One can berate Jose Calderon for only so long for being such a thorough liability on defense, because at some point the finger has to get pointed at the man who insists on matching him up against guys like Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams in the most important stretch of the Raptors' season (and considering the implications with Bosh this summer, the stretch becomes one of the most important in team history).
When that same man calls his team's effort in a 27-point loss ''good,'' fans are going to start doing more than pointing their finger at him.
I think that inside Jay Triano is a good coach. I think that he has a brain for basketball and that he has enough respect in the basketball world that my opinion (or that of any pundit) doesn't remotely affect his standing one way or another. However, the way in which he has handled his team's slide of late has appeared out of touch with reality and defending much of his decision-making would strain the credibility of anyone who chose to do so.
In one sense, his decision to re-insert Calderon into the starting five is a perfect starting point for this mess. After all, for all of the team's problems in the last few weeks there aren't many who were feeling the blame fell at the feet of Jarrett Jack, the man who lost his starting role to Calderon. Nor did many see Calderon as a savior wasting away on the bench, primed to launch his team back into competitiveness. He's only steadily regressed since signing a long-term deal with the club in 2008, in both on-court performance as well as reputation. However, Triano's decision to start Calderon only brushes at the edges of the real problem that is eroding this season for the Raptors and that's accountability. At least, it's accountability in a useful, impacting sense.
Right now it reads as though there is no disciplining going on in Raptor-land. Assignments are blown defensively with staggering regularity by Calderon, Andrea Bargnani and Hedo Turkoglu, yet they are all playing as many minutes now as they have played all season. DeMar DeRozan has maintained a starting spot all year by default, despite being regularly outplayed by his reserves; Antoine Wright and Sonny Weems. No one on this team takes boxing-out responsibilities seriously, not even Amir Johnson and Reggie Evans - players more interested in out-jumping their opponents of late for rebounds than doing it the old fashioned way. In fact, the only player on the roster that one could say has played up to the expectations of his role to near perfection has been seldom-used backup guard Marcus Banks. Who thought that would be the case when the season tipped-off last October?
The thing is though; despite near nightly locker pleas for increased effort and intensity by some, the most egregious offenders feel no need to pick up the slack because the coach feels no need to discipline them for their self-made limitations. Heck, Calderon was PROMOTED last week instead of being reprimanded for his complete lack of defensive execution. Coach says he likes the way the offense runs when Calderon has the ball, but has offense really been the issue these last few weeks? Has anyone really watched this listless team since the All-Star break as they rack up losses and say to themselves ''if only this team could fix its offensive attack?'' I didn't think so.
The message that promoting Calderon sends to the troops, then, is that one is rewarded for positive offensive performances and not for positive defensive effort. In fact, one can be a wretched defender but they'll be gifted with a starting spot so long as they are perceived to be a better option on offense. No wonder Reggie Evans is always looking to post-up instead of boxing-out, or that Sonny Weems would rather jack a transition jumper than stop an odd-numbered fast break score. The message being sent in Raptor-land is that if you impact the team on offense, you get promoted.
Now, obviously this is a bit of an over-simplification of the matter, but remember this all comes back to accountability. How can Triano preach defense in practice or in the huddle when he has said loud and clear with his actions that defense is a secondary priority for him. Look at the Raptors starting five right now; is there a worse five-man defensive unit that the team could assemble with its 12-man rotation? Statistically, the book on this team is that they are not only the season's worst defensive outfit but they are competing for historically bad status, yet defense is still not prioritized with accountability.
Again, this isn't just an issue of Calderon. In a way, Triano has actually unfairly put him into the crosshairs of the media and the fan base when Bargnani, Turkoglu and DeRozan have been nearly or equally as bad of late. Nonetheless, in a game where Deron Williams is literally toying with Toronto's starting point guard (and he was showboating with the ball because he could, and all the power to him), why not hold him out after his wretched first quarter effort and play Jack and Banks the rest of the way? In a game this team seemed eager to lose, what's the reason not to? It isn't as though his three assists or 4-for-11 shooting were helping the team offset his lack of defense at the other end. Why not send a message and let the more rugged Banks have a shot at guarding Utah's prized possession.
In that same vein, why not do the same to Bargnani? While we've all seen how sensitive he can be to being marginalized by his coach (see two-and-a-bit years under Sam Mitchell), there comes a point when the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. How can you ask Amir Johnson and Antoine Wright to dive on the floor for a chance at a loose ball when Bargnani won't even track a rebound already in his area? When will he HAVE to feel compelled to work harder to prevent his teammates from being left out to dry with his lack of aggressiveness? When can his teammates feel a sense of equality to the standards they are each being judged by?
Of course, I would be remiss to not at least acknowledge at that while I believe Triano could do a better job managing his personnel, he can only coach the players he is given. His best players, the guys the team has to lean on heaviest if they expect to win, all have noticeable defensive liabilities. The empirical talent drop-off from his top players to his role players is steep, which does make it harder to balance sending messages while also attempting to eek out wins. He is also left to deal with the fact that, outside of Bosh and Jack, he has no true two-way players. None of his remaining troops are equally able to be factors on offense while also putting in consistent efforts on the defensive end. It isn't that Bosh or Jack are incredible defensive performers, but at least they try to play the game within the defensive schemes that the team has laid out for them. It's hard to balance a rotation when every substitution has to be a straight-up choice between offense or defense, especially because no matter how important defense is, this is still a scorers league.
It's hard to say where the Raptors go from here. Everyone knows their perilous situation as it pertains to the post-season and everyone knows that this team would improve their chances greatly to reach the post-season if they upped the competitiveness by about 100-times. That, though, is the frustration being felt around the Raptors fan base these days; it isn't a case of talent or scheduling, per se, it's a question of competitiveness. A question of will. This team just doesn't want it enough to work for it each and every game, each and every possession. Then, after a 26-point loss at home in a crucial matchup against another playoff-destined foe, the coach calls his team's effort ''good''? Well, let's just say wounds don't get salted much better than that.