Archive for December, 2009

How Many Licks?


I grew up with the Tootsy Pop and the classic Tootsy Pop commercials.

Boy: Mr. Turtle, how many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?
Mr. Turtle: I’ve never even made it without biting. Ask Mr. Owl.
Boy: Mr. Owl, how many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?
Mr. Owl: Let’s find out. A One… A.two-HOO…A three..
(crunch sound effect)
Mr. Owl: A Three!
Narrator: How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?
(crunch sound effect)
Narrator: The world may never know.

Now I don’t know if getting to a tootsie roll center is really worth much, but I do know that the Toronto Raptors need to stop counting the lickings and take a big bite out of a schedule that has finally given them a chance to perform as close to their best as can be possible for a team that still needs to figure out some things. They can have enough breathing space to figure some things out now, with a little more room for error, and time to recuperate and practice between games.

If they can get seven out of the next ten, they’ll be at .500 with a little more than half of the schedule left to go. That’s not a bad place to be. But they really need to take advantage of the opportunity that arrived a couple of games ago.

So far so good, just when the fans seemed to ceremoniously give up all hope. What happened to believing? Is that only something a fan can do when their team is entirely dominant most nights? I always thought that was the definition of a fairweather fan. Not that it matters, since today the stereotypical fan is too busy wailing and bemoaning every degree of imperfection found in the coach or the player they think needs to be the epitome of greatness to be worth biting into the Tootsie Pop themselves. They don’t have the belief required to take that bite, and they feel above the effort required to lick, let alone count the licks. So they just suck away, and if the team tries too hard to placate them, the team will go on sucking as well.

These Raptors do not suck - even with a dance pack that wears outfits with “HUSKIES” emblazoned across them (which must be the final blow to any of them that might be borderline anorexic). Not yet. Really. But if they blow it over the next ten games, my ability to believe will take a blow.

In the meantime, I’m simply not impressed with the NBA game right now. There are too many blowouts altogether, not just with the Raptors. One night Matt Devlin drives you batty with his constantly declaring that they “Needed It!” with every second shot that goes up. And the next night you wonder why he doesn’t throw in a “yawn - didn’t really need it”. This is what comes from a guard-oriented league that puts defenses at an automatic disadvantage. There’s no real getting away from it, and it means that most teams will be strongly affected by how their schedule treats them at any point of the season. I dislike how that means that good teams do not have to be all that competitive every time out. A strong record in the regular season should mean a little more than what it does these days. There should be something a little tastier than a tootsie roll on a stick for us to chew on, no matter what team claims your support. If they don’t figure out a way to get more competitive games beyond two very strong teams or two weak teams pitted against each other, then attendance is going to continue to drop.

It’s all too formulaic, and yeah I was bitching about how bad Triano was with that sort of thing and he’s not alone. He’s come along way in that sense recently, applying real decisions to things he actually observes happening on the court. That is promising at least. Surely as far as the league goes, they can stop favoring perimeter play so much, slow down the three point attempts just a little, and provide us fans, who still want to believe, some to and fro between any two random teams that take the court on any given night. If checking stat trends becomes more meaningful than watching actual games, then I’m just going to dip my tootsie pop in kerosene, light it on fire, and hand it to one of those husky girls.

Predetermined


We don’t have a coach of this team. We have a robot. A coach allows for players to compete for minutes and places in the rotation. Here we had the rookie inserted into the starting lineup, immediately after he was drafted, for his predetermined 8-10 minutes at the start of each half. A coach decides who will play the bulk of the minutes at a position, and who will be there in crunchtime. Here, playing the two point guards together in the backcourt was predetermined the second that Jarrett Jack was signed to an offer sheet, and both guys would be there to finish games. This team was going to play at a quick pace looking for early offense, while aiming to be one of the top tier teams on defense (two things which are a bit contradictory if we look at the history of the game). It wasn’t going to matter if it turned out that the players were better suited for a slower paced affair on both ends of the court. A coach would see those sorts of things and make decisions based on that. And we get a predetermined mess.

