As I look out my window and watch snowflake after snowflake dance on the wind and fall slowly to the ground, blanketing the city in a white quietness, I come to the realization that the world has gone mad.
Keep in mind, I live in Vancouver. And it’s November. In the last five minutes, we’ve gotten more snow than we did all of last winter. The winter that hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world descended upon the city to watch the 2010 Winter Olympics. The winter that the local ski mountain had to actually import snow in order to have enough to run the events.
A look at the current NBA standings doesn’t help matters. Wasn’t Miami supposed to be a powerhouse this year? As of right now, they’re sitting 6th in the East, barely above .500. In fact, if the playoffs started today, and they were in the West, they’d be a lottery team. Can you imagine if the Heat missed the playoffs?
San Antonio, who many wrote off as a legitimate contender, is the best team in the league. Houston, on the other hand, which some felt was the sleeper of the West, is floundering near the bottom.
Charlotte is a bottom dweller, Milwaukee looks awful and Cleveland is in the 8th spot, just a game and a half behind Miami. What’s even more shocking is that Toronto, who many pundits called the worst team in the league, before the season started, is just below Cleveland in the 9th spot, and have just reeled off four wins in a row. In fact, the Raptors have beaten the top two teams in the East, Orlando and Boston.
And right on cue, Raptor fans are starting to think about the playoffs. Keep in mind, this is the same Raptor fanbase that wanted to dismantle the team after losing to Charlotte at home just two weeks ago. Neck braces are required with the amount of whiplash Raptor fans give.
So what to make of all that is happening?
First, I want to look at a few teams before the Raptors (if all you want to do is read about the Raptors, than I suggest you scroll down a little).
Too much is already written about the Miami Heat, so I won’t go into great detail, but they do show that simply getting talent isn’t enough. You’ve got to get the right talent. While the Heat grabbed, arguably, the three biggest free agents on the market last summer, not one of them compliments each other. And while they were able to retain and sign some role players, they apparently weren’t the right ones. They have possibly the worst starting PG in the entire league and practically invite scoring in the paint. And now with Udonis Haslem out for possibly the year.
Now, I certainly don’t think they will continue to play at this low level for the rest of the season, even with Haslem, who was their best interior defender, possibly out for the season. If they win fewer than 50 games this year, I will be absolutely shocked, despite them being half a game above .500 right now. Still, for Raptor fans, even 50 games would probably give the Raptors a pick in the low 20’s (they got Miami’s first round pick in the sign and trade for Bosh), which would be a lot better than most expected.
And then there’s Philadelphia. With Doug Collins on board, the 2nd pick in the draft and another year’s maturation of the young players, many people thought Philadelphia might be vying for a playoff spot. After watching them lose twice against the Raptors, as well as ten other teams, it’s obvious the only thing they will be vying for is the fewest wins with the Clippers.
The Sixers certainly weren’t good last year (another season in which they didn’t live up to expectations), but injuries caused problems and they did finish with 27 wins. 27 wins would be a ten game improvement over where they are projected to be if they continue at the same pace. So why are they playing so poorly? Believe it or not, I think it has a lot to do with them trading away Samuel Dalembert.
Sure, Dalembert was not a great fit for the team and never lived up to his contract, but for all his faults he was a defensive center who could rebound the ball and defend the middle. Without him, Philly is left with Spencer Hawes, who was supposed to give them more offense, but has given them very little of anything. And Elton Brand is not the intimidator he used to be, so driving the paint, as the Raptors have discovered in two games against them, is relatively easy.
And while Jrue Holiday is putting up pretty good stats, and playing good defense, he’s still struggling mightily trying to figure out how to run a team. He’s the perfect examples of why assist numbers don’t automatically mean a player is a good PG. Holiday is a pretty good player, but he’s still got a while to go before he’s a good PG.
Milwaukee certainly doesn’t have a hole in the middle. Andrew Bogut has recovered nicely from his brutal injury last season and is putting up similar numbers to last season, although scoring fewer points at a lower percentage. In fact, the entire team is having some trouble putting the ball in the hoop at a reasonably high rate. Of the top 4 scorers on the Bucks, only one is shooting above 40%, Carlos Delfino, and he’s not exactly lighting it up at 42%. Milwaukee is currently last in the league in field goal percentage at .409. That’s bad. Historically bad. That’s something that shouldn’t happen with a really good point guard.
