The State of the Raptors

With Raptor fans finally acknowledging what most of the rest of the league realized quite a while ago, that the Raptors will NOT be in the playoffs this spring, now is probably as good a time as any to take a look at the current state of the Raptors.

Speaking of the playoff push, why was it that the Lakers’ playoff chances were written off weeks ago, despite being half as many games behind the 8th spot, yet so many Raptor fans thought there was a decent chance the Raptors could make the playoffs until last night, despite not only being more games behind the 8th spot, but with a team (or two) in between?

So with the Raptors being out of the playoff hunt (although not yet mathematically) with a month and a half to go in the season, what does it say about a team that Bryan Colangelo (who it’s rumoured will be given an extension) claimed would be a possible playoff team even before trading for Rudy Gay?

Not a whole lot of good, I’m afraid.

If the Raptors continue to keep pace with their current record, which is a likely scenario, then they’ll finish the season at around 31-51. Obviously their horrendous start has a big effect on their win total but you can’t erase those games simply because you don’t like them. And even if you take away those first 23 games, you’re still left with a .500 team, so it’s not as if this team has played at a great pace since then, and they still probably wouldn’t make the playoffs (the Bucks, in the 8th spot, are currently 1 game above .500).

And while the Raptors have had a couple of long term injuries to two key players, it’s not as if those injuries hurt the team. In fact, the injuries to Andrea Bargnani and Jonas Valanciunas might have even helped the team. Not only did the team player better when Bargnani went down, but his injury and Valanciunas’ allowed Ed Davis to come in, play big minutes and increase his trade value enough to allow him to be traded for Rudy Gay. Same goes for Jose Calderon, who took full advantage of Kyle Lowry‘s missed games at the beginning of the season. So any injuries the Raptors did have probably added to their win total.

With the game against Golden State, we finally saw the starting lineup that you know Bryan Colangelo envisioned when he traded for Gay. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Andrea Bargnani and Jonas Valanciunas are all “Colangelo guys” and represents the vision he has for this team.

The problem is, it’s a very flawed vision. Obviously, the attraction to having Lowry, DeRozan, Gay and Bargnani on the court together is that it gives you four players who can score from just about anywhere on the court, giving the Raptors a potentially potent offense, as we saw when they scored 118 points (their second highest total in regulation this season) against Golden State, on Monday night.

While those four have the potential to be dynamic scorers, Gay, DeRozan and Bargnani are also incredibly inefficient scorers, as well. And Lowry is the fourth or even fifth option in that lineup.

Enough has been written on this site (and others) about Bargnani, so there’s no point in rehashing why he’s such an inefficient offensive player.

DeRozan has shown a knack recently for getting to the line at a high rate, but his field goal percentage has actually gotten worse as the season has gone on, and he’s also one of the worst at his position from the three point line. Despite DeRozan’s ability to get to the line, he’s actually got a below average True Shooting Percentage among players at his position.

A lot of that has to do with where he shoots from. DeRozan shoots more 16-23 foot shots than any other shooting guard in the league. In fact, more than one third of his shots come from that range, where he shoots a very mediocre 40%. Most shooting guards that shoot a lot of shots from that range, either make up for it by shooting a high percentage from beyond the arc, where DeRozan is third worst at his position, or at the rim, where he’s right in the middle of the pack.

Gay is no better, and in fact is worse. He’s third worst among all small forwards in three point percentage, but that doesn’t stop him from launching more than three a game. This helps contribute to the fact that Gay has the worst True Shooting Percentage among all small forwards in the league (that play at least 20 mpg). Compounding that, Gay takes the sixth most shots from 16-23 feet at his position, while shooting a below average percentage at that range for his position.

And while he is having a career-worst year shooting the ball, his True Shooting Percentage has never been very good. Certainly not good enough to make you think he is the elite player that the Raptor organization keeps trying to tell us he is. Don’t think there’s a correlation between a player’s True Shooting Percentage and whether or not he’s an elite player? Take a look at the the True Shooting Percentage of the top players in the league. Nearly all have percentages above the average. Especially those whose main strength is scoring.