Did it matter that none of that stuff made any sense in the real world? I mean I have to say that I enjoyed Triano’s openness with his thought processes throughout the offseason. But can he please give his brain a restart at this point? The rookie needs to get more minutes on some nights than others, and he needs to be able to get his feet wet against players of a little lesser calibre than the average starter at his position. What about starting and playing his predetermined minutes helps this team discover it’s identity, or helps the rookie figure out how he can shape that identity himself? I’ll answer that one. Nothing. It just reinforces the status quo. And it allows Triano to think that he did all the required lifting with his great basketball mind, before training camp even began, and there’s just no need to make any further changes, even if that is technically his job.

The same picture gets filled-in with Calderon and Jack. No need to decide on which guy works best, with whom and when. Trot them out there together to even out the minutes and allow them to both finish games. How easy was that? But again, how has that plan done anything to give this team an idea of how it can win games?

Then you have guys like Amir Johnson working like a dog and getting results for this team, only to remain consigned to his predetermined bit role. Jack gets to start now, only due to Calderon’s injury, but even now with a role that is more suitable to him, he is getting hemmed in by Triano’s conceptual ideas.

I like the idea of looking for early offense, but being obsessive about it helps nothing. It has to be there to be taken advantage of. Otherwise you get guys rushing shots and failing to work with each other to get better shots. You get Jack getting stuck in situations where he’s going to turn the ball over. You get nobody in position for rebounds. Boom boom boom. Too many wasted possessions that lead to poor floor balance and easy fast breaks. This is a team with guys who can play the half-court game. They are more than capable of working off of each other, and of reading defenses. Hell - we’ve seen it to some extent. What’s holding it back? I’m guessing that Triano’s efforts to get players to gel involve his concepts about moving the ball to the weakside for open shots or penetration, or the need to launch more threes off of screens, or find the mismatches for early offense. And yeah, that’s good, but these guys are not robots. They need to figure out what they can consistently do instinctually with each other. I swear I’ve seen some of that in the first few weeks, and it just seems to have been drummed out of them now. Anytime they take things a little slower, they find some rhythm with each other on both ends of the court. But that doesn’t seem to be where the robot wanted things to start, and so they go back to being that team in the robot’s hardwired mind instead of becoming more of a real team on the floor. Now we get to see Bosh do his thing for a quarter. Then Bargnani gets his turn, and then Hedo. Jack always gets the last shot of the quarter and whatever layup he can muster.

And what I’m thinking, is that some of the guys could continue to make bad mistakes on defense if they didn’t function so robotically on offense. The constant one on five scenarios does nothing to help gain any momentum, and eventually just leads to a green light where passes are easy to read, rebounds are there for the taking, turnovers happen too frequently, and instead of the Raptors scoring early and often, it’s the other side. We have not seen any two or three players force opposing teams to consistently try to figure out how to adjust to keep them from functioning as a well run machine. Forget the concepts that players are not going to get squeezed into, and let’s see them actually developing some chemistry based on how they are able to make their playing styles mesh. Maybe if that trust can develop on the offensive end, then it will happen more defensively. Or maybe not, but at the very least we’d see fewer breaks and run-outs and turnovers.

Meanwhile the same concepts need to be trashed on the defensive end, and Triano needs to look hard at what guys are doing in reality, and figure out how to make things work to some degree. I’ve seen so much given away defensively, right off the bat, with the idea that a Calderon or Bargnani just weren’t going to get the job done without an intricate masterplan. It wasn’t until the game vs Houston, where a change in coverage was brought about by what was happening on the floor. Jack finally ended up on Landry and getting a couple of great stops with man defense that didn’t open anything else up to force the rest of the team to scramble or just get lost. Most of the time Triano opts for the predertimined concept that leaves the team generally confused. So whereas on offense he uses his concepts to kill the team game, on defense his mind leads him to kill the idea of individual responsibilities and puts everything on the team. And in neither case has any real trust or chemistry developed. A sense of inevitable letdowns is developing instead. Just play hard you say? Yes - just run into this wall as hard as you can. You’re getting paid millions. Knock the wall down and then win the game. No I say how about the coach does his job. On top of everything else, the robot’s skills at making decisions has not been given any kind of a workout. He’s not just a robot, but a robot whose systems have crashed and left him frozen.