I was critical of Brandon Jennings, last season, because I felt that, despite his numbers, his game was still quite flawed. He shot a low percentage, but that didn’t stop him from shooting more than anyone else on the team. If you’re the PG, your job is to get your team the best shots possible, and if you’re taking a lot of bad shots, that’s a good indication that your decision making is a problem. Apparently it still is. He’s taking more than 3 shots a game more than anyone else on the team yet shooting 38%.
On the other end of the spectrum are the Spurs. There was a time, not so long ago, when I would pick them every year to win the Championship every year and be right half of the time. I even picked them last year, after a little hiatus, because I thought the moves they made, like trading for Richard Jefferson, was enough to put them back over the top. I guess I was a year late. No, they still aren’t favourites to win the Championship, not with Kobe and the Lakers still around, but they are looking like a much better team. They are scoring better, Jefferson finally looks like he’s fitting in. They have an excellent front line, anchored by one of the best defensive bigs in the league, and both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are playing like All-Stars again. Between them they are averaging more than 40 points and 12 assists per game.
And now we come to the Raptors. Before the season began, I predicted the Raptors would win 28 games. They’re currently on pace to win 32 games. So the first question is, why are they playing better than most predicted?
Well, they are scoring at a lower rate with a lower percentage, so obviously the improvement is not on the offensive end. On defense, a quick look shows that they are 19th in opponents scoring per game and near the bottom in defensive field goal percentage. Their defensive rating, however HAS improved, in part because they are rebounding the ball better and, in part, because they are causing more turnovers.
No doubt about it, this Raptor team looks completely different from the one that played last year, even though much the personnel is the same. They are more athletic, run more, despite scoring less, and rebound the ball much better (thanks largely to Reggie Evans). And Jose Calderon is finally looking like the same guy who signed his big contract a couple of years ago. He seems healthy, is playing with confidence and has improved his defense to where it’s almost respectable. Not quite, but close.
And they’re on a four game win streak. Time to start thinking about the playoffs?
At the risk of annoying fans who hate anything written about their beloved Raptors that doesn’t involve rainbows coming out the player’s asses, I have to say that it’s a little early to start planning for playoff tickets.
While the four game win streak was nice, two of the wins came against an inept Philadelphia team that can’t score or defend, one came against a very bad Houston team and the other against a Rondo-less Celtics team. Nothing to sneeze at, especially after the recent Florida trip which got people’s hopes up.
The team is in a precarious position. In order for the team to play like they are, too many things have to go right for them to do it on a consistent basis. First off, Reggie Evans is having a career year. He’s rebounding the ball like no Raptor player has ever done, and his hustle is contagious. Unfortunately, because of his lack of offense, there’s no way in hell he should be starting, and might very well be traded before the trade deadline. He’s starting, however, to make up for the anemic rebounding that Bargnani gives the team. While Bargnani is scoring like a maniac, he’s still deficient on the defensive end of the floor and on the boards, so when he isn’t scoring big, he simply hurts the team. Of the Raptors 6 wins, in only one of them did Bargnani score fewer than 24 points. And that game was against a Cleveland team missing two of it’s best players.
And what happens when Ed Davis returns? Whose minutes does he take? Amir Johnson probably deserves more than the 20 mpg he’s playing now, as long as he can stay on the floor, and while I think Davis will eventually be a very good player, he’s going to take some time. And while I think he should be able to rebound well, he’s not going to do it at a rate similar to Reggie, so rebounds might end up being a problem agains for the Raptors.
And while Calderon looks like he’s turned the corner, DeMar DeRozan is still too inconsistent to be counted on. It’s far, far too early to write him off, especially after what he showed early, but it’s obvious he’s going to take more time. Keep in mind that, despite his struggles, DeRozan is playing much better in his second season than Bargnani did in his second season, so anyone who thinks he should be traded, especially those Bargnani fans who I know have called for it, are ignorant at best and hypocritical at worst.
And while the Raptors have improved their defense, they aren’t exactly holding their opponents to a low shooting percentage. They just happen to often shoot better than them in the games they win. Not a recipe for consistent success.
While it may sound like I’m predicted doom and gloom for the Raptors, the Raptors have proven, even when they lose, to be an entertaining team that works hard. And while the playoffs may seem like a great thought, is it really the right thing for them in the long run? Well, that’s another story….