Chisholm: Breaking Down The Raptors' Backcourt

Tim Chisholm
4/17/2010 3:23:40 PM
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Call it the curse of The Original Raptor, but the point guard position has been a headache for this team ever since Damon Stoudamire begged with way out of Hog Town twelve years ago.

Mark Jackson was targeted as a key free agent in 2000, only to be traded away months later, much to his dismay and the dismay of his main recruiter, Antonio Davis. Alvin Williams, the plucky fan favorite, was a converted shooting guard who spent the bulk of his Raptors tenure fighting just to stay healthy.

Chris Childs was a perfect second-string guard, but his late-game transgression cost the Raptors dearly in the 2002 Playoffs. Rafer Alston was a head case who clashed severely with Sam Mitchell and even threatened to retire mere weeks into the season.

Mike James was an unrepentant chucker who used his one season in Toronto as a way to boost his free agent stock. T.J. Ford was injury prone as well as being too mentally fragile to accept a role as a reserve. Jose Calderon, again, injury prone, and he has seen the quality of his game steadily regress since signing a lucrative long-term deal two years ago.

While the team has rattled through those options, the point guard slot has only gained in importance in today's NBA. The rule prohibiting hand-checking on the perimeter has put tremendous importance on having a guard that can beat his man off of the dribble, as well as having the ability to at least stay with his man on defense (both areas were the Raptors are weak).

Some teams opt to use pseudo-point guards at other positions like shooting guard (Kobe Bryant, Brandon Roy, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Tyreke Evans) and small forward (LeBron James), while other simply line-up outstanding guards at the point of attack (Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Tony Parker, Derrick Rose, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Brandon Jennings, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Chauncey Billups, Devin Harris, Stephen Curry, Aaron Brooks, Baron Davis).

The point guard, or ersatz point guard, has become the position of power in the NBA, just in time for the Raptors to have an All-Star big man at their forefront.

The funny thing about it, too, is that Bryan Colangelo's teams in Phoenix were always lead by top-flight point guards. He had Kevin Johnson, Jason Kidd, Stephon Marbury (in one of his two All-Star seasons) and then, of course, Steve Nash. When he came to Toronto, one of his first moves was to trade Charlie Villanueva for Ford, who he assumed would carry on that tradition. He didn't. Now, he's faced with having two point guards of good-but-not-great calibre, as well as having a point forward who just had his most trying NBA season because he was rarely allowed to run the point.

Even if this position can be thinned to reduce some of the redundancy, there still isn't that top-flight option that the Raptors desperately need. Upgrading the position needs to become a priority this summer, as even Chris Bosh explicitly stated that this team needs to acquire a guy who can create his own shot in the backcourt if they are to have any chance of re-signing him. The question then becomes how doggedly do you peruse such an option?

Clearly, trading Calderon or Jack alone for another point guard won't elicit much of an upgrade (why would another team willfully lose out on a one-for-one talent swap at the same position?). Who, then, becomes expendable?

Does the team package one of their guards along with their draft pick? Do they try and use DeMar DeRozan to sweeten the pot? Do they consider shattering their core and moving Andrea Bargnani? I realize that those scenarios got seemingly more ridiculous as they went on, but the question has to be asked.

Bosh was right when he explained that winning teams combine dominant big and small players, while the Raptors right now are running all of their top talent in the front court.

Sacrificing Bargnani for a point guard would go against most conventional NBA wisdom that dictates that you never trade big for small, but that ideology dates back to a time when bigs were the dominant force in the league. That thinking really doesn't apply anymore. The NBA has become a guard's league, and you need a top-flight guard more than you need two quality scoring bigs.

It even says here that you're more likely to expedite a post-Bosh Raptorverse with a dominant point guard leading the charge than you are with Bargnani and a weak backcourt doing the same.

Look at Chicago and Miami, two teams with little-to-no big man scoring, but they're in the Playoffs on the backs of some very talented guard play. Even the teams that have both exceptional guards and exceptional bigs tend to feature the guards more prominently (Lakers, Jazz, Celtics).

Unless you have a Paul Bunyan figure like Dwight Howard or Yao Ming roaming the paint for you, you're gonna need some dominant guard play to be a relevant force in the NBA. The Raptors have tried to get by with good-to-very-good options since Stoudamire was shipped to Portland back in 1998, but it's time for Colangelo to do what he does best and go out and find a dominant point guard by whatever means he has available.

Shooting Guard/Small Forward

Unless a team is running a ball-dominating pseudo-point-guard on the wing, winning clubs tend to use the shooting guard and small forward spots as much more of a utility position than anything else.

