Sorry Raptors fans, but this is what you (inadvertently) signed up for.
Importing nine new players into a brand-new system – especially on defence for players unaccustomed to playing defence – is going to take time. No one wants to hear it and no one wants to live with the ramifications, but them's the breaks.
The Raptors just completed a three-game road trip with no time to practice in any meaningful way and so the slippage in the schemes should have almost been expected as the trip wore on. Does that excuse the lack of effort on display at times or the inability to secure rebounds? Not entirely, but everything is symptomatic of everything else; if you're out of position because of a botched rotation then you are not as locked-in to the action as you'd like to be and you might miss a box-out or an open man. In some of those instances that means one has to dig down deeper and stay focused on the game, but sometimes it's just someone else's mistake and you can't see that you have to fix it in time. It makes for some truly ugly basketball, but that's how the next few weeks are going to look too, so y'all had better get used to it.
At this point, there is no team that the Toronto Raptors "should" beat. While a San Antonio club missing two All-Stars may look like a squad ripe for the picking, the Raptors are not cohesive enough yet to simply stroll up and grab the fruit. Some nights they are going to be totally locked in and some nights they are going to be totally out of sorts. One can liken it to playing an instrument or learning a new language; one day you may think that you've finally pushed past a certain wall only to run into it again the next time you sit down to play or speak.
This is little solace to paying fans that are in the market for some consistent and competitive basketball, but if this team is going to reach that threshold then they need the time to make (and iron out) all of the mistakes involved in building something new from (almost) scratch.
However, there is one interesting quirk that has begun to crop up that is worth some extra attention, and that is the three-headed shooting guard position. As nice as it is to be able to get rookie DeMar DeRozan meaningful minutes with his best teammates, one has to wonder what he is actually learning being totally ignored while out on the court. He is one of the few Raptors who has committed to running the floor in transition, he makes hard backdoor cuts, he is athletic enough to get himself to the free throw line and yet he NEVER sees the ball. While the Raptors have a lot of hands to feed in that starting five, no unit is as effective with four offensive options as it is with five. Young players like DeRozan tend to perk up when they are afforded some role in the scoring, and his athleticism and quickness on defence have shown an uptick in those scenarios. Perhaps this is simply stage one of a larger, full-season plan, but the early returns on any plan are hard to decipher at this stage.
This is especially relevant in light of the fact that Antoine Wright could actually offer something meaningful to this starting five that doesn't currently exist in any form: perimeter defence. This team is getting exposed off of the dribble by any and every guard who feels the urge to venture into the paint. While the rotations with the help need to occur more quickly and with more commitment, the fact that Jose Calderon and DeRozan do so little to slow their attackers gives the help defence no time to react on said rotations. When you're a team still learning what those rotations are, those lost seconds are resulting in open looks and/or free throws because everyone is still thinking their way through the game instead of reacting.
While Wright isn't a lock-down defender, he is someone who makes an effort to stay with his man and not leave his responsibilities on someone else's doorstep like some unwanted baby. With the offensive firepower this team has displayed of late, they could do a lot to put teams who aren't as offensively talented into a hole early in the game by playing just a modicum of defence, and Wright may be the man to bring that element to the starting five.
It wouldn't be as important if DeRozan were able/allowed to provide something in his early minutes, but since he's basically a non-factor perhaps this team should at least consider the potency of a change.
Another reason that this might help the team is that Marco Belinelli is teetering on the brink of being underused. He is a sparkplug for this team and they need to find ways to get him minutes, especially when the team has a lead and is looking to expand it. On Monday night, the Raptors kept carving out ten-point leads and were unable to expand them with the second unit because there were so few offensive weapons on the floor.
It isn't as though the whole course of the game would have been altered if Marco had received first-half minutes, but his twelve points and three assists in seventeen minutes suggested he might have had something to offer earlier in the game.
That too, though, is part of the early season learning curve. This team is still without one rotation player (Reggie Evans) and adding him back into the mix would push this team's rotation to eleven players.
Sometimes having a lot of depth is a good thing (like when trying to account for an injury), but sometimes it's hard for guys to settle into roles when their role is so different from night to night. Even a main cog like Hedo Turkoglu, who got to handle the ball and set the play a ton against Detroit and New Orleans, saw his role change against Dallas and San Antonio, where he was taken off of the ball and had a harder time making an impact in those games.
The point is, there will be more frustrating losses for the Raptors in the coming weeks. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that is the cost of so many off-season moves. The trick for the Raptors, though, is to hold firm to their principles, take their lumps now, try to stay around .500 through 2009 and then turn on the jets in the two-thirds of the season that comes after. The season isn't even three weeks old, yet, so everyone chill and we'll see where they are three weeks from now.