Of course, scoring is not the only measure of a player.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t help the Raptor cause. Lowry, DeRozan, Gay and Bargnani play inconsistent defense (at best) and are also poor decision-makers on the court, giving you a head scratching play for every one or two good ones. This problem can’t be understated in a league where the difference between a win and a loss is often how few mistakes a team makes at the end of a game.

On one of my posts about the Rudy Gay trade, one reader disagreed with my assessment of Gay as a mediocre, at best, defender. This seemed especially wrong after Gay’s first few games as a Raptor, where he showed excellent defensive skills. My issue with Gay is not his defensive ABILITIES. Those are excellent. He’s got the physical tools to be a top-tier defender and has certainly shown glimpses of being able to be a stopper, but there’s a big difference between being able to do that once in a while, and being able to do it all season long. That, of course, has been the argument against why Bargnani isn’t an All Star, Jerryd Bayless wasn’t able to replace Jose Calderon, and Alan Anderson isn’t in the running for Most Improved Player.

I haven’t talked about Valanciunas or fellow rookie, Terrence Ross, yet, but since Gay was traded to the Raptors, their playing time has decreased significantly. Since returning from injury, coincidentally in Gay’s first appearance as a Raptor, Valanciunas has seen inconsistent playing time, and since Bargnani returned, his playing time has been reduced even more. In the three games Bargnani started, Valanciunas has played less than 20 minutes per game in each one. And even when Valanciunas has played well, he’s rarely seen the floor in the fourth quarter, much the the frustration of many fans.

In the nine games before Gay became a Raptor, Ross played at least 20 minutes 6 times, and under 18 minutes only once. Since then, he has played at least 18 minutes only once, in the blowout against Phoenix. What’s most disappointing is that Ross actually looked better earlier in the season, and seems to have regressed both shooting the ball and defensively. And it’s hard to blame that on hitting the rookie wall, since he plays only 16 mpg and he actually played more minutes last year at Washington (in the NCAA) than he has so far this year.

I’ve always been hesitant to criticize coaches too much because we see so little of what they actually do. Most of their work happens behind closed doors and sometimes the results aren’t always a good indicator of how good a coach is. Last season, Dwane Casey’s ability to turn a team with little talent from the worst team in the league, defensively, to, at least, respectable, and surprise everyone by squeezing out 23 wins in a lockout shortened season, had many fans ready to call Casey the best coach the franchise has ever had.

That tune changed quickly early this year when the team not only failed to improve offensively, but seemed to regress defensively. They started the season horribly and Casey’s substitution patterns and offensive sets have caused most fans to scratch their head at times. Casey has, for the most part, gotten the team to play hard, but I don’t know if there’s much debate about the fact that Casey isn’t the coach that can lead a team into contention. He simply doesn’t seem to have the in-game skills to compete with the better coaches in the league.

While the team has been able to improve offensively over the course of the season, it seems to have been at the expense of the defense.

One of Casey’s weaknesses seems to the ability to develop young players. Ed Davis never had consistent playing time, during his time in Toronto, and even when he played well, Casey inexplicably stuck him to the bench. Valanciunas has played more than Davis did in his first couple of seasons, but Casey has too often ignored him even in games when he’s played well, opting to play veterans instead, even when those veterans aren’t playing as well as Valanciunas. And Ross’ regression over the season isn’t a good sign, either, of Casey ability to develop young talent.

Most troubling, though, is that Casey’s famous pledge to hold players accountable has never been consistent. One just needs to look at Bargnani’s play over the last two seasons to find evidence of that. At the beginning of the season, Bargnani continued to start and get minutes despite not only poor play, but poor effort, as well. Meanwhile, Davis, who played harder and better than Bargnani, only was able to break through when Bargnani went down with injury and Casey had no choice but to play him.

And now, despite poor play since coming back from injury, Casey inserted Bargnani into the starting lineup over Amir Johnson, who has been the hardest working Raptor all season long.

