THE RAPTORS' BACKCOURT
If there was a singular narrative that will carry this season into the next, it was the emergence of DeMar DeRozan. Between October and April, DeRozan went from being an underwhelming 11.5 ppg swingman to a 20 ppg star-in-the-making. He's learned to embrace the challenges of being a nightly go-to offensive weapon, he's figured out how to attack defences without straying too far from his own abilities and he's given the Raptors' management a reason to let out a huge sigh of relief after investing such a crucial draft pick in him in 2009. While he hasn't yet shown that he could lead a franchise on his own, he's certainly shown more than enough to warrant a permanent spot in the Raptors' future, which gives the team one less question to have to answer this off-season, which promises to be one of their most complex in the team's history.
Behind DeRozan, for some of the season at least, was Leandro Barbosa, the former Sixth Man Award winner who spent more time this season nursing injuries than breaking down defences. He played in only 58 games this season after playing in just 44 last year, averaged 13.3 ppg, which was his second-lowest scoring average in five years (last year's 9.5 ppg was his lowest in that span) and questions about his ability to stay healthy have only grown over the last twelve months. While he's undeniably effective when healthy, and he remains one of the league's most deadly reserve scorers, for the Raptors one has to wonder if using his contract as trade bait may not be the better use for him going forward. Especially considering his health and the development we've seen over the last weeks of the season in Barbosa's backcourt mate, Jerryd Bayless.
Bayless was this season's big enigma, but he has simply played too well down the stretch of this season to not factor into the team's future plans, regardless of how the team deals with Leandro. The problem is that the team needs to find an appropriate role for him in order to justify keeping him around to develop. For Bayless's whole career he's been held back by the fact that he's a shooting guard trapped in a point guard's body, and reconciling that has taken more of a commitment than any team has been willing to give him to this point in his career. If we accept a couple of things about Bayless, though, a natural role becomes clear.
1. He needs minutes. With starters minutes he's averaged 18.1 ppg on 46.7% shooting while with reserve minutes he's managed just 7.0 ppg on 39.6% shooting. With more minutes his percentages show a dramatic increase, and watching him play you can see why. He looks far more comfortable when he gets big minutes, he relaxes into games, allows himself to pick his spots better and not worry about the mistakes he's just made. When he plays on a tight leash, he looks rushed, flustered and unsure of how best to impact games. Playing strictly as a backup point guard or shooting guard probably won't afford Bayless enough minutes to be comfortable and productive, so he'd need to be a multi-positional backup.
2. He's not a point guard, he's a scorer. Bayless does not have the court vision or passing game to be a full-time starting point guard. Bayless has his biggest impact in games when his scoring was used as his primary weapon. He's had nine 20+ scoring games, and in all but two of those games he shot 50% or better and in each of those games he played no fewer than 26 minutes. While he can handle the ball and use his offence to make plays for others, his skill is in making plays for himself and THAT is the trait the team needs to exploit if they are going to keep him around past this season.
Given these two realities, the most obvious role for Bayless going forward is backup guard, period. He needs to be able to shift back and forth between both guard spots, spelling whomever is starting at either position, and he needs to be given (to a certain degree) the reigns to the offence when he's on the floor. Think of him like San Antonio's George Hill or New York's Toney Douglas post-Melo trade, guys that play nearly starter's minutes off of the bench, and are treated like starters with regards to the latitude they are afforded by their coaches. Of course, such a role would demand that Barbosa be relocated, but simply put, one guy is on the upswing in his career and one is on the downswing, and the Raptors need to be utilizing as many up-swing players as they can find as they look to reclaim relevance in the NBA.
Assuming that DeRozan is locked in as the starting shooting guard, though, and that Bayless and/or Barbosa will remain reserves, where does that leave the team's starting point guard position? Obviously this season the job was left to mainstay Jose Calderon, and he rewarded the team with a return to prominence as one of the league's best assist men (8.9 apg, fifth in the NBA). If the team is forced to go forward with him next season it won't be the worst thing in the world as he provides the team's young core with some talent and stability at the point of attack. However, considering the options this team has heading into the draft, it's hard to see how the team throws their lot in with Calderon once again, especially considering that they nearly moved him last summer.
The simple fact is, with Calderon as the full-time starter, the Raptors have missed the playoffs three seasons in a row and finished at or near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency during that same span. They know what Calderon gives them as their lead guard, and to date winning hasn't been one of them (whether it's fair or not to assign such a tag to a single player). While there are some things that Calderon does extremely well, he doesn't do enough things extremely well to ensure his return to the club next season. If the Raptors somehow manage to win the draft lottery next month, then Calderon is all but gone since the team will almost assuredly take Duke's Kyrie Irving and not waste a second's thought on the decision. If they stay in the three-to-five range they've been dancing in through the end of the season, they'll probably take a long, hard look at UConn's Kemba Walker and Kentucky's Brandon Knight, and taking either would basically be done with the assumption that they'd become day-one starters. There is also no doubt that Bryan Colangelo will be working the phones hard to bring Steve Nash to the Raptors should the team go in a different direction on draft night. Simply put, if there is one position most in flux with the team heading into the summer, it is the ever-important starting point guard role.
All told, though, this was not a bad developmental year for the Raptors' backcourt. DeRozan eventually met the lofty pre-season expectations set at his feet, youngster Jerryd Bayless was acquired and blossomed down the stretch of the season, and Jose Calderon shook off a bad 2009-10 campaign to regain his stride (and trade value) in 2011. Only Leandro Barbosa left some wanting, and that had nothing to do with talent or effort and everything to do with an increasingly-fragile body. While there are still questions to be answered with regards to this team's backcourt heading into the off-season, at least most of those questions are about sorting through available talent rather than desperately trying to upgrade the level of talent to acceptable NBA levels (like they were back in 2009). A baby step in the right direction is a step in the right direction, nonetheless, and at this point the Raptors will happily take it.
- TSN.ca basketball writer Tim Chisholm looks back at the Raptors' 2010-11 season with a four-part series on the team. Next up on Friday: the frontcourt.