Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's late-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Toronto Raptors.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
We gave the Raptors a shot in our intro to these season previews, as we discussed breaking "down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto," but that was more of a bad joke than an attempt at analysis. Frankly, the Bobcats and Cavaliers could both fall below the Raptors in the Eastern standings as they rebuild, partially because Charlotte and Cleveland are lacking in talent, but mostly because of the gem of a coach the Raps hired last spring in Dwane Casey.
This is still a rebuilding team, make no mistake, but it's finally one that has ideas more respectful toward its station. Nowhere was this more evident than in the drafting of ace big man Jonas Valanciunas in last June's draft, a sound and patient move that could stick the Raptors with the prize of what was otherwise a crummy 2011 lot. Valanciunas won't be over this season, but he'll be a Raptor soon enough, pairing with second generation NBA'er Ed Davis and DeMar DeRozan to give Casey a core to work around.
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Until then, this will be a poor basketball team working under a coach long on patience and smarts. Casey knows that the Raptors are attempting to change a culture -- at least we hope they're attempting something along those lines -- and that the Valanciunas pick and the 2012 draft selection are going to be the most important things to come out of his initial tenure, and not some slate of games crammed together in the winter of 2012.
Eventual cap space and flexibility is a rough thing to attempt to get behind, much less act cheerful about, but Toronto can at least see the corner to turn around. If GM Bryan Colangelo swallowed his pride and admitted defeat on Andrea Bargnani next summer, shooting the scoring forward a waive under the amnesty clause, Toronto could find itself $30 million under the cap once the rookie contracts are sorted out.
We're well beyond the risk of sounding fawning regarding Casey, and it's possible that his strange second place finishes to Vinny Del Negro in both the Chicago and Los Angeles Clippers coaching searches may have trumped up his potential higher than it deserves, but his hiring is akin to a team trading for a top pick from a terrible team that won't show up until 2012 or 2013. Casey's a prospect to be stashed away, not unlike Valanciunas or impending cap space, as the Raptors soberly look toward the future.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Toronto Raptors
I'm so excited for you!
A lot of what I wrote about Greg Monroe in the "I'm so excited for you!" section of our Detroit Pistons season preview could and should be written about Ed Davis. And now, as luck would have it, it will be.
Like Monroe, it took a little while for Davis to come on -- surgery to repair a torn meniscus delayed the start of the North Carolina product's NBA career until Dec. 1, 2010. (Please note, recent converts, that way back in the Long Long Ago, the season used to start before Christmas.) But despite missing the Raps' first 17 games, Davis came in ready to work, scoring 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting and grabbing six rebounds (including four offensive boards) in just over a half of basketball off the Toronto bench. Over the next 64 games, Davis put up 13 double-doubles and four more 10-or-more-board efforts, posting strong rebounding rates and showing a talent for clearing the glass that went beyond the simple "I am tall and close to the basket" combo that can inflate some bigs' numbers.
Like Monroe, Davis did most of his work in relative anonymity, as Toronto rarely contended or played especially pretty basketball last season. (Sadly, most Raptors have worked under the same cloak of invisibility; the NBA's lone Canadian franchise typically gets short shrift in stateside coverage of the league, even when they're competitive.) Still, though, he did work, averaging 11.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and just under an assist and a steal per 36 minutes of floor time as a rookie, according to Basketball-Reference.
Neither rookie showed much interest in scoring from distance -- 91.2 percent of Davis' field-goal attempts came from within 15 feet of the basket, according to Hoopdata, compared with 92.8 percent for Monroe (ditto) -- but like Monroe, Davis scored well close to the basket, making about 65 percent of his field-goal attempts at the rim. Davis doesn't have Monroe's floor vision or passing touch, but he performed better on the defensive boards, blocked a higher percentage of shots and turned in roughly equivalent Offensive and Defensive Ratings.
Davis is definitely a developmental project on the defensive end; he got roasted by fours and fives alike last season, according to 82games.com. His chances of taking a major step forward this season may be compromised a bit by a minutes crunch, as new coach Dwane Casey reportedly wants to play Davis and former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani almost exclusively at the power forward slot rather than shifting them between the four and the five, as Jay Triano did. But mitigating factors aside, until top 2011 selection Jonas Valanciunas comes over from Europe, Davis is arguably the most intriguing and important piece for Casey to develop. There's real talent here, probably more than most fans realize.
I'm so worried for you!
After two consecutive years of worst-in-the-league defensive efficiency under Triano, Casey was brought in to create a defensive identity in Toronto. The pieces might not be a perfect fit just yet, especially at center, but you can bank on the Raptors improving (at least somewhat) on that end of the floor this season. It's awful tough to see Toronto being much better offensively, though.
