momentum since. The Raptors are now closer to being out of the playoff picture than they are to that fourth seed dream, just a couple games up on the eighth seeded Miami Heat who lead the ninth place Charlotte Bobcats by just half a game. The Raptors are not a very good team without Bosh, who has missed the last six contests with a severely sprained ankle.

In fact, even with him the Raptors struggle to win against quality opponents, despite all that overblown January success. And didn’t guard Jarrett Jack call last month friendly February? A month in which the team went 5-5 with losses against the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies doesn’t sound so friendly. Jack’s assessment had the dangerous whiff of overconfidence. So now comes the menacing month of March when the squad could face up to eight plus .500 teams depending on where the Bobcats and Heat are by month’s end when the Raptors play them on a back-to-back. Nine of their 16 games in March are on the road. Of those road games they play up to five .500 teams, again depending on how the Heat and Bobcats are rolling. In case you are wondering the Raptors own the worse road record of any currently seeded playoff team in the league. They also rank in the bottom third of the league in terms of victories against winning opponents, with or without Bosh.

The Raptors were hoping to avoid a prolonged Bosh absence this year, something that has become expected in Raptorland. The difference here is that Bosh’s previous injury absences were knee related problems due to wear and tear. The ankle injury wasn’t lingering, it just happened. Not only does that mean that Bosh’s get-strong summer plan still seems to have helped his previous durability issues but it may also serve to get him back sooner than expected, though ankles are tricky little things. The perennial all-star is expected back in time for Friday night’s home game versus the New York Knicks at the Air Canada Center. Frankly, that should be considered a blessing given his past. He has appeared in over 70 games just once since his sophomore season of 81 games played.

If he returns Friday as expected he would be on pace to record 76 games played. That is an important number because the Raptors have needed him more as a franchise player than anybody else in the eastern conference outside of Miami. Without him the Raptors have shown that they are just not that good. While they would appear to have a duo of potential all-stars in Turkoglu and scoring center Andrea Bargnani, it hasn’t translated to success or leadership in Bosh’s absence. If you can look at their recent 2-4 record without him in the line up and spin a positive out of it, it would be a great feat. The realist will see that the wins came against the Washington Wizards and New Jersey Nets, two of the worst and most dysfunctional teams in the history of the NBA. Against the postseason contenders that helped compile their current four-game losing streak – Portland, Cleveland, Oklahoma and Houston – the Raptors looked sloppy save for a valiant effort against a Shaq-less Cavaliers squad last week. In Oklahoma and Houston they were downright horrible.

Not encouraging signs for free agent to be Bosh. With a supporting cast of Turkoglu, Bargnani, Jack, Jose Calderon and DeMar DeRozan all signed to long-term contracts the chemistry that they show with one another without Bosh is just as important as what they show when he is leading them onto the court. How they play is just as crucial as the way management approaches Bosh this summer to negotiate what is expected to be a maximum deal.

We can recall vividly the time spent covering the Raptors when Bosh was just a rookie. His attitude was impressive, especially when he not so subtly showed dismay at Vince Carter and his “reduced” effort as the guard worked his way out of town in a trade. Unless much has changed in the Bosh philosophy – and in covering him up close and personal since that rookie season clearly his resolve has only grown – it’s hard to believe that he is not just as frustrated with the Turkoglu situation.

How that all contributes to the off-season talks regarding Bosh’s long-term plans is anybody’s guess. For his part Bosh has handled his impending free agency well, effectively putting it on the back burner for media and fans alike to focus on the season at hand. As it has always been maintained in this corner, his decision will rest heavily on the playoff success of this team and the development of its core pieces as a unit. Much of that responsibility lies on Turkoglu and Bargnani and as leaders in Bosh’s absence they have failed to even tread water.

A good team does not go south so quickly because of the absence of one player, even one as stellar as Bosh has been this season.

RAPTORS: Tough Enough?

November 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Team Reports, Toronto Raptors

No Toronto Raptor has been talked about more for so long after his departure.

Statement.

Response?

Vince Carter? Ah, he gets his ink and Toronto fans still spew venom his way a few times a year… and always when Vinsanity is in the Air Canada Centre. Alvin Williams – the anti-Carter – is up there and now that he has returned as a player development coach his name will stay fresh. Alas, Carter and Williams remain a close second and a distant third respectively in the most-mentioned department to a man whose qualities have been wanted and craved by the organization from the second he left town. Charles Oakley, the old-school tough guy who patrolled the hardwood and protected Carter for three seasons is the one most observers look to when describing the current and most glaring shortcoming of the Raptors’ layout. Oakley was as much enforcer as defender and as much a wrangler of collars and necks as he was a rebounder. When he left the T-dot as a fan favorite in 2001 it was the last time Raptors fans would see a team equipped with the necessary toughness to be a true playoff performer.

It has been nine years since the Oak Tree donned Raptors garb and in that time his name has been called in vain more than once. “If Oakley was here that would never happen,” one executive said within earshot of an attentive scribe following a particularly soft defensive stance the Raptors took in some meaningless game two seasons after Oakley was gone. “We need a Charles Oakley type,” fans would beg, calling in radio and television programs to politic for the addition. “We’re not tough enough,” current general manager Bryan Colangelo would say – sometimes in not so many words – over parts of the last three seasons. Everybody was right of course. Over the past six years and even with two playoff appearances to show, the Raptors have been – in almost every way that matters – one of the softest teams in the NBA.

