For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the not-interested-in-the-American-election Toronto Raptors.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
Because the squad seems to be eternally rebuilding, expecting what amounts to a (pro-rated, considering the shortened 2011-12 season) six win jump for the Raptors feels like a bit much. The Raptors are the league's supposed afterthought, at least according to the small cabal of martyrish fans that still treat NBA media as if it's stuck in the year 2001, and forever adding pieces instead of wins. Six wins seems like a lot, especially when we don't know how Kyle Lowry will react to being The Guy, if Andrea Bargnani can stay healthy, and what to make of Jonas Valanciunas.
One element will remain rock steady, though, and that's coach Dwane Casey's ability to think on his feet and adapt. Toronto willingly went into 2011-12 thinking of the campaign as a throwaway season, something to abide while waiting for Jonas and packing a few pounds of real coach muscle on Andrea, and yet the team still upped its winning percentage considerably (even threatening the near-.500 mark enjoyed during Chris Bosh's final year in Toronto) with Bargs missing more than half the season. Whatever typical storm and stress hits in 2012-13, Casey will be able to dodge gale winds on the fly.
On top of that, we've no reason to believe that Bargnani won't play most of the season again. Lowry stepped back somewhat as a defender in Houston last year, but that was at the overall cost of him playing near All-Star ball offensively (and, in great news to Bargnani, on the glass) before an illness set in. Adding Landry Fields won't serve as a massive upgrade at the wing, but it will act as a stabling sensation as he provides competent play amongst other features (rebounding, again, and solid entry and skip passing) along the way. And Valanciunas, despite earning the requisite amount of rookie whistles, will likely add around 1400 minutes of athletic play at a position that only a few teams can ably fill from year to year.
The depth is not to be admired. The team goes 10-deep only if you appreciate the chuck-first instincts of John Lucas III and Linas Kleiza, although both rank as solid-enough replacement-level players despite their rim-gazing. At this point, Bargnani's rebounding will likely never improve (decades of data tells us that steep rebounding misgivings never really round up as careers move along), but the team has acquired enough helpers to make Andrea's scoring work passable. And Calderon as a trade chip could be a fantastic thing — the Raptors are set to acquire cap space should they hold onto or deal Jose, so they'll receive both high-end work in the passing department for more than half a season before taking either a solid draft pick, fine player making big money, or 25 more games following the trade deadline and eventual cap relief should they decide to keep him.
Of course, it will be another year of Raptor fans standing to the side and waiting for the months to count down until summer, frustrating in the sense that a postseason appearance is far from assured, and that both Bargnani and Lowry are just about nearing their primes.
Things will turn, though. The Raptor front office didn't exactly go great guns when the current regime took over in 2006, but in staying patient with two major assets in Casey and Valanciunas the Raps will eventually roll into the swing of playoff things.
Until then, enjoy a team well worth your time. And patience.
Projected record: 35-47
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
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.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
The Raptors are an admirable squad, making relatively small moves (via the draft, trade, and free agency) that turn them into a more legitimate contender for a low-level playoff spot. Despite missing out on Steve Nash — their brightest hope for a single game-changer — and overpaying for Landry Fields, the Raptors figure to improve. Dwane Casey will continue to establish an identity as a defensive squad, and the additions of Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas should get them closer.
That said, they only figure to accomplish so much. Casey can point to Tom Thibodeau's Bulls as a defense-oriented club that achieved contender status with limited offensive talent, but that team also has Derrick Rose, a legitimate superstar capable of carrying the scoring load for an entire season. The Raptors don't have that player, and don't figure to for some time unless they happen to find such a player via the draft. That outcome is unlikely, though, if they continue this incremental improvement.
This is largely the fate of today's small-market teams, but the issue is greater for Toronto, a great city that, whether because of taxes or cultural issues, has yet to appeal to a considerable number of NBA athletes. The Raptors have had superstars in their past, but all have left via free agency or trade, suggesting that even the draft might not be the key to turning Toronto into a contender. It's perhaps too pessimistic to say they're doomed to irrelevance, but there is a sense that the Raptors are not playing by the same rules as everyone else.
If that's the case, then slow progress isn't such a bad way to go. The task at hand isn't only to make the Raptors better, but to turn them into a relevant team that doesn't seem like a second-tier outfit even among small-market teams. That status is unfair, but it still needs to be corrected via results. Making the postseason, even if their ceiling is ultimately low, would help accomplish just that.