It's becoming increasingly redundant to open these posts discussing the innumerable negatives that have plagued the Toronto Raptors this season, especially in light of the fact that the team has reeled off three straight wins. So instead we shift our focus to the five biggest positives to come out of this season and we'll look at the impact that they'll have on the summer and season ahead.
5. THE EMERGENCE OF ROKO-COP
When the Raptors traded away T.J. Ford last summer (along with Rasho Nesterovic and Maceo Baston), they did a number to their reserve crew, however no position was as affected as severely as the point guard spot T.J. was vacating. In the last two seasons the point guard position had been a spot of strength for the Raptors as they were able to platoon two starting guards to wreak havoc against opposing clubs. With the exile of Ford, though, the position became a one-man spot including Jose Calderon and no one else.
To remedy this situation the Raptors imported two European guards to fill out their depth at that position. One, Will Solomon, was supposed to log the majority of the minutes as the team eased former second-round pick Roko Ukic into the position slowly. Solomon was (shockingly) seen as the Anthony Parker of the point guard position due to his dominance of the Turkish basketball circuit and was believed to be ready to man a backup spot full-time for an NBA club. It turns out that being the MVP of the Turkish League is not quite the same as being a Eurobasket MVP (like Parker was) and Solomon struggled mightily with consistency at a position with elevated importance when Calderon's hamstring began limiting his playing time.
However, as games began to have less and less meaning, the 'why not?' theory was put to use and Ukic was given more and more minutes to learn on the job and iron out his own consistency issues. Ukic is a guard that has a confidence and aggressiveness that belie his still-raw abilities, assets that never dimmed, even with inconsistent playing time. His recent uptick in minutes, though, has allowed the Raptors' brass to glimpse at the kind of player they'll have in Ukic as his skills begin to catch up with his intensity. Were he to have continued as the third-string guy, the team may have felt unsure of what they had outside of the practice court when they had to make roster decisions this summer. In game action, however, he's shown an ever-increasing ability to run an effective offence at the NBA level and he seems to have a solid grasp of the things he can (drive) and cannot do (shoot) on the court. He plays aggressive without forcing his game, he looks to get his teammates involved in the offence and he punishes defenses that give him paths to the basket. In recent games against the Clippers and Thunder, Ukic recorded 8 and 10 assists, respectively, while having only three turnovers combined in the two contests.
As the Raptors look to reshape (as opposed to rebuild) their club this summer they will probably feel a lot more confident leaning on Ukic as a full-time backup given the experience he has gained in year one as an NBAer. While expecting him to have a Calderon-esque turnaround in year two is inviting disappointment, having a confident and capable backup (that doesn't create friction by being TOO good to be a reserve) would be a welcome asset to a club that has not had such an option since Chris Childs donned Ukic's number 1 from 2001 through 2003.
4. THE TRIANO EXPERIMENT
Jay Triano is a very well respected coach, and not just by players named Steve Nash. Triano has survived three coaching changes in Toronto and has a firm understanding of how basketball works and has a strong personal philosophy of how he likes to see it played. He was hired as an assistant coach this summer for the Team USA Select squad, a group of up-and-coming players who scrimmaged against the Olympic team during their preparation for the summer games. That made Triano one of only six coaches brought into the inner sanctum of the Team USA infrastructure, a group that included Mike Krzyzewski, Mike D'Antoni, Jim Boeheim, Nate McMillan, P.J. Carlesimo and Triano – and that's it. That's seriously exclusive company and Triano was a part of it. When it comes to the future of the Raptors head-coaching chair, most signs point to Triano sitting atop it.
There are very few impact coaches available in the open market this summer, with guys like Flip Saunders and Eddie Jordan possessing the talents that several clubs will be after this summer. Their price tags are going to be high, probably too high for a club already shelling out mega-bucks to deposed head man Sam Mitchell. Next-tier guys like Mo Cheeks or the aforementioned Carlesimo are options, but they bring with them a lesser guarantee for success but a price tag that will reflect their name recognition. In all likelihood the Raptors are going to be forced to keep Triano on as their head man for the foreseeable future.
So when does this all become the fourth-biggest positive for the Raptors this season? When we realize, like some have in the last two weeks, that Triano might be the right choice for the job, despite his horrific record. As the team's roster has gained health and stability, they've begun developing chemistry with each other and familiarity with Triano's system. In the last two weeks the Raptors have obliterated Indiana, the L.A. Clippers, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City by playing fast and smart basketball. Now, beating a string of bottom-feeders hardly wins anyone a Red Auerbach trophy, but the way the Raptors beat those teams goes a long way towards proving that Triano's offensive and defensive philosophies are sound and appropriate for this group of players. The team has gotten more comfortable getting out on the break, they're assisting more than they have all season, and they're even out-rebounding their opponents in March by an average of 3.3 per game. The team scoring in March is up over 100 ppg for the first time all year and the players actually look like they belong out on the court with each other.
So here's how this breaks down: The Raptors will (and should) gauge the level of interest of guys like Saunders and Jordan, and they'll probably even have a sit down with Euroleague maestro Ettore Messina, but should those avenues prove unfruitful for the club (or too expensive to a club still paying Mitchell), it says here that the organization will confidently hand the full-time reigns of the team to Triano and revamp his support staff accordingly. He's had nearly a full season of on-the-job training without the players revolting against him - in fact they seemed to warm to him and his philosophies as time wore on - and with all of the external factors going in his favour, another week or two of knocking off basement dwellers will probably secure his seat for at least another year or two in Toronto. Fret now, if you like, but the club will be hard pressed to find a more capable and compatible match to this team in the months ahead.
Come back on Sunday to check out the top three positives from this Raptors season.