Are We There Yet?

Yep. This season has been one long ride in the backseat of the car while your parents chainsmoke. And the destination is not going to be Disneyland. The station wagon is going to lose power and some mechanic in Salt Lake City is going to take a good chunk of the family vacation money without doing any real work on the faulty intake valve, leaving you stranded and feeling pretty lucky if you can just make it a few more miles down the road to Provo to look for some Osmonds for a few days.

But that’s all for later. We’re still in Idaho, getting a speeding ticket in Pocatello. Expectations are still higher than they should be. We’re yet to ponder the magnificent stretches of nothingness that lay ahead. Canyons. Deserts. A big Dam. More Deserts. Tumbleweeds. All of Los Angeles.

In basketball terms, LA will mark a halfway point of sorts for many, as the All-Star festivities get underway there. We aren’t going to see the kid from Compton dunking in the skills competition. And we won’t see Linas on the All-Star roster. But we should see DeMar and Ed Davis in the Rookie-Sophomore game, and in a sense I would hope that is seen as the final destination for this season’s version of the Toronto Raptors. I would hope that this team shuts things down to a certain extent for the remaining portion of the schedule to follow. What little has been made of this team still being within striking distance of a playoff spot, has been too much. They need to start letting a few teams pass them in the standings and stay well ahead of the Raptor pace. As bad as the bottom feeders all appear to be, only Cleveland has a home record that is not respectable. Everyone else has enough to pull out some wins while the Raptors face a two month onslaught of far more complete squads at a time when it is going to get harder to milk simplified offensive sets and make up for weak links in the defense with more scoring. Toronto should really just be in each game to gain experience for their young players.

So how about that? Can we see a lot more of Davis and Bayless and Dorsey? Can we see much, much more of Julian Wright? I don’t want to be the carsick kid crying “are we there yet? are we there yet? are we there yet?”, but it might come to that if I keep seeing more of the same mix of players using the same tired formula that hasn’t worked for the last three years. Let’s see some losing while giving defense the greatest emphasis. Let’s see the running attack come off of some reliable stops. At least for parts of games. Let the usual starters rush their offense and fail to get back in transition. But lets at least get a taste of what might come next year, with a good high pick in tow, and the right mindset established, thanks to what might start now.

It’s not just about tanking for that pick or picks yet to come. We have some good picks right now that need to find their way a little. The kid from LA is starting to break out, and that’s good. But if he is really going to have the necessary impact for success in the future, he is going to need to become an important part of the team’s defense, and in that area he is breaking down more than he is breaking out. Which is fine. He’s young and the offense is going to come before the defense does. But it’s not to early to get at it on the other end, instead of just becoming comfortable scoring alongside Bargnani. In fact, if DeMar put in the work defensively, I could see Bargnani’s defense, which hasn’t been as abysmal as usual, perhaps becoming a net positive overall. These are the things we can dream of while we count the losses and the increase in the number of ping pong balls.

The most recent draft pick can only help in that area. He needs to get bigger, but he also needs more time on the court. It would be wonderful, if we could see this guy be able to lead guys like DeMar and Bargnani in pushing for improvement on the defensive end. This guy has what it takes to do so. He can be one of the main contributors to proper communication out there, because he has the ability to see the play develop and stay a little ahead of it, rather than scrambling to recover. One early possession that sticks with me, took place in Washington: John Wall had the ball on the perimeter, and Davis came out quickly and effortlessly to trap hard and stop the ball, forcing a bad shot from the elbow, which Davis contested, and then as the shot was in flight, fluidly backpedalled to his original cover in order to box him out under the basket. It was a beautiful thing – a guy that could do so much more than just try to guard his own man, and without batting an eyelid. He showed the ability to play defense in the same sort of way a young Vince could finish around the rim. It’s just a form of expression that comes naturally. It’s the kind of thing a team needs to build defensive schemes that stand a chance.

This kid Ed went on to show me he could be pretty imposing in the lane with that length, changing a good number of shots when not blocking them outright. He was able to handle some bigger bigs like Brendan Hayward, while finding his hands full with high-octane players like Verajao. And he’s surely made some mistakes. But here is what I like – when he gets beat, he fouls, and he makes it count for something. It’s not hard to extrapolate where he could end up as a player with a little more bulk and some solid experience. And the experience can be had now, can’t it? Let’s see how much his instincts can rub off on other players, and how much chemistry can be developed on the defensive end before this team finds itself in training camp next fall still looking for the right way to play this game. I would rather see this team lose now while being able to see the way to win consistently, than to keep pretending that they will find a way to shoot themselves out of any hole. The offense will take care of itself on too many nights, because there just aren’t enough guys like Ed Davis in this whole league. But scoring is not going to give this team any distinct advantages.

Trying to gain enough of an advantage to secure a bad seeding in the playoffs doesn’t seem like the best way to approach the future. It would tend to spell out a tendency to keep on with the same, and leave us all hoping the station wagon can make it to Provo again. What I wouldn’t give to just turn the whole thing around right there in Pocatello, Idaho, rent some mountain bikes, stomp on Mom and Dad’s carton of cigarettes, and hit the trails in Montana all the way back home, not once crying “are we there yet?”.

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