Yesterday we began looking ahead by looking back at the few positives that have befallen the Raptors this season, and today we conclude the list with numbers three through one.
3. ENTER THE MATRIX
Bryan Colagnelo had been trying since the day he landed in Toronto to either acquire Shawn Marion or a player of his ilk to fortify his wing positions. Of course, there are very few players in the NBA who can bring to the game what Marion can, and when Toronto's GM saw an opportunity to nab the man himself he waited patiently for Miami to acquiesce to the deal. As soon as Marion hit the floor for Toronto, his impact was immediately felt as he brought a commitment to defense, rebounding and running that has (finally) begun trickling down to the rest of the roster.
But Marion's impact goes deeper than just style. On March 13th, after weeks of consistent losing, he lashed out, saying that he was ''pissed off'' and that he didn't ''want to go out there and lose every night.'' After a season spent letting fans down (and chastising them for booing) someone on the team was finally saying what the fan base was feeling. Finally someone inside the organization seemed to be as disgusted as those outside it, and finally the team had a player who seemed willing to hold his mates accountable for their failings. Despite coach Triano's clipboard-shattering fire and brimstone act from the sidelines, most of Toronto's players seemed indifferent to their fate this season. Marion wasn't, and he let it be known.
Since Marion sounded off, the team has gone 4-2 and has played with a vigor that went unseen for most of the season. Marion himself stepped up his on court production and his teammates followed suit. There is (somewhat baseless) talk about the Raptors letting him go this summer or participating in a sign-and-trade scenario to get him to another team, but aside from the obvious impact he has on the court – and Phoenix can attest to how hard that is to replace – the Raptors cannot afford to lose work ethic and accountability in such a crucial summer. On a team littered with indifference he was the lone voice who was willing to step and tell the world that he was as pissed off as everyone else was, and that is a player a notoriously soft organization needs to keep.
2. THE MEASURE OF CHRIS BOSH
This is a somewhat controversial idea, but it nonetheless stands as a positive going forward. Bosh has always fancied himself on the same plane as LeBron, Wade, Paul and Howard. He has oft spoken of a desire to be seen throughout the NBA as a player who deserves to lineup alongside the game's young greats. However, while those four players saw their careers take another step forward this year, Bosh saw his hit a wall that pokes a number of holes into his self-evaluation.
Are LeBron, Wade, Paul and Howard better than they were a year ago? Absolutely. Is Bosh? Not quite. Bosh still struggles with butterfingers, he still doesn't move much without the ball to get easier looks at the basket and he can still fall into tunnel vision with the ball in his hands. His commitment to rebounding has been inconsistent all year, being spectacular one night and absent the next, and his defensive improvement do not live up to the potential that Bosh hinted at during the Beijing Olympics. Without Sam Mitchell's tough love relationship, Bosh seems to have grown complacent while those he longs to compare himself to have upped their production another notch this season.
Of course, it doesn't help that Bosh was saddled with a razor-thin roster that got beset by injuries within weeks of the season starting. Still, Wade hardly plays with world beaters and LeBron and Paul have certainly had to deal with injuries to key teammates all year, yet both of them refused to allow their team's fortunes to dwindle whereas Bosh seemed incapable of altering the fate of his Raptors.
This is all a good thing for a number of reasons, the chief one being that finally the team has an idea of Bosh's limitations. When he was just a bushel of limitless potential he was very hard to build around. It was difficult to tell which of his faults were temporary and which were hard-wired into his game. Now the team has a far better sense of the kinds of players that need to surround Bosh to keep him winning, as was evidenced by the hustle, defense and rebounding acquired in Marion and Pops Mensa-Bonsu. The organization knows, also, that Bosh will need a finisher to play alongside him, much like Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol do, because Bosh isn't a player who thrives in late-game or must-score situations.
It also gives the Raptors about a year's head start in dealing with Bosh: The Real Player versus the Bosh: The Idea of a Player that most still believe him to be. Bosh has much more in common with this summer's free agent, Carlos Boozer, than he does with next summer's James and Wade. Like Boozer, he shouldn't be a top-level, max-money player and the Raptors may be able to exploit the fact that most still believe he is in trade discussions this summer. Plus, after this season there has got to be some faction of the organization that is wary of having to ink Bosh to a $100-million-plus deal so if a team can bowl them over with a trade proposal the Raptors will have to think hard about pulling the trigger (especially if they can get out from under Jason Kapono's onerous contract in the process).