I refuse to believe that this team is what it is and we’re stuck with that. There is so much more there, and there is a chance to start moving in the right direction now that an easier schedule has finally arrived. Let’s see something develop with the starting lineup aside from taking turns carrying the full weight of the offense, and trying to figure out how to defend while forfeiting certain advantages before the games begin. Let’s see some changes based on real results or the lack thereof. Let’s see an actual team, flaws intact, instead of Triano’s attempt at a pretty, predetermined concept of near perfection, that only mucks up any kind of team building while trying to hide the flaws. If the flaws are that much of a problem in reality, they can be removed and sat on the bench. Stop letting predetermined ideas get in the way of guys playing basketball as a team. If that doesn’t happen now, and we are stuck with the robot, then the Raptors are actually going to become much less than what they are now. Please don’t make it absolutely impossible to believe. Let’s get this team to .500 and discover a few things that actually work well enough to keep them there at the very least. It’s time to unplug HAL and escape from a predetermined hell of a season.

On Bringing It


It’s all about the effort right? Teams win when they play hard. That’s an easy cliche to go with. I still think that teams can play hard and lose badly, or more commonly, have the bulk of their players playing all out, but get held back by the mistakes of a few guys. Effort without a sense of purpose on behalf of one or two starters is going to be hard to overcome, and yet it’s still effort.

Let’s look at two starters like Jose and Hedo. One guy needs the ball in his hands a lot, in order to get into a rhythm and get good shots for other guys on the floor. The other guy needs the ball in his hands a lot to get into a rhythm and get good shots for other guys on the floor. How are they going to compliment each other while also making sure that Bosh is not forgotten for long stretches? Marion did not present such a problem, and an overall balance on the floor actually started to develop nicely as last season came to an end. Now we’ve got to see Turkoglu provide what Marion could not - getting good scoring opportunities for himself and everyone else, on a regular basis. That makes Jose a little redundant, unless he finds a new, and perhaps more suitable role off the bench upon his return to the lineup. At the same time it can make Jack, as a starter, shine much more as a guy that can bring a more aggressive approach against defenses that are going to have to focus strongly on Hedo and Bosh. With all of that happening, the same effort from all those guys, is going to be amplified, rather than counteracting what is there, and requiring too many other role players to try to do too much to make up for the whole mess.

Take things a step further and look at Bargnani. I’ll be the first to raise my hand and suggest that this guy looks like he is taking a breather at important moments of the game. But there is a chance that he has been one of those guys caught in the trap of trying to do too much. I think it could be possible that this is a guy that appears to be slacking whenever he puts too much weight on his own shoulders. I notice a lack of clear intentions on those occasions. And frankly when that happens it is more maddening than pure laziness. I can’t stand to see him improvising with the ball, noodling his way from behind the arc to a foot inside the arc, only to fire a shot that has the intent of being an attempt and nothing more. Those shots usually graze the rim and lead the opposing team to an immediate fast break opportunity. It’s like a big green light.

Bargnani has always been at his best when he gets his offense from the flow of the game. We see the pump fakes that lead to good passes or the ability to get contact or gain the space needed to find that spot just above the freethrow line. Or the ability to use his quickness to go right to the basket. All of those options open up much more when he is not compelled to be a game changer. He’s a guy that provides the exclamation marks when he’s one of five. Or he’s the guy that provides the question mark on wasted possessions, when he’s not in sync with the other four guys out there, and taking on more responsibilities than actually suit him.

It’s something we’ve seen with Bosh throughout his development. Why should it be any different for Bargnani? And my big point here is that with Hedo and Jack given bigger roles than before, the efforts of both Bosh and Bargnani are going to show up in ways that bring more impact. Add the athleticism of a developing Derozan, and that of Sonny Weems as well, to provide some of the energy and hustle they lost when Marion left town, and the recipe for success becomes much more clear than it has in the past couple of weeks. Hedo is the guy that is going to allow everyone else to understand what their clear intent should and will be, including with himself. If Hedo himself is left unsure what his intentions are going to be on any given possession, then that carries through to everyone else. He has to be the guy providing much more direction, or else there will be too many other guys consulting their GPS. And that means things like guys leaking out too early when defensive stands have not been completed with a secured rebound, and then getting back too late to defend in transition, because they are looking for an offensive rebound - in other words, misguided efforts that hurt more than help.

