Chisholm: Defence not the only issue for struggling Raptors

Tim Chisholm
12/3/2009 12:19:02 PM
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Here we are on December 3rd, not even a quarter of the way through this NBA season, and the Raptors are already in a severe panic mode.
All of the hope and promise that befell this team after a summer makeover has collapsed under the weight of a five-game losing streak (nine of their last eleven have been losses, too), one of the league's worst defenses and an offense that has suddenly lost all of its early season punch. Chris Bosh called this a 'bad team' last night and at this point there is no sugarcoating just how on the money he is.

At times like this the blame can be laid everywhere. There is a decided lack of energy and focus on the court from the players, the adjustments made by the coaching staff have had little to no effect on the court and management is beginning to look culpable for putting all of these pieces together in the first place. Last night, coincidentally one year to the day after Sam Mitchell's last game as head coach of the Raptors, the locker room finally cracked and exploded with accusations of coaching malaise eerily reminiscent of that fateful game against Denver last December.

There is a key difference, though: this Raptors team is painted into a corner, and in all likelihood is going to have to find a way out in this configuration as constructed from top to bottom.

First of all, Jay Triano isn't going to be fired. Well, never say never, but with the team still paying Mitchell and now paying Triano, it is unlikely that they would add a third salary to that mix. Fans clamoring for an expensive hire like Byron Scott or Lawrence Frank can leave those thoughts at the door. Hiring internally, like say former Phoenix assistant and Memphis head coach Marc Iavaroni, could be a last-ditch option, but would his lack of success in Memphis really instill more confidence in management than Triano's current circumstance?

The fact is that it appears that Triano has some serious damage control to do considering he's stuck in this job, and it begins with him exploring all of the seemingly valid criticisms being laid at his feet. If he is truly not calling out players for fear of their sensitivities ('cough' Andrea Bargnani 'cough') then Jarrett Jack was right to gripe about it to the press. There are so many individual breakdowns in rotations on defense that can be laid at the feet of Bargnani and Jose Calderon right now that even the possibility that they aren't being reprimanded for it is going to boil the blood of any paying customer at the Air Canada Centre. Plus, we have yet to see much of any signs of the get-out-on-the-break or passing-based offenses that Triano preached to every corner about in preseason. His current system, despite his plethora of scorers, has looked laughably easy to stop in the last week or two of the season. It's as though he came out to start the season with an idea of how to run this team's offense and was subsequently shocked to learn that opposing teams would scout it and learn to defend it. The team has been reduced to a series of pick-and-roll and isolation plays that may as well have been designed by the man Triano replaced a year ago today.

Not to pile it all on Triano, but he isn't helping his cause with fans with his Mitchell-esque remarks at the end of games, either. His casual "the shots didn't fall tonight" and "there are no problems with the starters" routine after Tuesday's loss to Washington were atypically dismissive for Triano and last night's claim that he felt his team was really trying out on the court was either delusional or insulting considering the records approached or broken for ineptitude.

Still, the old saying goes that the coach isn't out there on the court playing. He may be castigated for not getting on his players, but it is ultimately the players' poor play that has this team in their predicament. Guys aren't moving to get good shots, guys aren't communicating on defense, no one is boxing-out their man – it isn't like any of this is rocket science, it's basic basketball that they're screwing up. Pine all one wants for Reggie Evans, but he's just a role player who'll throw his body around and grab some boards. At this point in the season, the Raptors' problems have extended far beyond what he's going to be able to remedy.

What all of this seems to boil down to, then, are two issues that stem from the same basic problem. 

As the team is currently constructed, a poor job is being done to prioritize certain players on offense. Clearly Bosh is the key figure in whatever this team does offensively, but after him it gets muddled. Who is the next guy the team is looking to get involved? Bargnani? Turkoglu? What is Calderon's function, then? He should simply be setting the table for these guys, but his assists are way down this season (6.4 compared to 8.9 last year) and it looks like he's only valuable when he too is scoring. What is DeRozan meant to offer the starting five?

This extends to the reserve units, too, when Bargnani (who plays a lot with the second unit) and Belinelli should be focal points but will often be ignored for multiple possessions. No one is getting enough attention to be productive because from night to night it looks like someone else gets to be the focal point behind Bosh.

