As the pre-season winds down, people are becoming increasingly focused on the tepid play of Jose Calderon. While nearly every Raptor this month has eased into their respective roles, Calderon has looked increasingly lost, despite being the longest-serving Raptor currently on the team. People are flummoxed as to why he seems so out of sorts on the court, but really, it isn't all that hard to figure out.
Flash back to three years ago, when Calderon was the toast of the Raptors. Back then, the team seemed tailor-made for Calderon, who at the time was still a low-cost backup point guard playing in reserve of T.J. Ford. General Manager Bryan Colangelo had assembled a roster that was heavily influenced by international basketball, and head coach Sam Mitchell ran the team like a FIBA-inspired outfit. The club, lacking a dominant post player, used their bigs as mid-range and long-range shooters and ran lots of basic pick-and-roll and penetrate-and-dish schemes, leaning heavily on the effectiveness of their three-point shooting. The offense was heavily regimented, demanded a certain adherence to a script, and was designed primarily to exploit the talents of All-Star Chris Bosh. Calderon was practically destined to breakout in such a scenario.
Working in his favor was the fact that he was simply a savvy passer that excelled at running a methodical system to perfection. He made the right passes to the right players at the right times, which boosted his assist numbers and kept his turnovers remarkably infrequent. His ability to turn the corner quickly after using a pick allowed him to get to the paint and finish (he shot 67% at the rim that season) and the threat of his penetration afforded his screener – usually Bosh – a healthy amount of open looks who Calderon was perfectly skilled to deliver ready-made assists to. It helped also that Calderon was a tremendously efficient shooter (.607 true-shooting percentage, third-best for NBA point guards that year), which helped balance the effectiveness of the point guard position overall because Ford was never a high-percentage shooter.
His career was made when Ford went down with a neck injury on December 12th, 2007 and he took his place in the starting five, becoming the heroic underdog that saved the Raptors season and nearly earning an All-Star berth in the process. Calderon increased his production with starters minutes, played with a flair that won the affections of the fan base and caught the attention of basketball pundits league-wide with his ultra-efficient statistical output. Then, when he was willing to return to the bench after Ford returned from his injury he wound up cast as the unselfish, team-first Golden Boy (against Ford's greedy, me-first saboteur) that all but sealed his fate as the team's point guard of the future. He was highly skilled, efficient, suited the coach's style, suited the star player's strengths, had won over the fans and all that made re-signing him to a new 5-year, $40-million contract that summer a no-brainer.
In the fall 2008, though, the tides began to turn against him.
On November 12th, only eight games into the season, Calderon strained his hamstring in a game against the 76ers. The team's lack of depth at the position after trading away Ford left the team severely weakened in his absence. He returned to the lineup two games later, but he was still hurt and struggled defensively upon his return. Never an elite stopper to begin with, Calderon had lost a step moving side-to-side while he forced himself to play injured, and though his shooting percentages and assist numbers remained high in December (53% shooting, 8.4 apg), Calderon began earning a reputation as a hapless defender on the perimeter. Little did he know at the time that he would never regain the quickness he once had pre-injury, as surely such knowledge would have altered the course of his rehabilitation, since not only did his defense suffer but he was no longer able to use his burst in pick-and-rolls to beat defenses to the basket. Then, while the injury was still fresh, the sub-.500 Raptors fired Sam Mitchell, and Calderon lost his second major asset in less than a month.
It seems funny to think that changing coaches made a profound impact on Calderon's game since he wound up averaging 12.8 ppg, 8.9 apg and shot 50% from the floor in '08-'09 in spite of the switch, but losing Mitchell and his style of play was a huge blow for Calderon. Mitchell liked control over the game, and Calderon played as under control as any point guard in the NBA. Mitchell wanted the game played in a way that played to Calderon's biggest strengths. Jay Triano, the team's new coach, wanted the team to play freer, to take the ball out of one person's hands and have it move around the court, shifting defenses along the way. He wanted to speed up the game, to shed the methodical (and predictable) offense that had cocooned Calderon for the length of his NBA career. Triano trusted that Calderon could adjust and buy into his offensive ideas (key among them was allowing other players to bring the ball up the court on the break, as well as advancing the ball with a pass to help speed up the offense), but it wasn't an easy adjustment for Jose. He was trying to justify his lavish new contract by playing hurt for a team with no viable backup at his position while also finding his way in a completely new offensive system. The deck seemed stacked against him, but that was nothing compared to what was in store for Calderon last season.
Calderon became less effective in just about every area of the game last year. New acquisitions Hedo Turkoglu and Jarrett Jack encroached on his duties, Triano fully implemented his preferred offense and the team's lack of defensive personnel further highlighted Calderon's most glaring post-injury weakness. His PER dropped to 16.5, the lowest it had been since his rookie season. He was scoring less (10.3 ppg versus 12.8 ppg the year before), shooting worse (.596 true-shooting percentage versus .613) and he ultimately lost his starting spot due to a left hip injury. After supporting him so fervently two years ago, the fans grew restless with his reduced production, even booing him in a late-season game against Chicago after he missed an open three-pointer. By the end of last season, Calderon looked lost as to what his place even was in Toronto anymore.
Now, after spending all summer on the trading block, Calderon is left on a team that doesn't want him and playing for a fan base that has grown tired of him. It's been nearly two years since his hamstring injury and it's become clear that the burst he lost in 2008 isn't coming back. The growing crop of young, athletic and speedy point guards that are dotting the league are making each night a defensive nightmare for Calderon, and he's forced to play in front of a frontcourt that offers little in the way of help to protect him as a defender. To watch him play this pre-season, where he's averaging 4.7 ppg on 28% shooting (9.1% shooting from behind the arc), is to watch a man that looks wholly out of sorts on the court. While he's still managing an impressive 8.5 assists per-36 minutes, most now believe that he's playing in the starting five not because he's the best option but because the team is hoping to increase his trade value on the open market. In the summer of 2008 he was the future of the team at point guard, today his team wants rid of him so badly they are willing to weaken themselves defensively at the start of every game in the hopes of expediting his departure. You want to know why Calderon is struggling this pre-season? I think you have your answer.