Chisholm: Emerging point guard issue in Toronto?

Tim Chisholm
12/21/2009 4:39:38 PM
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While it's hard to say exactly that the Raptors are on a roll (they have teased and regressed more times this season then most care to recount), they have managed to string together more wins than losses in their last ten (6-4), which can be counted as something of an upturn. Scheduling has helped matters, as the Raptors have had more lightweights to fend off than heavyweights, but when you're sitting below .500 you don't tend to discriminate over your wins.

However, the Raptors recent mild success has come at a time when starting point guard Jose Calderon has been nursing an injured hip and their record in his absence (4-3) is noteworthy for several reasons.

The first and most important is that his injury did coincide with an easier schedule, which benefitted the Raptors. No matter what interpretations follow this fact, this fact must nonetheless be highlighted. It isn't likely that Calderon's presence would have derailed Toronto's chances against Minnesota or New Jersey and his being healthy and available may (or may not) have made a difference in Milwaukee, Miami and Orlando.

However, by that same token one can reasonably assume that the paths to victory against Houston and New Orleans may have been different (if present at all) had Calderon suited up for his team. Aaron Brooks, Houston's jitterbug point guard, is the kind of quick-footed matchup that gives Calderon fits. He has trouble staying with guards of his skill-set at the best of times and Jarrett Jack's defensive presence had a lot to do with Brooks' 6-for-20 shooting night and Toronto's subsequent victory. By that same token, Chris Paul lit up Toronto for 21 points and 18 assists in Toronto's November victory against the Hornets with Calderon in the lineup, yet in Sunday's defensive affair it is unlikely the Raptors could have absorbed another such performance and still escaped with a win. Jack (and injuries, to be fair) held Paul to only 10 points and 7 assists in that contest, with Marcus Banks lending an occasional helping hand in slowing down the All-NBA point guard.

In that sense, Jack's defense has arguably been a better fit with the starting five than Calderon's once prodigious offense has been this season. Obviously Jack has benefitted statistically to be a starter, seeing his averages boost to 12.4 points and 6.0 assists per game, up from 8.3 and 4.0 as a reserve, and his shooting percentage jumped from 41% to 52% with the move. Those stats compare well to Calderon's 11.7 points, 6.2 assists and 52% shooting, but with Jack giving more rebounds (4.0 versus 2.2) and defense than Calderon ever has.

Those kind of stat bumps are expected when a guy goes from 27 to 33 minutes each night, but fortunately for Jack and the Raptors, his starting has impacted those around him, too.

For instance, Hedo Turkoglu has seen upticks in his scoring, assists and shot attempts per game as a result of playing next to Jack. While it hasn't always been consistent, Hedo is definitely seeing more of the ball now with Calderon not around to dominate it so much and with coach Jay Triano adjusting to the configuration. He's been more in the flow of the game and considering Toronto's sizeable summer investment in him it's promising to see an arrangement that brings more out of the forward than he was giving to the club otherwise.

Also, as a result of Jack's defensive contributions, penetration on the perimeter has been reduced considerably, which has helped Andrea Bargnani stay out of foul trouble trying to cover for Calderon's mistakes. While Bargnani averages 3.1 fouls on the season, he's down to just 2.5 in the games without Jose. The same can be said of Chris Bosh, who averages just 1.6 fouls in games without Jose versus the 2.4 he averages on the year. Those close games against Houston and New Orleans weren't as perilous for the Raptors down the stretch because they didn't have to worry as much about their vulnerability at the point of attack with Jack and Sonny Weems holding court instead of Jose Calderon having to guard one of the opposing team's perimeter players. While +/- isn't exactly the most telling NBA stat, Calderon's -92 ranking puts him fifth from the bottom against the league's other starting point guards, and he ranks behind guys like Beno Udrih, Chris Duhon and Mike Conley Jr. with that distinction.

Reduced to more observational terms, the team just looks better equipped to compete most nights without Calderon lining up in the starting five. Given that Turkoglu and Bargnani are hardly stoppers at their positions, and that Bosh and rookie DeMar DeRozan both suffer from lapses on assignments, having at least one steadying defensive force on the floor to start games helps over having the team's worst option joining this crew. Jack is a more natural scorer than Jose is and what he lacks in playmaking skills Turkoglu makes up for nicely. I had @dinonationblog tweet me on Sunday saying, “hey what goes around comes around Jose got the job through injury and I think he is on his way to losing it the same way.” He's right in that there is certainly some symmetry to that course of action, but as I've said before I don't think that the Raptors are best served by simply bringing Jose off of the bench instead of starting him. 

The biggest reason why is asset management. Jose Calderon is a person and a professional basketball player, of course, but he is also an asset in the portfolio of the Toronto Raptors. Not only that, he is an expensive asset, locked into a lucrative contract for the next four years (including this one). To simply dump that asset onto the bench to serve as an offensive catalyst like he once did seems to not be in the best interests of the Toronto Raptors.

First of all, he wouldn't be an insurance policy against an injury-prone starter like T.J. Ford, anymore. Jarrett Jack has proven to be one of the most physically dependable guards in the NBA, having never failed to play in less than 79 games in a season and having played all 82 games in the last two years. Having a high-priced backup for an injury-prone starter (like Jack is for Calderon) makes sense, but having a high-priced backup for a durable starter makes less sense.

Secondly, Jose isn't making $2.5-million like he was the last time he was a backup. This season he's going to take home $8.2-million, making him the 11th highest paid point guard in the NBA. That puts him into the class of Mo Williams, Devin Harris and Jameer Nelson, which is a salary stratum not befitting a backup. Now, one could argue that because Jack is only being paid $4.5-million the Raptors could absorb Jose's high contract off of the bench, and I'm not arguing otherwise, per se, I'm just saying that having such a high-priced asset on the bench seems wasteful for a team still searching for a way above .500.

Lastly, Calderon plays a position that always has value. Some will say his value around the league has been reduced since he was a trendy backup two years ago, and that may be the case, but there are still teams that would put together compelling offers to make him one of theirs. It isn't that Bryan Colangelo should head out like a traveling salesmen pitching his wares, but this arrangement could offer him some flexibility to improve the team once he has a grip on where he could best use a talent infusion.
Ultimately it will fall on Triano to assess how he's going to deal with Calderon once he returns from injury, and that action will dictate the course the organization takes thereafter. By that time the team may be on a high looking to avoid rocking the boat or they could be on a low clamoring for change. Either way it may be hard to justify to legions of armchair coaches and GMs removing Jack from the starting five when he has presided over what has been, to date, the most successful run of games for the Raptors all season.  It may also be hard if orders come down from on high to showcase Calderon and word of a trade leaks, like what happened around this time last year with Jermaine O'Neal, but Triano must play the hand he's dealt.

All told the Raptors no doubt have zero interest in another point guard controversy so soon after the last one was dealt with (by shipping Ford to Indiana), so how the following weeks play out when Calderon is deemed healthy enough to return will be a very interesting balancing act to watch. Simply handing him his old position is no longer an easy decision and if the Raptors stay on the better side of .500 with Jack as a starter then giving Calderon his starting spot back may well be the more controversial option of the two. If that turns out to be the case the Raptors will have yet another bout of interesting questions to answer as to how they are going to deal with their Calderon circumstance thereafter.

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