Now keep in mind that Bosh is absolutely a player a team can build around, so this isn't meant to imply that he's not, but what this season has provided was a glimpse of how much talent is needed around him to make his team a winning one. If Bosh says he's in for the long haul with the Raptors then that would still be the best scenario for the team to go ahead with. However, if Bosh proves lukewarm about the prospect then at least the team can explore alternatives with a half-decent sense of the player they are giving away. Bosh is not going to become Duncan or Garnett, that has become clear (in fact, his game resembles a pre-surgery McDyess if it resembles anyone from that era), so if the team is forced to move ahead without him the sting is dulled, if ever so slightly, by the fact that the Raptors finally have a clear sense of what Bosh's ceiling might be.
1. THE RETURN OF IL MAGO
Two summers ago, the future looked incredibly bright for Andrea Bargnani. The number one overall pick in the draft had defied early expectations to finish as the runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting, he'd had a positive impact in his first ever NBA Playoffs and he looked poised to take over as a full-time starter when the team reconvened the following fall.
When the team reconvened, though, the plan began to fall apart. Bargnani was yo-yoed in an out of the starting five all season as the team tried desperately to reclaim some measure of consistency that eluded Bargnani in much last season. His shot was way off, with a 39 percent field goal accuracy to be exact, his rebounding was worse and he looked absolutely broken, confidence-wise. When the team started this season with him as a full-time reserve it was with the hope that it would spark something in Bargnani by not having the weight of undue expectations as a starter on his shoulders, yet still he struggled to recapture the promise that had so many excited after his rookie year.
Of course, that's all history now. Bargnani has spent all of 2009 reminding the NBA world why he was selected number one overall three years ago by averaging 17.7 points and 6.2 rebounds as a starter this year, and averaging 52 percent shooting (including 52 percent from three) in the month of March. That puts him squarely in the company of Utah's underrated starting centre Mehmet Okur at only 23 years of age. He's rounded out his attack to include not just three-point shooting but a killer pump-fake, dribble, pull-up move and quick cuts all the way to the basket. His around the hoop game is vastly improved, as he now takes 25 percent of his shots from in close, where he shoots an field goal percentage of .589, and he's doing a better job of demanding the ball when he is in spots he feels comfortable scoring. As his confidence has risen so has the confidence of his teammates in him to make good decisions with the ball. At several points this season he has carried the team's offense (he's led the team in scoring fourteen times this season) and twenty-one times this season he's posted 20+ points. Bargnani represents, for the first time in franchise history, a true second scorer for the Toronto Raptors.
Of course, quietly or otherwise, that's not the real story anymore. As the talk of trading Bosh continues to swirl (and will continue until he's either extended or traded) the question become whether or not Bargnani could maintain or even improve upon his 2009 numbers without Bosh around. One argument suggests that paired with a shot blocking and rebounding big man and a scoring wing (both could and should be a return, at minimum, in any Bosh transaction) Bargnani could use his multifaceted offensive attack to lead the Toronto Raptors into the next decade. The counter-argument is that without Bosh drawing defensive attention away from Bargnani he'd struggle under the weight of being the team's primary weapon. As maligned as Bosh has been in Toronto of late it can be easy to forget how effective a scorer he is, especially considering the interest defenses take in trying to shut him down. It's all speculation since no one has any clue what Bosh could actually fetch in the open market but it would be premature to expect that Bargnani is ready to fill his shoes just yet – but that doesn't mean he won't be asked to next fall.
The point is that Bargnani's emergence this season has not only validated his selection as the number one overall pick, even in such a mediocre draft as that of 2006, but it's also given the franchise a little bit of breathing room as it pertains to handling the Bosh situation. He went from downright bad to eerily good rather swiftly and with Bosh or without his development will be key to any success that Raptors hope to have going forward. Considering that his decline was easily the most depressing part about last season's run, it's only fair that his explosion back onto the scene tops the list of positives a year later.
Not much has gone right for the Raptors this season, but at least a small handful of events have set the team up with an ounce of promise heading into a key summer in the history of this club.