The reason behind some of this is coaching, but it also looks to be the makeup of the team. This club, it has turned out, has incompatible talent. I always preferred this team keeping Shawn Marion over acquiring Hedo because it created less redundancy on the roster while also servicing a need (defense and rebounding). However, the team went with Hedo and is now facing the reality that squeezing another scorer into this core might have been a foolhardy effort.

Here's an example: Hedo broke out with the Magic because he found himself with the ball at the point a great deal of the time for the first time in his career. He plays at his best when he has the ball in his hands and he is allowed to create for himself and others. He is a rhythm player, and he needs the ball to stay in his rhythm and when he doesn't have the ball he tends to fade out of games. In Toronto, though, the team employs a ball-dominating guard in Calderon, who also needs control of the offense to stay productive. Right now, Calderon sees more of the ball, so Turkoglu is wildly out of rhythm (his shooting percentage overall is solid, but game-to-game he's incredibly inconsistent since the more shots he takes the more he misses) and he's more often than not relegated to being a REALLY expensive spot-up shooter. However, he is given enough time at the point to upset Calderon's rhythm, so his assist numbers have fallen off and he's become more of a scorer, which the team already has in abundance.

Here is the problem with having so many scorers: there is only one ball!

In an attempt to keep everyone around Bosh productive, no one gets enough shots to stay productive on a consistent, game-to-game basis. Plus, Bosh, Bargnani, Turkoglu and Calderon all start the game together, which means that someone is going to get left out of the early game attack and will need to find another time to get in the flow of the game. It's not going to be when the bench comes in, though, because that just gives you Jarrett Jack and Marco Belinelli, two more guys who need shots to stay effective as players. 

Now, teams like Phoenix can adjust to a situation like this because they have one of history's all-time great playmakers in Steve Nash running the show, a man who can handle the challenge of keeping everybody productive on the court, plus Phoenix a more rigid pecking order than Toronto does, anyway. Channing Frye isn't meant to get as many shots as Bargnani, Grant Hill isn't meant to get as many shots as Hedo Turkoglu and Steve Nash is far better than Calderon at balancing his scoring against his passing. The Suns have one primary bench scorer, Leandro Barbosa, and he actually gets consistent touches when he comes in the game, unlike Belinelli. The Raptors have paid a lot of money to a lot of players to all basically do the same thing and the team as a whole is suffering as a result.

Then, of course, there is the defense. Here's the thing: this team isn't ever going to be a dominant defensive force. If they could sort out their offensive struggles they might be able to mitigate the defense, somewhat, but so long as "Traffic Cone Calderon" and "Rotation-free Bargnani" play two of the most crucial defensive positions on the court for this team, defense can pretty much be written-off as a possibility for this club.

Then, as we wind down this epic tome we inevitably come to the topic of trades. Well, here's the dirt, kids: it ain't gonna happen – at least not for a while. Bargnani has a poison-pill provision in his contract, making him hard to move and Hedo has a contract so big not even Mark Cuban would touch it. Calderon is playing some of the least inspired basketball of his career, is still owed a lot of money and there are few teams that could use Jose that could also give the Raptors a meaningful piece in return to justify the trade (and no, simply making a trade to get him gone is not going to happen, either). Beyond those players you'd be dealing with swapping bench players, which isn't hardly the kind of move that is going to shake the melancholy off of this club.

That is unless you're talking about capitulating completely and moving Chris Bosh. The team isn't anywhere near that kind of panic yet so we'll put that idea away and see where this team is in February.

The hope this season was that this team could float around .500 and gel for the first two months and then turn 'it' on in an easier second-half of the schedule. However, blowout after blowout has seen this squad lose faith in their coach a lot earlier than most would have predicted and now the Raptors are six games below .500 and are looking worse and worse each time out. Management put all of their eggs into this basket and their now forced to ride it out and hope that their group can turn it around because already this season is looking eerily similar to a year ago and the fans will be a lot quicker to jump ship this time around. This may seem like an unnecessarily fatalistic approach to take given the speed at which changes are made in professional sports, but this team has to show that they have something in their arsenal that can (finally) bring on meaningful change before anyone is going to believe it can be done anymore.

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