I've done a lot of comparisons this season with this current iteration of the Raptors and those that paved the way for them. The history of this team may be a short fifteen years but there is no lacking in precedent for all sorts of scenarios. For instance: it looked as though this current Raptors season was going to mirror the '06-'07 campaign where, after a roster overhaul, the team pulled themselves out of an early season tailspin and won the Atlantic Division. This year's squad had been similarly made over and had similarly righted their ship en route to what appeared to be one of their best seasons on record.
However, it looks like that comparison wasn't quite apt. Instead what this team is beginning to resemble is the squad the Raptors fielded the year AFTER they won the Atlantic Division. That team peaked at eight games above .500 only to lose 14 of their last 22 games, many against sub-.500 opponents, and finish out the season at 41-41 before being owned by the Orlando Magic in the post-season.
This year, the club reached six games above .500 before the bottom fell out after the All-Star break. After Sunday's defeat at the hands of the Trail Blazers the Raptors are back below .500, losers of nine of their last ten games and seemingly disinterested in fighting for the Playoff spot they were so close to securing. With games against the Hawks (twice), Thunder, Jazz, Nuggets, Cavaliers and Celtics still to go before the end of the regular season, the Raptors could be facing a 40-loss season AT BEST, assuming they can beat the likes of Miami, Charlotte and Chicago – all teams vying for the same Playoff spots the Raptors covet. Heck, they also have to face the Sixers and Warriors again before the season is out, and both of those teams recently handed Toronto embarrassing losses.
So what went wrong? Well, in a word: malaise.
Ever since the start of December the Raptors were playing with the second-best winning percentage in the NBA. They were knocking out the lightweights and getting past the heavyweights and some even wondered if they might not just knock the suddenly vulnerable Boston Celtics out of the top-four in the Conference. That was only five weeks ago but given the way the team has played of late, one is hard-pressed to remember those halcyon days as anything but a (very) distant memory.
The thing is, those wins bred a false sense of confidence throughout the organization that set up the very losing the team cannot seem to escape from today. First, the team was doing most of its damage at home against weaker opponents, dulling the impact of their successes. Of the fifteen road games the Raptors played between December 4 and the All-Star break, they lost eight of them, which puts them below .500 on the road during their stellar stretch. Of their twenty-one wins in that stretch, sixteen were against sub-.500 teams and the only quality opponent they beat on the road in that stretch were the then-struggling Orlando Magic, who were in the midst of a season-long four-game losing streak. As great a job as the team did to revive their record during that span, they were really just doing what a team looking to the post-season is supposed to do, and they weren't do anything so well that they should have felt comfortable resting on their laurels.
Secondly, they had four very telling losses in that stretch, two each against the Bucks and Pacers. All four losses were on the road, and all four losses can be attributed to a refusal to play all-out for forty-eight minutes against teams that they should have beat handily. However, at the time the losses were written off as aberrations in a season that was being successfully salvaged. If the team couldn't get up for those contests, ‘who cares?', so long as they didn't let it turn into a trend. Those are the kinds of games that teams like the Raptors need to win, though, to gain traction in their Conference standings, and with Milwaukee having recently turned around their season one bets the Raptors wishes they had worked a little harder to get the tie-breaker in their series. In all but one of these games the Raptors were outscored in the third quarter (their current Achilles Heel), and in the one game where they managed to outscore the Bucks by three in the third they were already down by double-digits and they were later outscored by 13 in the fourth. In two of the games the Raptors allowed over 50% shooting by their opponents, and they were outshot in all four contests. Keep in mind that Indiana and Milwaukee rank 28th and 29th in the NBA in shooting percentage. It's that kind of lax defensive effort that has doomed the Raptors again and again of late against the NBA's bottom-feeding franchises. These four games have now become the models for how to beat the Raptors and teams like Washington, Philly, Sacramento and Golden State have apparently put that model to good use. People may have looked past those four losses at the time so long as it didn't become a trend, but, well, they have now become a trend.
However, the most overlooked aspect of this whole affair has been the roster's health, and not in the way that most assume.
People within the organization were quick to dispel the team's current slide when Chris Bosh was sidelined as a by-product of a team's best player not being around to bail out his mates, with some added excuses being piled on top of Hedo Turkoglu's sore ankle. However, it has been the injuries to key personnel that actually led to the salvation of this season, and now that everyone is back on board the rotations are so overstuffed the seams are beginning to burst.