And since helping then comes to mind - it looks like Bosh is being asked to help much less on the perimeter, and instead is being allowed to stick close to home with his man, usually around the net. He has been effective in blocking shots, altering shots, and with some much better collapsing of helpers into the paint around him, he’s been good at extracting the ball from the crowd and getting the offense going upcourt immediately. And so the sense of purpose is much more evident on defense as well. And again, the efforts can be seen to be paying off in much more visible terms. The ball has to be stopped in or around the painted area before the ballhander can decide on any number of good options available when everything closes off too late. It’s not that they have to make every effort to keep the ball out of the paint entirely - those efforts will lead to more breakdowns on the back end of plays than can be tolerated, including kickouts for threes, and the inability to box everyone out for the rebound. They need to make life difficult for anybody who does get into the paint, and then rely on Bosh to provide his version of the exclamation mark on that end of the court.

My only question is why it has taken so long to figure out stuff that is pretty obvious, and why instead there was so much insistence that everything would work out over time with no need to make any changes? As RF’s wise young contributor, bjjs put it - Triano hasn’t been able to figure out which guys he can rely on to be his workhorses. And it seems to be a matter of avoidance that has only now been solved with Jose being injured. He has got to do more than try to manage minutes in a way that makes most everyone happy enough. Those workhorses have to be the ones that carry everything forward within games and from game to game. They’ve been there all along, but their efforts have not been rewarded to the point where it’s become clear that they are of the utmost importance to winning games.

Watching tape of Houston must have provided some kind of revelation in that sense. To me the game against the Rockets was over when Bargnani got right up into Scola’s face on one of their first possessions. It looked entirely unnatural for Bargnani, but it did show a clear intent all the same, and Scola appeared to be thrown, as though Bargnani was trying to steal his secrets to success. That set a tone that was not much altered from there. And it’s that kind of obvious thing that has perplexed me the most: we have smart players here who know how to take advantage of defenders when they play to their strengths rather than take those strengths away. How can those same smart guys not realize that other players are going take advantage of the same things if presented with the opportunity over and over? Just because we have some offensive-minded players should not mean that they have no clue as to what not to be doing defensively. I think the coaches, who should know better as well, have simply forfeited too much on the defensive end, and instead of a guy like Andrea pretending to be named Luis a little bit, they have the whole team trying to make up for the difference. And that’s not to pick on Bargnani. He’s been a victim of the lack of defensive intent as much as a guy they think they need to work around. Everything has to start with each guy carrying their weight to begin with, and help situations can get figured out from there. But this team has started off defensive possessions all too often with help in mind immediately, as though they had only four guys on the court. That’s going to make them all look bad, and it all goes back to coaches thinking they can make whatever they draw on the clipboard play out on the court, instead of looking for those workhorses and riding them the way Jarrett Jack was riding Carl Landry in the fourth quarter. I hope Triano has figured out his job, so that we can see a direct line from effort to result, rather than squiggly lines on the shards of broken clipboards. It means just about everything to this franchise right now.

Gaw-awwww-leeeeee


Well surprise, surprise, surprise! Before we get to the history of television sit-com catch phrases, let me just say that this team should never look like they might have the worst defense in the history of the NBA, should never lose more than three games in a row, and should never drop below the playoff seedings in the standings again. That being said, they still have not shown their true identity just yet. They looked good in winning back-to-back games on the road by simply working hard for it. If you’re going to figure out your identity as a team, then that might be the best way to do so. But the question remains whether they prefer to win by playing hard for an entire game rather than wear themselves out for a full week by playing at a mad pace on both ends for a couple of quarters. This is a team that likes to put the throttle down, but they have to make their offense the easy part of their game. They have the talent and depth there to be leisurely about scoring. The running game should only come into play as something to mix up the gameplan a little, and as a direct result of converting on strong defensive play. The running has got to happen on transition defense, and on rotations, and after fighting through screens. That’s where they need to extend themselves for full games. When they do, it just works.

