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In the Paint
Join Date: Dec 2007
What makes Raps scary, what makes you scared?
from Ball don't Lie's preview, by Dan Devine
Ball Don?t Lie?s 2012-13 NBA Season Previews: The Toronto Raptors
| Ball Don't Lie - Yahoo! Sports
What Makes You Scary: Defense, toughness and proper bookends. Dwane Casey joined Rick Carlisle's staff to handle the Dallas Mavericks' defense before the 2008-09 season. Over the next three years, according to NBA.com's stat tool, they improved from 17th in defensive efficiency (average points allowed per 100 possessions) to 12th to seventh during 2010-11, the Mavs' championship season. That rapid move up the rankings led the Raptors to hire Casey before last season to overhaul a Toronto defense that finished dead last in the league in '10-'11; after just one season, he had them at 12th in the NBA, a meteoric rise that makes me think Casey is perhaps some sort of wizard.
So I'm really looking forward to seeing what he does this year, when he upgrades to a bulldog at the one and gets an actual wizard at the five. A full season of summer acquisition Kyle Lowry to harass opposing point guards and swell-sounding young Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas to change shots down low and attack pick-and-rolls up top should be a revelation for Raps fans accustomed to watching noted sieve Jose Calderon and a rotating package of alternately out-of-position and slow-footed bigs play heavy minutes. If the on-ball toughness Lowry showed in Memphis and Houston carries over, Valanciunas can stay on the floor (he fouls a lot) and the nine returning Raps keep pounding the rock (metaphorically, despite Casey's love for the literal), Toronto's move up the defensive ranks should continue. If they can approach the jump that Dallas took from Year 1 to Year 2 under Casey -- an improvement of 2.1 points per 100 possessions -- the Raps have an excellent chance at being a top-10 defensive unit, borderline unthinkable two years ago.
(Seriously: Four of the 10 best defenses in the league could come out of the Atlantic this season. I'm not sure if that's going to make all those divisional games brutal watches or brilliant ones, but if nothing else, it's going to be awful fun seeing how they all match up with a Brooklyn Nets offense that we expect to be high-powered.)
One critical evaluation facing the Raptors this season comes at power forward, where Casey and company will have to determine which of their three fours works best next to Valanciunas. The most likely choice seems to be Andrea Bargnani, back after missing 35 games with a calf injury last season. Six years of on-court evidence suggests the former No. 1 overall pick would fit well as a stretch four, using his long-range touch to give Valanciunas room to operate down low and spacing the floor for penetration by Lowry, Calderon and Toronto's slashing wings. Defensively, though, the evidence shows Bargnani's best role is cheerleader -- both 82games.com and NBA.com's stat tool confirm what any eyeball test suggests, showing that Toronto has allowed fewer points-per-100 with him off the court than on it in every season since 2007-08. (Neither site has on/off data for his '06-'07 rookie season.)
In fairness, Bargnani has never played next to a legitimate defensive center (seriously: Rasho Nesterovic, Primoz Brezec, Jake Voskuhl, Patrick O'Bryant, Alexis Ajinca, David Andersen, Solomon Alabi, Jamaal Magloire, Aaron Gray) and often shifted around when combo bigs Chris Bosh and Jermaine O'Neal were in town. If pairing with Valanciunas can hide some of his defensive deficiencies, and he's hitting from deep at the 37.1 percent career clip he managed before his injury-shortened '11-'12 season, Bargnani could be a valuable asset in helping Toronto improve its 25th-ranked offense. (As would DeMar DeRozan and restricted free agent signing Landry Fields fixing their respective busted strokes, but I'll believe those when I see 'em.)
The jury's still out on whether Bargnani can work as a full-time four, and similar evaluations will have to be made on reserves Amir Johnson and Ed Davis, both of whom took a step backward in mix-and-match roles during Casey's first year. But with three years and $32.3 million left on the 26-year-old Italian's deal, it's worth the Raps' while to see if the coach can begin to turn Bargnani and Valanciunas into a down-market version of Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler. If they click and Lowry turns in the same near-All-Star play he managed in Houston, Toronto could both play meaningful games in the late spring and continue building for the future.
What Should Make You Scared: DeRozan continuing to try to be The Man and failing, or succeeding enough to get Toronto to double-down on its bet on the wing. Come the end of this season, the Raptors will have to decide whether they want to lock up 2009 first-rounder DeRozan -- the starter at shooting guard the past two seasons, now moving to small forward due to a glaring need there and the presence of offseason imports Fields and 2012 lottery pick Terrence Ross -- with a long-term contract, or to extend him a one-year, $4.5 million qualifying offer that would make him a restricted free agent following the '13-'14 season. As such, a lot of eyeballs are going to be trained on DeMar's play this year, with the Raps reportedly wanting "to be wowed" by him before they'll put ink to paper. This could mean DeRozan looking to do (read: score) more, which could be a problem.
While DeRozan has been one of Toronto's two leading scorers in each of the past two seasons, as the share of team possessions he's used on offense has increased throughout his career, his field goal, True Shooting and Effective Field Goal percentages have all declined. So has his individual Offensive Rating -- after producing an average of 106.5 points per 100 possessions as a rookie, he dipped to 103.2-per-100 in Year 2 and 100.8-per-100 in Year 3, according to NBA.com's stat tool.
As defenders play off DeRozan to account for his athleticism and explosiveness off the dribble, he's tried to make them pay with the jumper, but he's just not good enough with it to use it as often as he does. Midrange Js and threes accounted for 59.4 percent of his field-goal attempts last year, but he shot just 36.3 percent on the former and 26.1 percent on the latter. (That deep mark, at least, was a significant bump from the 9.6 percent he managed in '10-'11.) The focus of his game has to be attacking the rim; considering his weak rebounding numbers, the fact that his assist and turnover rates are basically a wash, and that he doesn't create many turnovers in the way of blocks and steals, if DeRozan continues to just float outside without fixing his janky jumper, he might do more harm than good on the floor.
Strangely enough, Toronto's situation might be even worse if DeRozan does post a small improvement. After the Raptors drafted Ross eighth overall and gambled on a three-year offer sheet for Fields to checkmate the Knicks out of a potential sign-and-trade for top free agent target Steve Nash (which, as you know, backfired), they now finds themselves in a position of having already made two big investments in wings as another, more established player's contract comes up.
Say DeRozan does trend up this year, averaging something like 18 points per 36 minutes, nudging his shooting percentages up a bit (say, 45 percent from the field and near 30 percent from deep, while continuing to hit better than 80 percent at the line) and showing a bit more commitment on defense. Do Bryan Colangelo and Ed Stefanski then decide they have to keep him around, even if it costs them eight figures a year? Go for it and you could hamstring the franchise for years to come; turn away and you could miss the prime seasons of an electric athlete coming into his own. That's enough to give any exec trouble sleeping.