Wednesday marks the beginning of Jay Triano's biggest test as an NBA head coach. Seriously.
The man has already (some say improbably) retained his job after a woeful 2008-2009 season, he's made his disparate roster cohesive over the last few weeks and he's even taken a historically bad defence and made it passable enough to amass a collection of wins in the month of December – but tomorrow truly represents his biggest test.
Wednesday, by all accounts, Jose Calderon will return from injury to the Raptors lineup. How Jay Triano adjusts to that fact will go a long way towards defining the Raptors' season from here on out.
The facts are these: Two seasons ago Jose Calderon usurped T.J. Ford's starting job by playing such insanely efficient basketball that he simply couldn't be removed from the starting lineup of the team. Egos clashed, Ford balked, and Jose ultimately agreed to go back to the bench. Everyone knew, though, that while Ford won the battle, Calderon had won the war.
That summer Ford was traded to Indiana and Calderon was gifted with a substantial new contract, amounting to nearly $9-million per-year for the next five years. Ford had created an image of himself as a petulant egoist while Calderon (who flirted with All-Star consideration that season) made himself out to be the ultimate martyr. While neither impression was exactly correct, Calderon became a core element of what the Raptors wanted to become and so the Raps made the only choice they felt they could make (and it isn't like Ford has done much in Indiana to make Toronto rue their decision, either).
Since that time, however, Calderon's game has been in steady decline. Be it from injuries or inconsistencies, he has struggled to maintain the level of play that thrust him to the forefront of the organization's core. His status hit a new low last month when the team was struggling; his stats were down across the board, his defence was being chided as a large proponent of what ailed the team and he couldn't seem to curb either trend. When he went down with any achy hip in early December, no one was quite sure where the team was headed, though many predicted the direction was straight down.
In fact, what actually happened was that Jarrett Jack brought some defence to the starting point guard spot, Hedo Turkoglu was given a larger role in the playmaking, and the Raptors started reeling off wins at a rate not seen in almost two years. Even the oft-maligned Marcus Banks began chipping in with some rugged play off of the pine. To watch the team play was to forget, for a time, that Calderon was even a factor that would one day have to be considered when his body finished healing up.
Well, tomorrow is that day, and Jay Triano has some big questions to answer going forward.
The most pressing is whom he sees as the starter for the team going forward. Jack has done an exceptional job in place of Calderon, much like Calderon did in place of Ford, and pulling him from the starting five would seem exceedingly foolhardy.
However, there is an unwritten rule in the NBA that guys aren't supposed to lose their jobs when they are out with injury. The thinking being that a demotion is tantamount to punishment and no one should be punished for getting injured. That said, though, one has to wonder how much longer Calderon and his abysmal defence would have even lasted in the starting five had he not been injured – but that's a debate for another day.
The point is that as unfair as it would be to Calderon to bench him for getting injured, would it not be just as unfair to Jack and the team to stick Calderon back into the starting five after they've worked so hard to create some chemistry, stability and momentum as a unit without him, especially with the strides that they've made defensively that Calderon would no doubt upset?
One would also have to wonder what the motivation would be behind starting Calderon at this juncture, anyway. The Raptors are only a week and a bit away from their most important stretch of the season, facing off against a stream of sub-.500 clubs and a chance to overtake Miami for the fifth seed in the East.
Do they really want to risk dropping some of those games while they work to re-integrate Calderon into the first unit? Do they want to risk experimenting now, when they have finally found some consistency to what they are doing on the court? What would Calderon even be able to offer the starting five that would make them a better unit? His playmaking isn't markedly better than Turkoglu's, Jack has basically replicated Calderon's stats as a starter but has added rebounding a defence to the mix and Calderon's need to have the ball in his hands can really stagnate Toronto's offence. This isn't meant as an attack of Calderon so much as a legitimate question: what does he offer the starting five that would make his re-insertion necessary (or even defendable)?
So if the starting five is not appropriate for Calderon, then what is? Well, he could play the role of playmaker off of the bench like he used to, but the bench doesn't exactly run the way it did back when Calderon was a statistical marvel.
In 2008 the bench rotation consisted of Jason Kapono, Rasho Nesterovic and Carlos Delfino whereas today that crew trots out Sonny Weems, Amir Johnson and Marco Belinelli – night and day in terms of makeup.
The 2008 crew needed a passer who could get a lot of standstill shooters open shots by running a Euro-style offence. The 2010 crew needs a guy who can run the floor, make quick finds and maximize the athleticism of those around him.
Calderon fit the former group perfectly and the latter group not so much. Calderon is a system point guard, getting guys the ball when they are meant to get the ball in whatever play they are running. He has never been great at freelancing, catching guys making sudden cuts or playing fast basketball – it's just not the way he was taught the game.
Plus, people romanticize Calderon's efficient scoring as a reserve somewhat, since he was just a 7.7 PPG guy on .478 shooting (.324 from three) as a reserve in '07-'08 while playing 22 minutes-per-game. While the backup unit could desperately use some scoring juice, history doesn't suggest that Calderon is that guy. They need a break-you-down scoring guard, not a walk-it-up, throws-it-to-the-three-point-line guard.
There is also a question of who loses minutes to accommodate Calderon. Obviously Marcus Banks returns to the DNP pile, even if he's been a pretty reliable contributor in Calderon's absence. However, that only accounts for about 7-12 minutes.
Antoine Wright or Sonny Weems could lose a couple of ticks, but that not only removes defence from the floor but that also throws Jarrett Jack back to shooting guard, where he has been less-than-exceptional this season. He has an 11.4 PER as a two-guard versus 16.1 PER as a point.
One could say, then, that Jack simply loses some minutes to accommodate Calderon, but there is another telling stat that would suggest that's a bad idea as well: Jack holds his counterparts to a 16.2 PER as a point guard versus Caldeorn who allows for a 23.7 PER, which puts his matchups into a Dirk Nowitzki/Kevin Durant level of player efficiency. What that essentially means is that guys tend to play well above their typical production against Calderon, and how much time do you want to spend with that being the case versus a guy who can keep his matchups at an Omri Casspi or Roy Hibbert level of player efficiency?
In a way I feel bad for Calderon; in the time he's been with the Raptors he's seen his stock rise and fall based as much on the players that have surrounded him as on his own production as an individual. The roster makeup has changed significantly and he's had trouble adjusting his game thusly.
Given his salary, though, Triano has to find a way to wedge him into some seriously meaningful minutes for this team, which means re-imagining, to some degree, the makeup of his rotation that has won eight of their thirteen games since Calderon was shut down. That means that guys who have performed as well as they've been asked to perform must now see their minutes slashed to accommodate a guy who, through no fault of his own, has become a questionable fit with his own roster.
Two years ago Calderon was busy establishing himself as an integral part of what the Toronto Raptors were as a basketball team, and now he's the elephant in the room that no one wants to tackle head on.
Regardless, he's a major cog that must be accommodated and he must be accommodated in a way that doesn't disrupt the recent success that this team has had over the course of the last month of the season.
He's a talented player – too talented to simply be cast aside or given spot minutes as a courtesy. Even still, no role seems overtly apparent from this vantage point and no hole in the roster seems ideally suited to his skills.
Maybe by watching from afar he's found himself a niche that he can help this team from, maybe he's found a solution to some of this team's still-existent flaws that he's itching to bust out.
Beginning tomorrow, all of these questions will be answered as Jose Caldeon rejoins the only NBA squad he's ever known, and it's up to Triano to make it work.
Even if it doesn't turn out to be his hardest task to date as an NBA head coach, it certainly has the chance to set him up for some serious re-thinking in hindsight.