21 Down

I wanted to do a post about the Raptors after 20 games, but didn’t have time before their loss to Indiana. Speaking of Indiana, I know it was discussed during the broadcast, but Roy Hibbert is barely recognizable this season. It shows you simply never know about a player sometimes. Coming out of Georgetown, Hibbert was considered a talented big man who might simply be a step slow for the NBA. It was a big reason why, despite the wishes of many Raptor fans, Hibbert was probably not a viable option. On a team that wanted to run a lot, a lumbering big man probably wouldn’t get a lot of minutes.

In his first couple of seasons, Hibbert did show some promise, but his he simply couldn’t keep up with the pace of the NBA enough to be anything more than a limited roll player. And then Indiana did some extensive testing to discover Hibbert has athlete induced asthma, and Hibbert lost, what looks like, about 20 or 30 pounds. The difference has been amazing. This year, Hibbert’s averaging nearly 30 mpg (and it would be more if he didn’t play limited minutes in so many blowouts), scoring 15.5 ppg, grabbing 8.6 rpg, blocking 1.9 bpg and dishing out 3.2 apg- good for 3rd on the team. Plus he’s playing very good defense. In other words, he’s a legit All-Star candidate, especially since Indiana is one of the better teams in the East this year, especially recently.

But this post is supposed to be about the Raptors, here is my analysis of the first 21 games of the season for the team. Tomorrow (or more likely a few days from now) I’ll discuss each player individually.

RAPTORS:

Last year after 21 games the Raptors were 8-13 and fans were wondering whether the investments they had made in Hedo Turkoglu and Jarrett Jack were big mistakes and some were starting to call for Chris Bosh to be traded before he left on his own.

With both Turkoglu and Jack both traded away, and Bosh plying his trade in Miami, this year’s Raptor squad has exactly the same record as last season after 21 games: 8-13. But make no mistake about it, this team is nothing like last year’s.

This year’s team is faster and more athletic. They run more (scoring 6 more fastbreak points than last year), leading the league so far, but score less. The also share the ball less than last year and shoot a much lower percentage, despite the number of fastbreak points. In other words, if they don’t score on the break, they have much more trouble scoring. Last year, while Bosh could be a bit of a ball stopper, and Turkoglu could be well, underwhelming, both of them helped the team score in the half court, especially Bosh.

This season, the Raptors simply don’t have anyone they can give the ball in the half court to and ask to create something. Bargnani is the team’s leading scorer, but is not consistent enough and still doesn’t create enough on his own to be able to dump him the ball and be asked to score. Barbosa is probably the player best equipped to fill that roll, and has on occasion, but he’s also just as likely to lower his head and drive 1 on 3, taking a bad shot in the process.

While the team is scoring less, and having a little more trouble doing it, the scoring is a little more balanced. There are 8 current players (not including Peja) who are averaging at least 9 ppg compared to just 5 last season. Yes, Bargnani is averaging 8 ppg more than then next Raptor, but Bargnani doesn’t dominate the ball as much as Bosh did, so it’s in the hands of the other players more.

Amazingly enough, the Raptors are actually getting to the line at a higher rate, this season, despite losing Bosh’s nearly 10 FTA per game. Like scoring, it’s a more balanced approach, with no one dominating at the line. DeMar DeRozan leads the team with 4.9 FTA per game.

Of course, this more democratic approach doesn’t  extend to passing the ball, as I mentioned. When the team does pass the ball, they play well and usually win. But they are in the bottom third in the league in assists, which is not surprising considering only 3 Raptors average more than 1.7 apg.

So while the team isn’t as good offensively as last season, they are better defensively and on the boards.

Bosh was a very good rebounder last year, but between Reggie Evans, Amir Johnson and now Ed Davis, the Raptors have made up for his absence. All three players are, at least, as good rebounders as Bosh was. The problem is, outside of those three (not counting Joey Dorsey) the Raptors are still a poor rebounding team. Without Reggie, the Raptors have lost more battles on the boards than they have won. Bargnani still rebounds like a SG and Weems and DeRozan don’t rebound as well as you’d think two sickeningly athletic players should. And while Kleiza rebounds decently for a SF, he’s been playing a lot of PF since Evans was injured, and doesn’t measure up there. In fact, the only player, outside of the PF position, that rebounds at a good rate for his position is Jerryd Bayless. Per game, he’s 6th on the team, and per minute is behind only Evans, Dorsey, Amir and Evans- yes, he rebounds at a higher rate than Bargnani.