Guys like Thabo Sefolosha, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Mathews, Aaron Afflalo, Anthony Parker, Matt Barnes, Carlos Delfino and Marvin Williams all start for Playoff teams despite not being anything more than good defenders and open-jumper hitting basketballers. More and more teams are looking at this spot as a position to stick a smart, pesky professional type that will do the little things to help their teams win but will make themselves scarce otherwise.

In the case of Utah, they run two guys like that in Mathews and Andrei Kirilenko while Deron Williams handles nearly all of the ball-handing and playmaking duties (although Kirilenko is an exceptional facilitator, too).

For the Raptors, they went this route this season, too, by making DeMar DeRozan into a low-mistake athletic wing who could hit open jumpers for most of the season. It was like a variation of what Orlando did late last year with rookie Courtney Lee, except that DeRozan couldn't hit threes like Lee did.

Eventually the Raptors promoted Sonny Weems to that spot because he had the same strengths as DeRozan (athletic, good spot-up shooter, doesn't demand the ball) but with better defense and a more aggressive approach to the game.

With Antoine Wright almost certain to leave via free agency this summer (the Raptors are too overloaded on the wings to bring him back), that means that Weems will probably retain his starting spot and DeRozan will back him up as a Travis Outlaw-in-Portland style Sixth Man.

If Colangelo decides to part ways with Hedo Turkoglu this summer, DeRozan and Weems may even be called into action together to make for the most athletic wing tandem since the Raptors employed Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady (of course, we've already discovered that comparing DeRozan to Carter isn't exactly apt, so let's not apply that pressure to this theoretical combination).

What happens on the wings for the Raptors next season, actually, will depend heavily on whom Bryan Colangelo pursues to be the shot-creating guard Bosh has requested and that the Raptors clearly need, regardless. If he finagles a way to get (all names are used expressly as examples, so don't start message boarding this) Devin Harris or Darren Collision, then you could get away with running Weems and DeRozan on the wings because you have a guard who can create offense for them that doesn't need minutes at their position.

If he could pry loose a pseudo-point-guard that plays on the wing like Andre Iguodala or Monta Ellis, then obviously one of those guys gets bumped to the bench. In both scenarios you're importing someone who needs the ball in their hands to be effective, so that would certainly appear to make Hedo Turkoglu redundant, too, but there is a scenario where keeping him around would work, also.

If the Raptors wanted to be bold, they could go out and get an undersized shooting guard who can play defense and break guys down and let Hedo do the actual playmaking. This was the situation that worked so well for him in Orlando. Jameer Nelson was basically a bulldog of a two-guard stuck in a 5-foot-11 frame. So, the team let him bring the ball up the court and then hand it off to Hedo to do the playmaking thing.

If the Raptors wanted to try and steal Lou Williams or Rodney Stuckey, for instance, then you could use them as finishers while letting Turkoglu run the point. While people in Toronto are down on Turk right now, if you put him in a role that suits his talents, he's still a very capable NBA player.

The crux of it is, the whole future of the Raptors backcourt exists solely in the mind of Bryan Colangelo. No single player is guaranteed a spot with this team next year because the whole thinking behind this area of the Raptors roster needs to be reconfigured. It then becomes a domino effect where when the largest piece falls all of the subordinate pieces fan fall in line behind it. All one can presume for now is that the hunt is on for a dominant backcourt player and if one is found and acquired then everything else can begin to take shape around it.


There was talk at the team's end of season press conference by Jay Triano that the talk of a need for a guard that can create his own shot is overblown, pointing to the Raptors' impressive sixth-best mark in offensive efficiency as proof. Going strictly by the numbers, he has a point.

However, to watch the team was to see that this was a team that, due to their defensive inadequacies, needed to be able to score at will to keep pace in most games. This team, though, was far more likely to shoot outstanding percentages for a while, and then cool off for a while than they were to go wire-to-wire scoring the ball efficiently. That's because it's hard to always assert your will when you have to run a play on each possession because you don't have individuals that can create a shot for themselves.

That the team's offense was so successful without that basketball staple is a testament to Triano's Xs and Os preparation on offense, but going forward this team needs someone other than Bosh (if he even returns) who can get two points when the team needs two points.

For all of the weaknesses that pushed him out of town, this was something that Ford was quite good at in the '06-'07 season. His ability to penetrate created offense that wasn't wholly determined by Bosh and was a key asset in the Raptors attack and there is little coincidence that the team's 47-win record came when Bosh had a guard to play in tandem with.

In fact, if you look back to the '00-'01 season, the team's other 47-win campaign, combining guard-centre All-Stars Vince Carter and Antonio Davis had a lot to do with that team's success, too. It isn't always about how good or efficient you are as an offense outfit overall, sometimes it's about having the diversity to be able to score whenever you need two points.

Basketball is, after all, a game of runs, and if the Raptors can't stop opponent's runs with defense, then they have to be able to summon up two points on command on offense.

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