Consider that at the start of the season, Amir Johnson was given an unexpected boost in PT because Reggie Evans, the man thought to sit in front of Amir in the rotation, was injured. Johnson instantly became one of the team's most valuable assets with his energetic style of play, his ruggedness around the basket and his willingness to never give up on a play. He brought everything that the Raptors had hoped Evans would bring to the table but with a more refined offensive game and far more athleticism. His emergence was one of the keys to the Raptors season turnaround.
Consider also that the timing of the Raptors first meaningful winning streak of the season (five games between December 18th and 30th) happened when Jose Calderon went down with injury and Jarrett Jack was inserted into the starting five, backed up by Marcus Banks.
During that stretch, Antoine Wright was also in-and-out of the lineup with various ailments that rarely went explained because the team was playing so well no one seemed to care why he wasn't seeing court time.
That left the Raptors with a tight rotation that basically included Jack, DeMar DeRozan, Hedo Turkoglu, Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani, Banks, Sonny Weems, Johnson and the occasional appearance by Marco Belinelli. That's an eight-man rotation that sometimes, as needed, expanded to nine. That kind of leanness of rotation gives the guys who play plenty of minutes to ease into games. It gives everyone a solid expectation of when they were going to play and who was going to share the court with them and it established a fairly rigid pecking order in terms of offence while also establishing a sort of familial brotherhood on defence. The group worked, and the coaching staff didn't have to worry about bruised egos or ruffled feathers because everyone who was available to play saw the court (except Patrick O'Bryant, but that's a whole other kettle of fish).
In recent games, though, that rotation has been blown to hell. Obviously Calderon and Wright came back into the fold, with Banks and Belinelli basically getting the short end of the stick in that arrangement. The rotation stayed sort of compact, with Belinelli occasionally earning some time, though one could see trouble brewing, and his name was Reggie Evans.
Look, when Reggie was acquired over the summer the move made a ton of sense for the team. And as the team struggled out of the gate and the team looked a little listless, the Reggie acquisition still made a lot of sense. However, once Amir Johnson broke out in Reggie's assumed role, all of a sudden Reggie became extraneous. That said, management and the coaching staff had been talking him up frequently while he was injured, so you knew he was going to play and bloat the team's rotation even further – and wouldn't you know it? As soon as he comes back the team starts losing left right and centre.
Now, this situation has nothing to do with Reggie and everything to do with the coaching staff. The rotation ballooned to eleven players during the first three games of the recent road trip, and only Marcus Banks, Rasho Nesterovic and Patrick O'Bryant can feel pretty sure going into most games that they aren't going to play. While most teams are paring down playing rotations in anticipation of the Playoffs, the Raptors have expanded theirs, leaving befuddled lineups on the court that don't play well together on either end of the floor. All of a sudden the team can't stop turning the ball over and can't stop missing all sorts of defensive rotations. It's almost like these lineups have never played together before – because some of them actually haven't. How can the organization expect and demand consistency on the court when the players who are trotted out are given no consistency to their minutes or roles? Right now the coaching staff is placating everyone and everyone is suffering as a result. Sure, Jay Triano and his staff were fortunate early in the season in that they didn't have to make many hard decisions when it came to playing time, but now that everyone is healthy they cannot just assume that everyone should get a chance to put their stamp on every game.
With that, Wednesday's game against Atlanta is expected to bring yet another change to the rotation, as Jose Calderon is expected to start at point guard for the club. Now, the move hasn't happened yet so it would be prudent to be reserved in one's judgment of this move, but let's just say that when a team is struggling so mightily with defence, starting their worst defensive player and starting possibly the team's worst defensive unit might not be the greatest coaching strategy ever conceived. Nor is starting this particular guard (with defensive deficiencies) against Russell Westbrook, Devin Harris, Jonny Flynn, Deron Williams and Chauncey Billups – the five guys he'll be asked to guard after the Atlanta game. Nor is re-inserting a guard that has a 37-53 record over the last two seasons as a starter during the most important stretch of games the Raptors have played over the last two years.
But like I said, it hasn't happened yet, so I'm being reserved in my judgment.
So what's the solution? Simple. Pare down the roster, make some hard cuts, and hope that the guys left standing on the court can recapture the momentum that they've clearly lost. Not enough, you say? Well, what choice is there? There can be no trades made and the coach isn't (and shouldn't be) getting fired, so all that the team has to work with is what it's got today. That being the case, why not try to emulate the things that worked for you early in the season while avoiding the things that didn't and see if that can't right the ship. There are 17 games left before the end of the season and traditional math states that the team would be wise to win nine of those contests if they are serious about making the post-season. Game One of that stretch starts against the Hawks; let's see how they respond.