So while the Raptors are one of the better rebounding teams in the league, and are much improved over last year, there are still areas of concern on the boards. Good teams generally don’t let one or two players do all their rebounding, so improvement have to be made.

While the Raptors appear to be much better defensively this season, the numbers suggest that is not entirely true. They allow 2 fewer ppg, but they score less. And they actually allow teams to shoot approximately the same percentage as last year. In both those stats Toronto is near the bottom of the league.

Of course, there are numerous ways to look at how a team defends, and this year their defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possession) has gone from 113.2 (30th in the league) last year to a comparatively stingy 109.5 (21st in the league). So obviously some improvements have been made.

It’s not necessarily that the outgoing players were worse defensively than their replacements (although they were), but the defensive strategy seems to be better, thanks probably in large part to PJ Carlesimo. Former Raptor assistant coach, Marc Iavaroni, had a reputation as a good defensive coach, but despite being a good defensive player, the teams he’s coached on have not been good defensive teams. In fact, Phoenix, Memphis and Toronto all became better defensive teams AFTER he left, and the Clippers appear to be worse defensively, this year. It’s hard to call all of that a coincidence.

The Raptors are actually better defensively now than they were just a couple of weeks ago thanks to the Jack-Bayless trade and the addition of Ed Davis. Both Davis and Bayless are above average defenders, and give the Raptors an interior and perimeter defensive presence they have lacked in the past. When Davis and Bayless are on the court with Amir Johnson, the Raptors are formidable defensively. And not one of them is over the age of 23 years. If 23 year old Julian Wright can get some minutes, the Raptors could put a good defensive team on the floor for the first time in a long time.

While the team is not as good offensively, and still has a few rebounding issues without Reggie, they are a much younger team with simply more long term potential than the one that took the floor last season. Outside of Reggie Evans, only 2 players on the Raptors rotation is over the age of 26, and that’s Calderon (29) and Barbosa (28). While that’s going to hurt them in the win column this season, it’s going to pay off in the long term.

They’re currently on pace to win 31 games, but I doubt they win that many by season’s end. Either way, I think making the playoffs, as some fans are talking about, while winning in the low 30’s hurts more than it helps a team like the Raptors. Colangelo has said that wins are not nearly as important as the development of the players, this year, and I couldn’t agree more. So, unlike last years squad, which was built to compete immediately, this year’s team shouldn’t be judged on it’s win total. And I like what I’ve seen so far.

So tonight the Raptors play New York, for the third time this season, and only a few days after a loss at the ACC Centre. The Knicks are red hot, having won their last 5, and 9 of their last 10. Amare Stoudemire is playing MVP calibre ball and Raymond Felton is at least putting up All Star level stats. And much like every other game the Raptors play, it’s incredibly difficult to predict how they will do, so I won’t.

Speaking of the Knicks, what the hell has happened to Anthony Randolph? When he was traded to the Knicks, many, including myself, thought it might be a good chance to finally have a chance to show his stuff. Unfortunately, in the games he’s played, he’s looked lost and has gotten a DNP-CD in 11 of his last 15 games. While it’s difficult to judge a player who is still so young and has played so little in 2+ years, it’s starting to look like Randolph might never fulfill the potential that caused Golden State to make him a lottery pick.

On the other end of the spectrum, Landry Fields gives many Raptor fans unrealistic expectations for the type of player that can be drafted with a 2nd round pick. Fields lasted until the 39th pick before the Knicks drafted him (and was booed by Knicks fans) behind such notable 2nd round picks as Dexter Pittman, Terrico White, Darington Hobson and Canada’s very own Andy Rautins, who was drafted one spot ahead of Fields, yet languishes on the bench. At least Rautins is collecting an NBA paycheque, though. The other players didn’t even make their team’s roster, which shows how much of a crapshoot the 2nd round is.

Speaking of players coming out of nowhere, Wesley Matthews, who is the player I heavily criticized Utah for letting go to Portland, is currently tearing it up. This undrafted players is averaging nearly 20 ppg in his last ten, after taking the starting SF position from Ncolas Batum, while playing excellent defense.

What has been talked about most about both Fields and Matthews is their high basketball IQ. It’s almost as if their high basketball IQ has made them the valuable players they have become despite neither of them having all that much “upside” coming out of college.  Weird, huh?

One thought on “21 Down

  1. Pingback: Toronto Raptors Morning Coffee Dec 8 | Raptors Republic | ESPN TrueHoop's Toronto Raptors Blog

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