This has been a madcap summer for the Toronto Raptors, with a bushel of new players acquired by Bryan Colangelo in an attempt to return the club to the post-season and convince All-Star Chris Bosh to re-sign with the club next summer.
However, the man who is actually charged with making sense of the madness is head coach Jay Triano. On Monday I sat down with Triano for a lengthy discussion about last season, his overhauled roster and the myth of the Raptors as a running team.
Tim Chisholm: So when you took over back in December, did you already have a style in your head that you'd use if you took over as head coach? Is that the kind of thing you'd think about?
Jay Triano: You have the style that you want to play. I like the ball moving and I want the ball pushed up the floor. I value the possessions too much to do the 'seven seconds or less' type of style where we're going to take a shot, good or bad, and we're gonna get it up there. I honestly think that you can score a transition basket with eight seconds to go on the shot clock because you've run down the floor and created a mismatch that maybe takes a little bit of time to exploit. That's still transition to me because we won that battle in the first five seconds by running down the floor and creating a mismatch. Transition baskets to me are a little bit different but I always want to run and be the aggressors offensively.
Now, have we been what I wanted us to be defensively? Absolutely not. We have to have a toughness and a desire to want to play defense. I mean, the best teams in the league are the best defensive teams. We were twenty-first in field goal percentage allowed last year, and that's why we weren't in the Playoffs.
TC: Given your personnel then, especially defensively, did you have to sacrifice your personal philosophies in order to make this team run as best as this unit could?
JT: Yeah, for sure. I think that the sign of a good coach isn't 'this is my style and we're gonna play this way.' It's taking the pieces that you're given, the injuries that sometimes happen, and trying to put it together in the best way to maximize the guys that you have.
I think it's the same thing when you're dealing with people one-on-one. I mean, some guys need to be patted on the back and everything has to be positive and some guys need a real kick in the butt, and you have to get on them to get them to get to their full potential. So I think coaching a team is the same way; you can have your style but there had better be adaptations to it in order to find out how you can best play.
TC: Now, when you first took over in December, Bosh struggled. His shooting percentage went down ten-percent, his scoring went down by six points per game. He looked like he wasn't sure anymore where he would get his shots. Sam Mitchell had a system where he really focused on getting Bosh his looks on isolations and pick-and-rolls, but you sort of democratized the offense. Do you think he had trouble adjusting to that kind of system?
JT: I think so, yeah. I just think in the past, largely because of our personnel, Sam would give him the basketball and he would hold it on the block and then make a play and if he got double-teamed, he'd throw it out and other guys would get involved. If they didn't double, then it was gonna be whether Chris can beat this guy one-on-one tonight is going to determine whether or not we win or lose games.
I think that Chris got worn down a little bit. Especially when I had taken over, after the length of the summer, whether that's coincidence or not, or the fact that I tried to take the ball out of his hands and not let him hold it as much. But I think that he really started to grow at the end of the season, he started to put up better numbers and he started understanding what we were trying to do and I think everybody's going to be like that initially. It's gonna be my job in training camp to make sure that we adapt the style and get it comfortable for everybody right away and that it doesn't take Chris ten-to-fifteen games to feel good about what we're trying to do offensively.
TC: So what was it in those last few games that finally got the team to push through?
JT: I think it was everybody getting it. The one thing that I like is to have the basketball move. Defenses in this league are getting so good at locking-in and concentrating on stopping and so the more you move the ball the more difficult that is for them.
We had a point guard in Jose (Calderon) who wanted to bring it up all the time, all the way. We had Chris who liked to hold it. We had Jermaine O'Neal early in the year who liked to hold the basketball. I think at the end we finally just 'got it' and everybody went and everybody moved. We told Jose 'if there's a guy ahead of you, pass it up. You're as good of a shooter, you can catch it coming back and shoot it.' 'Chris, don't hold the ball. You can make a move right away or swing it. If you can't make a move in one-and-a-half seconds, forget it.'
I think everyone started to feel better about that and we started moving the basketball and we became a much tougher team to guard. It started in transition; if you got the rebound, go. Don't look for an outlet. We got into the habit were a guy would get the rebound and Jose would come running back and we'd hand it off to him and then we'd go up the floor. No, if you get it, go. And then Jose goes and if he's open, give it to him, pass ahead. I think we started playing with a lot more flow that way. I think the more fun it is offensively, with everybody touching the ball, guys bought into the defense a little bit more, we got better rebounding with [Shawn] Marion, a guy who tracks the basketball. I think if you have those three things every game you become a better team.
