At this point in the Toronto Raptors' season there is little to play for except for the benefit of next season. Pride clearly does not motivate this particular crew on a night-to-night basis so the focus of the remaining 14 games that populate this campaign must be areas of concern/curiosity for next year's hopeful resurgence.
To that end there are many (many!) questions that need to be addressed; from Chris Bosh's future with the club, to viability of Toronto's free agents, to the vacancy in the (permanent) head coach's chair – all will be scrutinized to death in the coming weeks and then put towards solving in the months that follow.
However, one issue that has become particularly relevant in the last four or five weeks is whether or not Jose Calderon is a point guard that can lead a Triano-favored up-tempo attack. Yesterday's easy rout of the LA Clippers proved to be another uncomfortable example that Calderon might not be right for that particular job.
Before we delve into the nitty-gritty of the argument, let's just state for the record that Calderon has shown that, when healthy, he's still among the top-third of NBA starting point guards. He may not have the natural flair of a Chris Paul or the rugged determination of a Deron Williams, but in his way he gets the job done at a position that is becoming increasingly important on the NBA landscape.
However, the key idea there is that 'in his way' he gets the job done. Calderon is a stellar system point guard, especially when the system unfolds at his pace. When he knows where a player is supposed to be in an offensive set, or where to find his open shooters after his penetration, he's perfection. He'll rack up assists with little effort and he'll know exactly where to get his shots because the system has basically made those decisions for him, he just has to read how deep into the variations of a particular play he needs to delve. He reads defenses at his pace and makes the smart decisions accordingly, leading to his still-stellar 4.06:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. His methodical approach sometimes leads to stagnant offensive possessions but more often that not it will lead to the 'right' look for the particular set, whether or not the intended scorer can capitalize on Calderon's efforts.
The problem for the Raptors, though, has been that they too rare maximize their offensive possessions. They are shooting .456 as a team this season, down from the .465 they averaged over the last two years and closer to the .454 that they shot three seasons ago when they finished fourth from the bottom in the East. Calderon may be doing a great job of getting guys the ball at the right times in the right spots in half court sets (as attested to by his NBA fourth-best 8.6 assists per game), but as of today his teammates aren't the most adept at finishing his efforts. The team sits in the bottom-third of the league in points per game at 97.6 and has even fallen to 12th on three-point shooting percentage (37%). As a result the coaching staff urges the team to run the floor so that they can get easier looks at the basket before opposing defenses have time to set up against them.
Therein lies the schism: Calderon works best when the pace is slow and determined, but the team scores best when the pace is fast and furious. The Raptors shoot a FG% of .517 in the first ten seconds of the shot clock, and dip to .471 in the next five seconds (the jump back up to .515 in the ensuing seconds correlates to Chris Bosh's .493 percentage in that time as the team will start to look to him to bail them out of a short clock situation). Too often on fast break opportunities, though, Calderon either takes the ball all the up the court himself (instead of outletting to a teammate ahead of him for a layup or dunk) or he stops himself at the three-point line to look for a trailing three-point shooter.
The main principle behind a quick-strike attack is that it gets a team high-percentage looks around the basket with minimal defensive interference. However, Calderon tends to circumvent that principle with his perimeter-focused approach. While he assists 40% of all field goals made while he's on the floor, only 31% of those assists are in close or dunks. Steve Nash, comparatively, sees 55% of his assists wind up as in close or on dunks because he isn't afraid to outlet the ball on fast breaks and because he also looks to penetrate in open-court scenarios to draw defenders from around the basket and then he dishes off for easy dunks. What he doesn't do is stop at the three-point line to wait for shooters. Nash's style costs, though, and its cost is Caleron's nemesis: Turnovers. Nash ekes out a paltry 2.7:1 assist-to-turnover ratio that would give Calderon nightmares and it's part of the reason for Calderon's reluctance to emulate much of Nash's frenetic style.
Still, Nash's approach has much sense behind it despite the risky nature of its execution. For instance; if a point guard has Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani or Shawn Marion near the basket because they ran the court on a fast break, do you really want to look them off so that Anthony Parker or Jason Kapono can get a look for three just because it's a safer pass?
Going back to the Sunday's Clippers game, though, one is reminded why Calderon makes the choices that he makes. Unlike Nash, Calderon, for whatever reason, is terrible at making good passes towards the basket in these scenarios. He cannot throw lob passes to save his life (the Chris Bosh alley-oop pass thrown in the first quarter was way too high and was only saved by Bosh's extraordinary athleticism), and he frequently over-passes to Marion on cross-court baseline looks. His outlet passes are technically fine but his timing and positioning leaves a lot to be desired (it's as if he knows he 'should' get it up the court so he throws it without regard because coach says to).
Consider that the Raptors managed to get 100 shots up against LA and yet Calderon only managed six assists in that span. Likewise, when the Raptors got 91 shots up against Dallas on March 1st, Calderon only managed 3 assists in 36 minutes of play, and he only assisted five times in 88 shots against Phoenix three days earlier. Comparatively, when the Raptors played Charlotte on Friday, Calderon supplied 11 assists on 66 total field goal attempts.
So what's the remedy? It's hard to say. Calderon was brought up learning basketball in the European leagues where NBA level athleticism is rare. Even in his few years on this side of the pond he's rarely been surrounded with many players who used athletics as a weapon (even Jamario Moon was more comfortable with a jumper than a dunk). However, now he's being asked to get the ball up on the break to Marion or to get Bosh and Bargnani a couple of easy looks in transition and it goes against any style he's played in his career. His adaptation issues are thusly explainable, if not excusable. While he's adapted well to being given the reigns to call plays himself under Jay Triano (a task Sam Mitchell rarely afforded his playmakers) he never looks poised to make quick decisions on the fly, even at coach's behest. How will that affect the Raptors' summer plans, and who has to adapt (the team, the coach or Calderon) remains to be seen.
Perhaps all that is needed is time to get Calderon's mind wrapped around such a high-risk, high-reward style of play, though, is time. Perhaps a full training camp, with a preseason's worth of mistakes, can accelerate his adoption of a faster brand of basketball. After all, only since Marion's arrival in mid-February has Calderon even had a teammate that consistently made an effort to actually run on the break like the coach has asked, and so perhaps a month is too short a window to expect Calderon to adapt to that system.
Of course, the fact that there are still so many questions to answer about this team might even make this point moot in a few months. Perhaps new personnel will profit from a slower attack like Mitchell used to prefer. Or perhaps a new coach will opt not to look for fast break opportunities for easy scores (why any team would hire that coach is another question). Or perhaps Calderon simply dedicates himself this summer to breaking out of his comfort zone and leaning other brands of attacks, leaving questions about his adaptability at the foot of history. Either way, it will stand as an interesting subplot to keep watch on as the season mercifully comes to a close.