It was the biggest part of what led Colangelo to gut his roster this past summer, leaving Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon as the only familiars from training camp a year ago. That’s more than just simple turnover, it’s what you call changing the culture.

“A lot of people think being tough is being big and strong and pounding your chest and acting tough,” says head coach Jay Triano dismissively. His eyes shift to the questioner, intent on making his point. “It’s about doing the little things every single day. That’s what makes tough players… people willing to make sacrifices and willing to make them every day.

“John Stockton was one of the toughest players in the NBA and he was 6-1 and 175 pounds. He knew how to set screens, he knew how to make hard cuts, he practiced hard every day and he wasn’t afraid to stand in and take a charge or a hit… I think that’s the attitude we’re trying to instill in some players and that’s the kind of things that start in training camp by making them accountable. Accountable for every cut and for every screen.”

That’s what most people forget about Oakley. Behind the physical force, intimidating stare and trash-talking (and smacking) chops was a player dedicated to the finer details of the game. In Oakley’s head it didn’t matter how much muscle was flexed on a box out, screen or timely pick and pop. If it were done wrong all the brawn in the world wouldn’t help it. If it was wrong it hurt the team, the effects were accumulative and before you knew it players with bad habits surrounded you. Triano saw much of those habits as an interim coach last season after Sam Mitchell was fired in December. With his first ever training camp under his new multi-year head coaching deal he finally had a chance to drill his philosophy into the heads of his squad from the get-go.

“Last year we had clips that we showed where guys would go and set a screen and they’d go like this,” explains Triano, stepping back to imitate the timidness, eyelid shuttering and irresponsible positioning that plagued many of his former players. “(It was) because they didn’t want to get hit. Guys that are tough get down and sit there and they know they’re going to take a hit.

“We had guys going to set screens and see a guy coming full boar and they’d try to get as small as they could. They idea when you set a screen is to stay legal but get as big as you can. That’s just one example but it’s a good example of what tough is and what it’s not.”

Triano’s frustrations could be seen courtside and jived with most observers who just didn’t see the night-to-night effort. The thinking then, and one the team officials admit to now, is that the Raptors as-is had peaked and the management was at fault for trying to squeeze one more season out of a team that limped into and were quick first-round playoff dumps in 2007 and 2008.

Colangelo was already heaping praise on newly acquired iron-spitter Reggie Evans before anybody got to see him play in Raptors garb. Evans, who apparently lit a fire under Bargnani during informal workouts in September by throwing more physical play at the fourth year forward in preparation for training camp. Evans who has yet to play a single regular season game for the Raptors, injured and sidelined while the squad continues to roller-coaster.

“Reggie Evans came in and had such an impact on the flow in two days of scrimmaging,” said Colangelo in October at his hope-selling best. “I have to say Andrea – who was unfortunately the recipient of his defense and his toughness and his grit – at some point got a little frustrated. Imagine if he’s doing that to his teammates what he’s going to be doing to other guys.

“The second day Andrea was a completely different player. It’s like he was mentally and emotionally prepared to go in and fight Reggie… he responded.”

Evans is no Oakley, but his defensive grit and ability rebound has earned him a solid reputation as a new-school toughie. Guard Jarrett Jack, another new Raptor, is also a defensive presence for the backcourt and has a clear definition of being NBA tough.

“Playing through injury,” says Jack with a shrug. “And if other guys go down guys have to be able to step up.”

During his four-year career Jack has missed just six games, all in his first two seasons. Evans has missed just three over the last two years. Hedo Turkoglu, the Raptors’ prized off-season get, has missed 18 games over the last four seasons and just five over the last two. All three have played big roles for their respective clubs over this time, legitimizing them as durable players. Yet as Raptors Evans has already missed a dozen games and Turkoglu has looked fatigued – to a detriment – at times.

In 19 NBA seasons Oakley played the full 82 game schedule six times. He also has two 80-game seasons and played in at least 76 games four other times. In 1994 Oakley played and started in 102 games (including playoffs) for the New York Knicks, a long-standing league record unlikely to be duplicated. His final seasons, a 42-game tour with Michael Jordan’s Wizards and a seven-game stint with the Houston Rockets, were a wash. In the end he managed to appear in 1282 games

And eight years after he left Toronto Oakley’s name still rings, maybe less for what he was and more for what the Raptors haven’t been. Triano’s hope is that his new charges contribute to making his core players stronger and give them some of what he didn’t get nearly enough of in 2008-09.

“I think Bryan wanted major change and he addressed the toughness,” says Triano. “He identified our three best assets; Jose, CB (Bosh) and Andrea and said ‘we need to surround those guys with guys that are a lot tougher’.”