TC: You took a lot of heat for your record after Mitchell was fired. Did you feel somewhat vindicated by the way that you and the team ended the season?
JT: Honestly, I didn't feel the heat, but to feel vindicated? [pause] I was glad that we played the way that we did. Especially with guys knowing that we were out of it. It's pretty tough to motivate guys for 82 games a year, let alone trying to motivate them when their chances of playing in the post-season are gone. What're you playing for? I appreciated the fact that our guys played as hard as they did and got a chance to see what it could be like.
TC: So then when did you feel comfortable that you'd be coming back as the head coach?
JT: I didn't feel very comfortable for a while.
JT: No. I can't say that I was confident that I was gonna come back and I wasn't confident that I was gonna get let go. I didn't really know. You know, Bryan was always supportive through the tough times and I just kept coaching. That's the one thing I'll always do, I kept coaching. It was my job to be there and I was there working hard, whether we were trying to win that last game to get into the Playoffs or whether it meant nothing. I'm gonna prepare our guys all the way through and make sure that we're ready. I know I was under the spotlight but at the same time that's what I do. It's what I did when I was an assistant coach and I'm not gonna change. I'm going to work as hard as I can to try and make us successful. If I need to bring in people that will help me and augment my style, I'm not afraid to do that, either.
TC: So going into the summer, how does it work? Do you and Bryan sit and think of guys that could fit into last year's system better, or do you fantasize about your ideal system and try to find guys who'll suit that?
JT: Well, I think Bryan and I have the same philosophy as far as the offense and the way we want to push the ball and move. Lots of movement. I think the next thing that came was, 'where were we deficient last year?' We were deficient in toughness and rebounding. We gave up something that I don't like to lose and that's shooters when we gave up [Jason] Kapono, but we needed to do that to get a toughness and a defensive presence and a guy that lets people know that they were coming into our building. We get that with Reggie [Evans]. We did the same thing when we got Antoine Wright; he's another guy that's got a real toughness to him and an attitude. Jarrett Jack's a tough player and a tough defender, so we addressed that.
We addressed the depth that we needed, too; we just didn't have enough depth. We had all of our money locked-up in Jermaine O'Neal [last year]. That deal to get Shawn in here gave a us chance to get a really good look at Shawn, and we liked him, but when you take a look at the fact that in exchange for Marion we get Turkoglu, Wright, we get a bunch of players in a deal and you think 'well, we've gotta give up something to get something.'
The biggest thing for me is that we have a bench, though. If you look at the guys that may come off the bench, the third string, our last five, you're looking at Quincy Douby and Amir Johnson maybe – if he doesn't beat out Reggie or Rasho (Nesterovic) – and last year it was Douby and Pops (Mensah-Bonsu) as our second line off the bench. Now they're pushed back. It's like there's a whole other starting five as our backup five that's been put into place. So that's kind of interesting and we'll have to see how we manage our minutes now.
I don't know if we really looked at the style of play so much because when you look at us you ask 'are we a running team?' No, but we are a transition team. I don't think with this starting lineup we're going to outsprint anyone down the floor, but we're going to be moving the ball and we're going to be wise in how we attack. We get guys like (Hedo) Turkoglu, who can make plays, Jose, who can make plays. We added (DeMar) DeRozen, who's going to be our athlete in that group to run and then we've got those toughness guys that I talked about. Then it's going to come down to Chris and Andrea (Bargnani) being able to defend and play in the low-post area. We got Amir Johnson to back them up, and Rasho and Reggie. I mean, I like the roster where it is right now. Does it fit a running style, no, but it fits a transition style.
TC: So, speaking to that depth, there was a point this summer when all that looked to be off the table in an effort to sign Hedo. Was that ever a concern a concern for you?
