Although the Raptors’ season ended without a taste of the playoffs, I’ve been enjoying the basketball I’ve been watching since the second season started. My favourite series so far? The Spurs-Mavs. That was an intense rivalry by two veterans teams with nothing but respect and contempt for one another. Is there anything better than that?
On the surface, it appeared that Dallas would have the upper hand. They had the better record, home court advantage and far more firepower than San Antonio could put out onto the court. The trade for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, at mid season, looked like it might put them over the top. This team had four players who had recently consistently scored close to 20 ppg, and two of the better shot blockers and lane intimidators in the game.
So why did the Spurs end up winning in 6 games?
The answer? Defense.
Now, at the beginning of the year, I made a bold prediction that the Spurs would win the Championships. I did it not only because I felt the acquisitions of Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess and Dujuan Blair were enough to propel them back to the top, but because of all the teams in the NBA, when healthy, no team plays better defense than the Spurs. Yes, they are extremely efficient on the offensive end, sharing the basketball like no other, but in the last ten years, no team has been harder to score on than the Spurs. At their best, they play some of the best team defense in the league, and it starts with their front line.
Whenever the Spurs have won a Championship, Duncan has been paired with an above average post and team defender on the front line. David Robinson, Rasho Nesterovic and Francisco Elson and Fabricio Oberto were all, at the very least, above average defenders and rebounders.
In fact, in nearly all the first round series, the team with the bigger and better defensive front line, won. The only real exception were the Suns, who faced an injury depleted Portland team who played, for the most part, without their best player and best defender. And it might surprise you that Phoenix was actually a better defensive team, this past season, than Portland was.
Defense is obviously important, but just how important?
In terms of opponents field goal percentage, 16 of the top 17 teams in that category made the playoffs.
This brings us to the Raptors.
Now, anyone who watched the Raptors knows defense was not an area of strength. Surprisingly, they were not at the bottom of the league in opponents field goal percentage (19th), but improvement is definitely needed if the Raptors hope to return to the playoffs.
As with the best defensive teams, where the Raptors have to start is their front line. I’ve railed against Bargnani quite a bit, but he’s not the only culprit. Turkoglu has only really been effective on defense when he’s had the Defensive Player of the Year playing behind him. He does not in Toronto. And while Bosh is an above average defender, he’s not a defensive anchor.
Now, you may say that it was Toronto’s perimeter defense that really hurt the team, starting with Calderon. While his defense was, at times, horrible, one of the reasons it looked so bad was because the Raptors team defense was awful. And team defense starts with your front line.
The highest percentage shots in basketball are taken in the paint and without a good defensive front line, even a team with good perimeter defenders are not going to stop a team from getting easy baskets. And good defense also means good rebounding. If you can’t keep a team off the offensive boards, you’re not going to win many games. That’s part of playing defense. And it’s mostly your front line that is going to control the boards.
This past season, Colangelo knew that the Raptors would struggle defensively and on the boards, but he was hoping that their offense would compensate. And for nearly half the games, it did. But to win 50 games, and to do any damage in the playoffs, even Colangelo knows that a team needs to be able to play solid defense. I defended the team all year not because I thought they had the makings of a contender, but because, after winning 33 games the previous season, I thought winning 45 games (which was what my prediction was) was a good improvement. Now it’s time to take the next step.
Apart from re-signing Bosh this summer, Colangelo’s number one priority needs to be to improve the defense of the team. Any player that Colangelo signs or trades for HAS to be, at the very least, above average defensively.