But alas, they are all too much like my memories of Jim Nabors. He became known for his hick character Gomer Pyle, originally of Mayberry, and then on to his own spin-off as a goofy Marine that presented escapist guffaws in the very midst of the war in Vietnam. And you kids thought things were crazy today? Gomer was the master of the catch-phrase. He had his long, drawn out golly. He had his surprise-surprise-surprise. He had his shazam. In my mind he invented the catch-phrase. He very well might have. He certainly milked them like never before. That might make him indirectly responsible for the future catch-phrase -”kid din-o-mite” which our Matt Devlin has applied to the rookie this season. And to bring further synchronicity into all of this, the target of most of the catch phrases was one Sgt. Vince Carter. In any case, Gomer was not all that Jim Nabors had to offer the world. He was the original Susan Boyle in a sense. He traded on the hick image, and then showed up on variety shows singing Ave Maria like a regular Caruso, leaving people with their heads spinning over the disparity in what they had come to expect. He even ended up with his own variety hour where he would sing medleys of mexican folk songs, note perfect, among other things.

So which Jim Nabors will the Toronto Raptors be? That’s what I’m waiting to find out. And I’m really hoping that they don’t get caught up in switching back and forth from the flashy goofball to the well-trained professional. Let the opposing teams think they are a bunch of Gomers. Hell - Andrea actually bears a scary resemblance. But the Raptors have got to turn those sorts of expectations on their heads, and leave the opposition without answers. And that means playing hard for entire games on the defensive end, saving the catch-phrases for garbage time after they hit enough good notes. They need to mash-up the whole career of Jim Nabors, appearances on Match Game and Carol Burnett included, and come out with a no-nonsense Marine that can sing well enough to bring the odd tear to the eye of your grandma. They need to drop the goofy bits and show us, and themselves, some team character that can be entirely trusted.

I will hope to have seen the full birth of this new identity be marked at the start of the game in Washington. Jose looks off Bosh in the post, then passes to Bargnani at the top of the arc. Bosh comes up to set a screen for Bargnani. The two bigs are working together. Not long after Bargnani would drive and drop off a pass to Bosh. From there the movement on offense continues all night, and Bargnani actually brings it on both ends. The perimeter defenders, Jose included, fight through screens more than going under them or switching, and Bosh is able to stay home defending the post much more. And it works. It’s a simple game when it comes down to it. They just have to play hard in the areas where it’s necessary to do so, rather than coming up with schemes that allow them to fool themselves into thinking they can take the path of least resistance and make up for it by exhausting themselves on the end of the court where everything comes natural and easy anyways, as if working harder on offense would somehow make four points available each possession.

All of that goofiness was attributed to communication difficulties across cultures. Shazam! Don’t buy it for a second. The problem was with Triano’s sense of reality and how he tried to communicate problems away instead of attacking them head on. It took a passionate speech from Alvin Williams, apparently, to allow reality to have a bearing again. And if they lose more than three again, I wouldn’t argue against him being made the interim head coach. I think Triano might be okay from here on in though, and if he can capitalize on the accelerated learning curve of Derozan, and the balanced approach to his rotations, by demanding that mere reality be constantly imposed upon the team’s sensibilities, then they’ll make some jump in the standings in a hurry. Golly, I still want to believe.

Dithering


So last night, as the game begins against that Washington team, the punditry back in DC is getting all geared up as yet another example of the limits of power within the lovely white buildings built by slaves, is about to pass before the eyes of the citizenry. The forms of modern warfare, namely guerilla and nuclear, have turned upon those that could always turn to military pursuits to prove their pre-eminence. Guerilla tactics helped to bring the nation independence. Nuclear weapons allowed it to become a superpower. But it’s abundantly clear now that such forms of combat bring no winners. The pundits are simply bewildered. Victory has become an elusive word. Even Mission Accomplished has become forever tarnished. The way forward does not appear to be pre-ordained.