Alas, no matter how many ‘tougher’ role players are added to this team the responsibility still lies with the core of Bosh, Bargnani and Calderon. The truth is they need to be surrounded with tougher players because they haven’t exhibited enough of it themselves. If playoff success is to be realized those are the three that must develop a harder edge and follow the assassin’s creed. The teams that have the most success in the NBA are those whose best players are also their most durable performers with heightened resolve. All three have been criticized for a lack of just that. Will the addition of these headier players inspire and improve the franchise cornerstones or simply mask their deficiencies?

“Those three guys that I mentioned are tough in their own way,” continues Triano. “I think that being around these other guys will scratch the surface of what they can and will be as far as their toughness.

“Toughness becomes contagious. It’s the strength of a pack. Even if there’s a fight over there and it’s two guys that have gone to battle for me I’m going to be willing to go in there and support them a little bit and step up. The other terminology is ‘fake it until you make it’. Fake like you’re tough until you actually become tough or convince other people that you are.”

The transition from being thought of as a push-around team by most of your competition to being feared by them is not an easy one to make. Last season teams repeatedly spoke of how free they felt in the fourth quarter of games against a Toronto team that struggled to put teams away. Struggled to step on the throat. To finish the job. Former Raptor Jermaine O’Neal spoke of how, when playing for the Indiana Pacers, he always felt like he had the edge over Raptors teams.

“Teams talk and players talk,” said O’Neal last September at the start of his brief stint with the Raptors, which ended in him being traded several months later along with Jamario Moon to Miami in exchange for off-season trade-away Shawn Marion. “This team (the Raptors) – and it’s no knock on the team – has always been a nice team. A very talented team but they’ve got a lot of nice guys. You come in and throughout the game you can tap them on the shoulder and say “Hey, how you doin’?’” and you know right then that you got ‘em.

“A team wants you to laugh and joke. They know you’re not going to play as hard.”

O’Neal never had that mind-shifting effect over his teammates during his cup of coffee in Toronto but his point was as well taken then as it is now. He called it. The Raptors were too nice, too easy, too shook. O’Neal’s good friend Rasheed Wallace, the Boston Celtics’ big summer signing, has long been known as a culture changer (though his methods are oft-questioned). For all the critical darts that fly his way over his big mouth savvy, from no corner has there ever been a call questioning his grit. That example was not lost on young forward Amir Johnson who spent four years with Wallace playing for the Detroit Pistons, widely acknowledged as one of the toughest teams of the last decade.

“I go out and play with a great toughness,” says Johnson standing in the center of the newly constructed atrium at the Air Canada Center. “I think I learned that from Detroit playing with ‘Sheed and them because those guys are all hardcore tough players.

“It’s all about your hustle. I hate when my man scores. You never try to let your man score. If he does get the ball up foul him and foul him hard too, so he doesn’t get to score… make him earn it at the line. That’s what I mainly learned from those guys. Go after every rebound, pressure your man and pressure the floor. That’s all it was in Detroit, just a lot of hustle.”

In doing that Johnson endeared himself early to the Raptors coaching staff during the first week of training camp. Later on the preseason he was knocked out of action when his tooth pierced his top lip on a hard foul (his) during a game versus the Philadelphia 76ers. Johnson returned with two stitches to supply key defense and rebounding late in the game of the eventual loss. His athleticism is in contrast to reacquired center Rasho Nesterovic’s mentoring, more formal brand of veteran ball and Johnson’s attitude is part of the contagion Triano hopes to spread across his troops. To his credit, Johnson has been one of the bright spots off the bench for Toronto but it has yet worn on the rest of the brigade.

Over the short length of Colangelo’s reign as GM of the Raptors he has had great initial success followed by a trickling decline in club performance since 2007. Addressing the toughness issue has been one of his biggest failures but it hasn’t been for a lack of trying. Over the course of the last three years Colangelo and his team, which includes assistant Maurizio Gherardini, have made multiple attempts to add some sandpaper. One of Colangelo’s most ingenious free-agent signings was Jorge Garbajosa, the grimy Spanish import whose NBA career was cut short after one season following a grotesque leg injury during the 2006-07 season. He then traded Charlie Villanueva to the Indiana Pacers for point guard T.J. Ford, the resilient Texas product who had rebounded from a career-threatening spinal injury. His impact suffered after a scary fall during the 2007-08 season that limited him to 51 games. He was traded the following summer to Indiana in exchange for O’Neal who lasted half a season in Toronto, he too returning from an injury (leg) that had cost him most of the previous season. Along with those bigger names borderline NBAers like Joey Graham, P.J. Tucker and Lonny Baxter have also been rolled through and team officials, media and fans alike would exaggerate into ridiculousness the possibilities, so strong was the hunger for an Oakley-type.

On paper and through training camp it seemed as though Colangelo may have gotten it right but the early season has proved otherwise. Rebuilding last year’s bad-mix roster into a more balanced team with more athletes, depth and guys who are apt to ignore on-court social chatter hasn’t been a success. In fact, it has been more of the same.

“The guys that we brought in are going to make a difference,” Colangelo promised during his preseason media address. “All these changes have put us in a position to at least start fresh while maintaining our three core guys.”

There’s an old saying that goes “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” The Raptors will have to spend most of this season making sure those words are more piss than prophecy.