There are some uncanny parallels and connections between the Dallas Mavericks and the Toronto Raptors. Both teams began the decade with old coaches that could both look forward to accumulating more wins and more losses than anyone else. They would both soon after go with motivational coaches with southern drawls, not long removed from their playing days, and with coach of the year honors not being enough to keep them employed long thereafter. The two franchises have front office guys that are revered, maybe a little too highly, by their fanbase. The face of each franchise is a power forward more renowned for their finesse than their actual power games.
And both teams have underachieved terribly, with Dallas making history by exclusively losing to an 8th seed, and exclusively losing to a 7th seed, since the inception of 7-game series in the first round. On paper they always fool you into thinking they can really get it done. This season, with the addition of Haywood and Butler, they looked better than ever on paper, but the story was the same. Fundamentally, this team comes from a starting point of not being built for playoff success. They have improved on defense since the days of Don Nelson, without a doubt. But the role definition still begins and ends primarily on the offensive side of the court.
Watching the Mavs-Spurs series, there was a comment made by Doug Collins at one point when the teams went to their benches. He looked at the players on the court for the Spurs and said something about how they were going to have to count on Parker and Jefferson to carry the load of the offense. And that struck a fairly obvious note of how differently the Spurs and Mavs have always been constructed. The Spurs have guys in roles not requiring offensive prowess, but always being capable of doing something to help those two or three guys who are going to carry the load, do so more effectively. And there are no trade-offs in terms of always having the best team defense they can possibly put out there - again it’s where the roles are defined to begin with. Tony Parker started to get exposed on defense as the the team aged a little, said goodbye to Bruce Bowen, and had to try to incorporate Richard Jefferson, who was taking a while to figure out his role on the team himself. On top of all that, Parker had injury problems through the year and maybe wasn’t the same player that won the Finals MVP a few years ago. Enter George Hill, whose defense allowed some room for error with Jefferson, and allowed Parker to take on a new role off the bench that ensured the best overall team defense while still making use of his offensive abilities. He made the sacrifice, as Manu had before him, and as all the role players on the team do. A team built upon such interconnecting roles and the concept of sacrifice will overcome a lot of obstacles and succeed. That’s not what you see with the Mavericks or Raptors.
Not that Avery Johnson and Sam Mitchell didn’t come close to getting their teams more in line with the Spurs model. But neither of those guys could count on support from above, where looking at stats and building a team based on an abundance of offensive weapons trumped the need for proper role definition and making sacrifices.
Now if Dallas fails in the playoffs, with a former MVP alongside a bevy of verifiable star players, not to mention a point guard that will at least get some consideration by hall of fame voters; it’s not hard to see how the Raptors would just plain struggle. Toronto has had to make up for the lack of star power, by running and looking for early offense rather than create a lot in halfcourt sets. That plan alone lead to all kinds of problems with floor balance and turnovers and horrible transition defense. It was a case of looking to get the most out of their collective offense at the cost of defensive integrity. Even as a guy like Reggie Evans was acquired, Bryan Colangelo couldn’t help but tout how much he felt we would all see how good he could be scoring the ball. Jay Triano began the season talking about the importance of defense, and quickly found himself selling the “exciting” brand of basketball they planned on showcasing. This whole franchise is more of a sales job than a basketball team. Plain and simple.
It goes deep into the culture. Just like with Dallas, the players are sold on how they will be made happy, with great facilities, coaching that supports more than it criticizes or requires internal competition, and a style of play that allows everyone to look towards scoring as a point of emphasis that overshadows the emergence of the kinds of intangibles that might not show up in the stat sheets, but that allow for success all the same. Triano thought the proper cultural notes to strike centered around looking at a picture of the championship trophy and having everyone “see it, believe it, and achieve it”. I was sold Jay! And your players clearly were as well! What could have gone wrong? I can’t wait until you come back next season and try the same thing again. If I could just make one little suggestion? How about stressing “see the ball, see your man, compete or take a seat”?
That would be a start. If that kind of culture doesn’t take precedence, then this team can spend and add more stars around Bosh to entice him to stay, or they can look to rebuild with a bunch of new pieces, but they will still have the same ceiling as the Mavericks. They will still underachieve. Remember all the flak Babcock took when he suggested his team might not look all that great on paper? Well now we have a GM that constantly tells us how good his teams are on paper. He’s promised to get the team to reflect what he sees as being capable of 50 wins on paper. But even if he sees it, believes it, and achieves it, his 50 win team will merely disappoint in the playoffs, unless he somehow fundamentally alters how he sees the game and sells his team. He’ll just be offering another Paper Tiger that folds too easily.