Which brings us back to the Raptors. This team keeps finding ways to lose right now. They need to find ways to win. Somehow. Anyhow. I liked the pace last night. It didn’t look like they were going to wear themselves out early and struggle for the rest of the week. They didn’t give up a ton of points in transition. Again - the pace helped with that. And there were moments when they took control on both ends of the court. I saw a team defensively responding to the Wizard’s offense as plays developed, instead of watching and reacting uselessly. There was actual containment and contesting. Not every possession, but there was some hope. It was the third quarter and they were actually stretching out a little bit of a lead. Jack, Belinelli, Johnson, Turkoglu and Bosh provided a unit that looked more than capable of taking this baby home if they had to. They started the fourth together, and suddenly we see a wild pass from Jack, Belinelli fumbling the ball all over the place, Belinelli again- making the cardinal error of saving the ball by sending it to the opposing team under the net. Poof. Time to regroup? Time to throw a little something different at them? Or maybe those opportunities passed. From there Jose joins Jack in the backcourt and Earl Boykins pressures him to the point of distraction, and the offense goes all to hell. Earl Boykins. Flip Saunders tried something a little different in using the little man, and found success. Bargnani comes onto the floor and after a strong game up to that point, begins to fall asleep on defense. Poof. Poof. Poof. No victory to proclaim. It seems like an old story, but the only part that stays the same is the coach not effecting much of anything.

Back in DC the guy in charge gets questioned about dithering, as if there was some missed moment in time where a lose/lose situation could have lead to the golden gates of eternity. And here there is no dithering. There’s actually no obvious need for any hard decisions for our man in charge, at least not in his great basketball mind. Not that any decisions involving a game could compare to those of armed service personnel. But let’s say the hard part of a relatively easy coaching gig is being completely avoided. Everything is set to default it would seem. Everyone that is supposed to get their alloted minutes at their alloted points in the rotation gets them. The starting lineup was decided upon before training camp. Competing for minutes and roles doesn’t seem to have ever been a part of the equation, and it looks to be largely about not having to face any decisions as the season progresses. Triano’s reasoning behind starting DeMar, before he even saw him with the team, was that if DeMar didn’t start the first and second half, then Triano would have to decide when to insert him into each game as would best suit the team and the player’s development. Shouldn’t making those decisions be the right approach though, really? Isn’t that called coaching? Shouldn’t one of Jose or or Jack finish games instead of both in unison? Shouldn’t someone decide on that? If Amir replaces Bargnani for defensive purposes late in games, couldn’t he get a few more minutes in the middle of games, or maybe get a shot at the start of a game?

Now I get the idea of holding firm to a certain vision, and maybe the good signs I noticed last night will take hold further and they will turn the corner as is. I just wish that there could be some built-in flexibility to allow for some signs that the coach is going to pull out some ways to win games, instead of leaving it up to his set rotations to find ways of falling down just long enough to lose. I wish he could look at how some players might be better suited to establishing an identity for this team than some others. If defense is going to be a point of emphasis, as it should, then how about throwing guys out there that better compliment each other in that regard, and go from there? How about making better use of Rasho? How about giving Amir “Dirty Baby” Johnson a larger role?

Another guy in charge, now sitting memorialized down in DC, and on every shiny little penny, said in regard to something much more serious than even Afghanistan, something about a house divided not being able to stand. The Raptors need to fix just that problem. The weak side defense is just weak. The “house” keeps falling down. Helping on the perimeter might succeed until a rebound falls to the weak side, or a pass is sent to the weak side, or a player slashes in from the weak side, or too much attention is paid to a player on the weak side’s perimeter to allow for help to come from the weak side in time. They miss Marion so much with all of that. He could be counted on to provide the help, or grab the board, or defend the perimeter well enough to allow even Patrick O’Bryant to make an impact from the weak side. The house was not divided. Maybe they can get back to that when Reggie Evans returns, or maybe Derozan can develop his defensive abilities to the point where he has to get more than his usual six or seven minute stretch, and maybe then the combination of Bosh and Bargnani can lead to some wins. It’s worth tossing one of those pennies into a wishing well I suppose. It’s not like anyone is going to decide to go changing up the core of this team. So they are going to have to find ways of matching some of what Marion brought to this team, because that worked better than what we see now.

That’s what I’m looking for right now - the way forward. And Triano has got to find the right intangibles to move forward with. Hedo will come along. DeRozan will develop. Just decide how to get this team making some stops consistently for a few weeks and go from there. They need to win more than they lose this month, and they aren’t off to a good start so far. They need to be at least 2-2 this week, should aim for 3-1, and already look doomed to be 1-3 at best. It’s time for the coach to do the most difficult, and perhaps most necessary part of his job. I hope he figures it out and at least starts to dither by the time they make it down to DC for the quick rematch of the week.

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