Of course, it’s difficult to know how much of these playing time/starting lineup decisions are Casey’s and how much are Bryan Colangelo’s. As I said at the beginning of this post, we’re finally seeing the starting lineup that Colangelo has envisioned for this team, I’m guessing since even before the Gay trade.

Colangelo has always valued offense over defense, which is why he’s stuck with Bargnani far longer than he should have. It’s why he signed Jason Kapono when the last thing the team needed was three point shooting and what it needed most was defense. It’s why he signed Hedo Turkoglu to a starting lineup devoid of defensive stoppers. And it’s why I find it unlikely that he’ll actually end up trading Bargnani, like so many believe.

Next season, the Toronto Raptors will have the 6th highest payroll in the entire league, and have a chance at going into the luxury tax. That wouldn’t be a problem except that the Raptors are nowhere near contention. They have a young, athletic team, but one that is inefficient on offense and mediocre on defense. And there’s little reason to think that will change as long as Colangelo is in charge.

Not only has Colangelo shown a penchant for overvaluing scoring and undervaluing efficient play, but he’s also shown, too often, to be a poor judge of character. He didn’t see Bargnani’s lackadaisical attitude as a red flag when drafting him #1. He took a moody T.J. Ford after Milwaukee had given up on him, and that came to a head when he lost his starting position to Jose Calderon. Hedo Turkoglu was a nightmare of a signing that helped destroy the team. Chicago gladly gave James Johnson away for a first round pick and the Raptors only put up with his attitude for a season and a half, having to downgrade to getting a second round pick in order to get rid of him. And the heralded trade for Kyle Lowry has shown mixed results, in large part, because of the attitude that drove him out of Houston and Memphis before that.

So for those who claim the Raptors future is bright, with the current team, I wonder what it is they’re drinking, because the view from here is a bit different.

4 thoughts on “The State of the Raptors

  1. Thank you for posting this. It is a much better and more thorough evaluation of the current state of disunion that is the Raptors that I have read in the last few days – I discovered this site from Raptor Blog.

    To be fair, I was enthusiastic about Colangelo the first few years as I think he did some good things, of which the Raptors record bore some of the fruits of his labour. But I think his handling of the Bosh situation and the last few years of the continual persistence of Bargnani have been large catalysts that spurred me to question why Colangelo remains employed. Your post nicely outlines the many foibles that Colangelo can’t just seem to shake, with the Raptors unfortunately the victims of many errors in judgment.

    I think fans who think this team will be much better next season have to juggle too many hypothetical spikes in performance, such as that Gay will become a more efficient scorer, that DeRozan will discover a 3 point shot and capable defence, that better/complementary pieces can be found for the second unit, that Bargnani will either improve or return something of value in a trade,that Valenciunas can improve being the 3rd/4th/ or 5th option, and that Lowry can find a balance between scoring and distribution are just some of the factors that are at the top of my head. For all of that to happen, I just don’t see it as it rests on too many optimistic progressions.

    Again, thanks for the post. It was a worthwhile read.

    • Much appreciated, welcome and thanks for reading.

      I was actually in Colangelo’s corner until last season, far longer than I really should have. I guess I was just hopeful that he’d “figure it out” despite the evidence to the contrary. Eventually the evidence just became to overwhelming to ignore.

      Colangelo definitely did some good things at the beginning, but even then the team he was building had a low ceiling and I knew it. I think I just hoped he’d be able to raise it with some great personnel moves. Instead, he kept lowering it.

      Your comment reminded me of something Jack Armstrong said at one point this year. That when you’re planning the team, you plan for certain players to play up to certain expectations, which is true. The problem is that Colangelo always seems to have too high expectations for “his” players. Maybe because he’s not the best judge of talent…

  2. Nice post Tim.

    It really amazes me how some people are still behind Colangelo, despite a history of making bad moves (most notably the comments I saw on RaptorBlog).

    What’s worse is the fact that Toronto had a nice core of young players (Ross-Davis-JV-Johnson) to rebuild around. All they needed to do was wait it out until after the 2014 draft, and there would have been a lot more hope for the team.

    • I agree completely. They were in a good situation until the trade for Gay. I think the Gay trade will end up setting the team back half a decade.

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