OK – so it took a full season to get these guys playing a style that serves them well. At least it happened. Everything I was looking for as far back as training camp, and have repeatedly bored you with throughout the season, now appears to have been realized to some extent. I can’t complain about all the losses in between, because the talent added through a high draft pick is going to be essential. And now there is some indication of what that pick is going to be added to. It seems possible to see this team improving on defense, to the point where it allows them to convert stops to easy baskets. Get a pick that can turn the possibility into a reality, and this team is on its way to having a solid foundation going forward.
Of course missing from that foundation are Colangelo favorites – Bargnani, Calderon and Kleiza. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for any or all of them, but I would suggest that it would be a challenge to figure out what the role of each guy would be. Kleiza looks to be on the shelf for some time yet, so they are not going to need to decide on his role for some time. The other two mainstays just may have to go. I still think that Jose could be an excellent choice as a backup point guard, but if we draft a point guard to upgrade the position overall, then Bayless might be the better choice as a guy that could share minutes, and share duties in the backcourt as a combo guard with the new guy. Jose has never been a guy that can play as part of a dynamic offense. He either has the ball and makes something happen, or he doesn’t have the ball and he fades into the background. When he’s played with Navarro on the Spanish team, he has repeatedly passed the ball over to his off-guard and then literally stepped back. That is his mindset. It’s not that he needs the ball, but without the ball he doesn’t take on much of a role. Take Jose off this team and you have more threats to drive and keep opposing defenses on their heels, rather than just find somebody some space for a jumper that opposing defenses are fine with giving up. That’s not a change that will make this team world-beaters overnight, but it will give them a definitive focus and foundation to build on.
Andrea could also be a part of that foundation theoretically. There is no denying his impact on games in fits and starts. To me that suggests no more starts. He could be a very effective scorer coming off the bench, and he could be quickly brought back to the bench on those nights where he’s clearly killing the team with awkward shots and no defensive presence. For the bulk of this season he has been given the chance to show that he can provide a net positive on the floor over the course of 48 minutes. He’s managed to do so a handful of times. And that is not good enough. Simply making him a second or third option on the starting lineup doesn’t help. He needs to be able to be something of a focal point on offense in order to make-up for being the focal point of attack for opposing teams on the other end. There is only so much effort that the other four Raptors on the floor can provide to make Bargnani’s lack of a presence something that works out in the wash. It’s not something that is going to work over the course of complete games with Andrea playing big minutes. That’s just too hard and improbable against most NBA teams. Andrea as the main guy, rather than a specialist off the bench, takes the kind of focus and foundation that we’ve seen in the last couple of games and turns it into something that is too dependent on a single, inconsistent performer.
There are a group of guys on this team that are young, still improving, and happy to be playing together. That’s a group that can overachieve over the next season or two, and that would allow room to add some pieces that make for a really strong, well-balanced team. For much of this season we’ve seen hard work that doesn’t often pay off. On the offensive end, guys like Jose, Andrea, and Linas have provided some sense that scoring can come easy. I would argue that it has come at the cost of the team relying too much on a bunch of jumpers that can turn a sense of ease into all kinds of difficulties in a hurry. And then the hard work on the defensive end has to overcompensate for the pieces that don’t fit, while offering up transition baskets going the other way off of missed jumpers. It’s been sad to see strong individual efforts lead only to easy baskets for opposing teams. These guys need to know that they are all pulling on the same rope. For the most part we’ve seen two or three guys digging in with all fours just to keep the rope from going slack, while two or three other guys hold on with one hand, if that, while distracting the other side by building sand castles. A lot of that has to do with the personnel. But with the addition of James Johnson, and Ed Davis getting better by the minute, some real results can be had from a more defensive mindset. At least this past weekend has hinted at that possibility. Now can they add the right draft pick and another piece or two to solidify that?
I felt like I was watching basketball last weekend. I missed that feeling. I want more now. We’ve seen hard work that doesn’t prevent easy baskets for the bad guys for longer than I care to remember. Jay Triano is in danger of being defined by the failure that comes from that imbalance. And now we’ve seen a glimpse of how hard work can allow for some easy baskets, in close and reliably, for the good guys. In that scenario Jay Triano can be defined by the improvements of developing players like DeMar, Amir, JJ, and Bayless. The coach can get credit for a team that plays together in order to overachieve. In any case it is something to build on. The sand castles can, and will, just wash away with the tide. There are some pieces with real value that can bring something back in return, in the form of Andre, Jose, and maybe Bayless or Barbosa if a pg is drafted. Those aren’t bad assets to dangle out there. And even if they garner mostly draft picks coming back, it opens up the chance to find the pieces that can work together over time, and gives the group we watched this weekend a chance to get better from season to season. I would so much prefer that as an alternative to always wondering what kind of neurotic identity might eventually take hold.