JT: Big time. That's one of the reasons that, as an organization, we debated how much we wanted to go after him initially because we knew the cupboards were bare. But, to Bryan's credit, before Steve Fruitman (Senior Director Basketball Administration and resident capologist) came in with the magical numbers in the four-team trade, he said he looked around to every team and every team is going to be tight. There's going to be a lot of minimum salary guys that we could fill out this roster with that are still pretty darn good. When you look at the guys who are signing to go to Europe, guys who want minimum salaries and they still aren't getting jobs - Joey Graham doesn't have a job right now, he's a minimum salary guy somewhere. Here's a guy where if you said you're going to renounce him but you're going to get him back at a minimum salary, that's pretty darn good. Bryan said 'if we sign Turkoglu, we're going to get some pretty good guys. Trust me, I'll find you good players that are minimum salary guys.'
But then, you know, the trade happens - it was unbelievable. Not only did we get Turkoglu and Wright, but we get [Jarrett] Jack, because all of a sudden we've got money to spend. All of a sudden we've got two teams now, we've got a starting group and a bench group, though I don't know who's in which one.
TC: So even though you've been talking a lot about starting DeRozen, that's still not set in stone?
JT: Everything could still change. The reason that I think of starting him is because where else do you get a young guy minutes? You want those minutes coming with good players. If you can buy him eight minutes in the first quarter and eight minutes in the third quarter, now you've got a rookie who's playing sixteen minutes per game but they're good minutes. You're not winning or losing NBA games in the first eight minutes of the first quarter or the first eight minutes of the third quarter. If he does well, he's going to earn himself more minutes. If he doesn't, and we feel like we need to bring him off the bench, then we'll do that.
I really like our back-end guys, and those will be the guys who are on the floor at crunch time, but it will give (DeMar) a chance to grow with our top four or five guys that are hopefully going to be with out organization for a long while. I mean, we've got Jose for four years, DeRozen for four, Jack for four, Turkoglu for five, Bargnani for five, Bosh for one. That's our top-six players and five of them we have for four or five years. I don't think you can be in a better situation than that. And if that doesn't sell Bosh on coming back, obviously we want Chris here, but then I still think that when your top four or five guys are in that position, then you reload with somebody at that spot and it's a pretty good group to be playing around.
TC: So then if those are your core guys, is it a matter of rotating the guys around them to maximize what they're going to be able to do?
JT: Right. I mean, Reggie will come in as our big guy, Rasho will be our stabilizer, Amir will come in as an athletic big, Antoine Wright will probably come in and be a stopper and help spell off Hedo for a bit. (Marco) Belinelli is a scorer, he'll be a scorer in the second group that comes in and makes stuff happen, and Jack will play both at the point and the backup two just to make sure that we get him enough minutes because he's a darn good basketball player.
TC: Now, you used a ten-man rotation a lot last year…
JT: I did early. I did early, and I hang my hat on why we successful at the end on the fact that we made a pact as coaches that we weren't going to have Jose and Chris Bosh off of the floor at the same time, and we had done that. They're both going to get tired at the eight-minute mark and we would go to the bench. We were one of the top teams in scoring in the first quarter but we were one of the bottom two teams in scoring in the second quarter. I talked to Jose and Chris and told them that I'm going to take one of you guys out earlier because I need to have one of you on the floor all the time. When we did that late in the year, that's when we got going. I think you have to keep your star players on the floor as much as you can. Now I have the luxury of a Hedo, a Jose, an Andrea and a
Chris – keeping two of them on the floor at all times. I think during training camp and preseason we're going to figure out where we suffered when three of those guys were off of the floor. We're doing a whole lot more with statistical analysis on games and who's on the floor during runs and stuff like that, more than just the plus-minus, and that will give us a feel for who needs to be on the floor for the majority of the time.
TC: When you're working through your roster and your strategy for next season, is it about finding ways to maximize Bosh, who's your anchor, or is it a matter of finding a way to maximize the greatest number of players?
JT: Maximize the greatest number of players.
TC: Even if it diminishes the largess of Bosh's role?
JT: Yeah, for sure. And I think it'll be a little bit tougher for Chris early, but at the same time it's going to be better for him. It's going to maximize his endurance throughout the year, because we've seen that every year, in the second half of the year, with the knee problems or whatever, it is because he's logged so many minutes. I'm not saying his minutes will go down because he's done an unbelievable job this summer of getting much fitter and much stronger, but we have to make sure that we do not wear that kid out to the point where he's got no bounce and he's shuffling down the floor like he did in the second half of the year last year. He just had no bounce and you've got to make sure that he has that live bounce and that he has it all the time.
Check back Wednesday for Part Two of Tim Chisholm's two-part interview with Raptors head coach Jay Triano.