Without centerpiece Chris Bosh, Toronto dropped from a top-five offense to a bottom-10 unit in the space of a single season. The Raptors built their attack around Bargnani almost by default, and while the 25-year-old Italian posted the best per-minute scoring numbers of his career, his 21.6 points per 36 minutes came on subpar shooting marks from the floor (44.8 percent) and the 3-point line (34.5 percent). Lead wing DeMar DeRozan is an exciting, explosive athlete who has reportedly worked quite a bit on moving his improved jumper out to 3-point range, but considering he made less than 10 percent of his long balls last year, he's got a ways to go to become a passable threat from downtown.
Both Bargnani and DeRozan can create offense for themselves, but neither has been an especially willing or gifted facilitator in their young careers. Toronto's best distributor by miles remains Jose Calderon, but advancing age, mounting injuries, a deteriorating shooting touch and continued defensive ineffectiveness have loosened his grip on the starting point guard job. The enigmatic Jerryd Bayless (more on him in a sec) has proven to be a potent scorer in limited action, but whether he can run point effectively enough to wrest the starting job away from Calderon remains to be seen.
If he can't and if Calderon's slide continues, Toronto's attack will have a hard time getting going; if that happens on nights when Bargnani and DeRozan don't have it flowing, the Raptors will put up some ugly offensive numbers. If it all goes sour together, another bottom-third offensive finish could be in the offing.
I have no idea what to make of you!
At the risk of going full-Hubie, we know that Jerryd Bayless is a talented offensive player. We've known since he came out of Arizona that he's capable of catching fire with the ball in his hands, getting buckets in a hurry and creating the kind of explosive plays that invariably leave fans wonder why this little powder keg isn't getting more minutes. There have been legitimate reasons why Bayless hasn't gotten that kind of burn, though, most of which revolve around him having a combo guard's size-skill package and all the problems that come with it.
Bayless has looked comfortable running an offense for stretches, and even shown glimpses of brilliance, playing behind the likes of Steve Blake, Andre Miller, Chris Paul and Calderon. But he's averaged one turnover for every 1.86 assists he's dished out in his career, which is a little too thin a ratio for most coaches, who tend to prefer steady-if-unremarkable play from their backup point. He's a bit small for a two at 6-foot-3, he's not a great finisher at the rim for someone whose game relies primarily on quickness and penetration, and he hasn't shown a strong enough 3-point stroke (his best mark came last year with the Raps, and even that was just under 35 percent) to be considered a reliable floor-spacer.
Plus, every team Bayless has played for -- the '08-'09 and '09-'10 Portland Trail Blazers, last year's New Orleans Hornets and last year's Raptors -- has performed better with him off the court than with him on it. Sure, a lot of that has likely has to do with the performances of the guys he's backed up and the caliber of his second-unit teammates, but still, it doesn't quite scream, "You have to play this guy."
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That said, Casey should play this guy. Calderon's on the wrong side of 30, Bayless is on the right side of 24 and this season's all about identifying future contributors. He needs to find out if the eight-game tear Bayless went on to close last season -- averaging 22.5 points, 5.6 assists (with 2.8 turnovers), three rebounds and a little over a steal per game -- was an indication of a talented player turning a corner when given an opportunity, or merely a function of getting increased minutes against teams looking forward to the playoffs (like the Bulls, Magic, Knicks, 76ers and Heat) and playing out the string (like the Cavaliers, Nets and Bucks). If it's the former, then Casey may have found an important piece in the Raptors' rebuilding process. If not, the search for the point guard of the future will have to continue.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
TORONTO RAPTORS: "How to Train Your Dragon"
Andrea Bargnani has a deserved reputation as an awful rebounder and defender. Unfortunately, those deficiencies sometimes overshadow the things he does well, like scoring and shooting. Bargnani's overpaid, and severely lacking if you expect him to hold down the middle like a traditional center. But he's also far from useless.
In the animated family film "How to Train Your Dragon," young Hiccup does not fit in with the other Vikings because he is a weakling with a kind heart. However, when it comes time to neutralize the dragons that terrorize his village, his capacity for understanding proves to be a better solution than fighting with maximum force. The lesson of the movie, apart from that 3D is awesome, is that tactics that don't correspond to accepted wisdom can still be effective.
In Bargnani's case, that means that the Raptors need to stop focusing on what he can't do and build the team in a way that compensates for his problems. Jonas Valanciunas, who figures to help most with rebounding and defense when he comes over to the NBA next season, could end up as a strong complement to Bargs. Perhaps that's the first step beyond fixating on the negative and opening up more possibilities for the future.