There comes a point when you have to start feeling bad for Jose Calderon. He plays really well in his second season and the fans and the media use that as a way to pit him against starting point guard T.J. Ford, igniting a point guard battle that neither player felt was justified. Flash-forward a couple of years and Calderon's own starting spot is threatened by Jarrett Jack, at least until he was traded away in November 2010. Now, with Calderon posting the league's third-best assist-per-game mark, third-best assist ratio and is actually holding his opponents to a respectable 15.5 PER, his job is under threat once again from free-agent-to-be Jerryd Bayless.
In truth, this story was supposed to be over already. Bayless, after posting noteworthy numbers as a starter a year ago (18.1 ppg, 6.7 apg,) came into this season and played like something of a dud. Granted he wasn't starting, but when you're averaging just 8.5 ppg on .391 shooting and 3.1 apg through the first three months of the season as a reserve, starting isn't really an option. However, Calderon went down with a sprained ankle on March 10th, Bayless was once again slotted into the starting five and he was once again revelatory in his play. He's averaged 21.8 ppg on .543 shooting to go along with 7.6 assists per game and some very strong defense at the point of attack. His play, though, is noteworthy beyond his stats. He plays with much more aggression as a starter. He looks to make plays for himself and others. He provides the Raptors with their only player that can consistently break his opponents down off of the dribble and that has helped the Raptors average 99.2 ppg over the last five with Bayless as a starter, up from the team's season average of 91.0 ppg. While he posted a lot of these numbers against substandard defenses like those in Milwaukee, Cleveland, New Jersey and Charlotte, one works with the sample size that they have and even if the numbers are inflated as a result of the opponents they aren't wildly off-base considering what Bayless did in the same situation a year ago.
The question now becomes "what do we do with this data?" That's hard to say. While Bayless has performed very well statistically, there are parts of his game as a point guard that leave one wanting. He's not the greatest at operating in the pick and roll, although few point guards in the entire NBA would compare well with Calderon in that regard. He doesn't have that natural playmakers sense of getting his teammates the ball in their spots to be at their best, and the team would go through prolonged stretches with him at the helm where they simply didn't run a cohesive offense. One of the greatest traits of a standout playmaking point guard is their ability to control the offense not just by running the plays but also by manipulating the flow of the offense. Knowing what to run at what times in the game to get an easy bucket to slow an opponent's run or to break their own team out of a funk is a marketable skill. It's in times like that that one remembers that Bayless really is a scorer first and whatever playmaking talents he has run secondary to that mindset.
Now, it should be noted that none of that is a deal-breaker. Plenty of Raptors fans were clamoring for the club to make a run at Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings recently, who shares many of the same strengths as weaknesses of Bayless. Both are score-first point guards, but Jennings was nearly an All-Star this year playing that style. In fact, several teams have successfully implemented a scoring guard at the point by utilizing their strengths and finding ways to mitigate their weaknesses. Surely the fact that Bayless can be a standout scorer as well as a difference-maker on defense should be able to offset his lack of natural playmaking instincts, especially if one is going to allow for Calderon's lack of scoring aggression and defensive stopping power in order to cash in on his tremendous efficiency and passing prowess. No player is 100% complete, a team just has to balance out the strengths and weaknesses of all its component parts. In all likelihood Calderon will continue to start for the club when healthy, but Bayless has given the team A LOT to think about when it comes to dealing with his free agency. Two weeks ago he looked like a goner, now he's back into the conversation as the (I hate this term) point guard of the future.
Of course, if you want the real subplot to this battle over the point guard spot it's this: None of it matters today. This Raptors roster is going to look markedly different at the start of next season than it does right now. Jonas Valanciunas is going to be joining the squad, remaking the frontcourt rotation overnight. Another rookie is going to be picked up in the draft, most likely a wing player like Harrison Barnes, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Bradley Beal, which will shake-up the wing rotation. The team is sitting on a lot of cap space, and they've already pursued Wilson Chandler, so you know they aren't going to sit out free agency either. That means that regardless of which point guard suits the team today that does not mean that the same guy will suit the team tomorrow. You start mucking with the makeup of this roster and new needs are going to make themselves known. Maybe Calderon will suit those needs better, maybe Bayless will. Who knows?
What we do know is that the club isn't going to re-sign Bayless this summer to be a backup after seeing how pitifully he performed in that role in over the last two years (and he wants no part of playing a Barbosa/Terry/Crawford scoring role, either), nor is the club likely to let Calderon's $10.6-million salary eat into their cap when they can waive him with the amnesty clause. For all that neither guard wants this to become a competition for a spot on the Raptors next season, that's the situation that's been handed to them. Neither one is a sure thing going forward and so there is inherent risk involved in Toronto casting their lot in with either option but you can be sure the team is going to use the last 20 games of the season to compile as much data as possible to help facilitate their decision this summer.
If Calderon ultimately loses the job, though, you have to feel like it might finally come as a form of relief after always having to deal with some invented drama with another point guard on his team. Calderon is the ultimately team-first guy and no doubt he is tired of being pitted against his teammates every time a point guard comes a long that plays a different brand of basketball.