Colangelo Needs to Prove His Worth and Shake Up Raps

January 21, 2009

by Rico Trinidad

Change is all around us. Both Bushes have finally been relegated to the status of ex-president. 2009 is a year of promise that so many have been waiting for…

But for the Toronto Raptors and their fans, it’s already been a long and arduous 20 days.

The team’s performance in January has been symptomatic of the entire season, if not a more dramatic version.

After a mostly encouraging 4-1 run to begin the month, the Raptors have currently been suffering through a season-high six game losing streak. While the quality of opponent has varied significantly during this latest downturn, one constant has emerged: a propensity to allow victory to slip away in the late stages of games.

Now, having just passed the mid-season mark, the Raptors find themselves 11 games below .500. They will have to win at a roughly 62 percent clip to reach the 40-win milestone they need to even consider contending for the playoffs.

If this improbable run does occur, the Raps face the overwhelming likelihood of losing in the first round for the third straight season; a prospect that would be a marked disappointment for a franchise that entered the season with such high hopes.

There is certainly not a lack of excuses to explain the current state of dis-affairs between the injuries and a poorly timed coaching change. But more so, it’s time for GM Bryan Colangelo to acknowledge the failings of a roster he assembled by abandoning the Raptors in their current incarnation.

While certain pessimists may have predicted the uneven health of the newly-acquired Jermaine O’Neal, it’s difficult to think anybody could have overstated the extent of the importance of a healthy Jose Calderon.

Without Calderon’s presence on the court, the roster’s lack of an effectual playmaker has been evidenced by the fact that the Raptors are losing games by an average of less than 2.5 points. For all his perceived shortcomings on the defensive end, Calderon has been the glue that has bonded the offense and allowed for any sustainable consistency of half court execution to be maintained.

The first half of the season has shown, if nothing else, the Raptors often struggle to get into their offensive sets and move the ball to players in places they can score without their starting point guard at full health. This seemingly basic task is further complicated by the absence of numerous players who are able to create their own shot.

Swing players such as Anthony Parker, Jason Kapono, Joey Graham, and Jamario Moon, while serviceable, are not exactly frontline starters at the NBA level.

In recent years, ‘the League’ has become more about imposing the will of one’s star players on the opposition and less about a team’s collective talent rising above the sum of the individual parts. The lack of such an impact player at the shooting guard and small forward positions leaves a very small margin of error for decision-making and team play.

The Raptors’ inability to create high percentage shots is adversely affecting the group, particularly Chris Bosh’s ability to function without overdue defensive attention. As Raptor fans are all too familiar with, this is a problem that has some serious long term ramifications.

Before this season can be called a complete write off, it would be difficult not to mention the mid-season emergence of Andrea Bargnani as a best case scenario for Colangelo.

The Raptor GM is inextricably tied to his former No. 1 draft pick, and it could be theorized that bringing in O’Neal had the residual benefits of allowing more time for Bargnani’s development. However, the month of January has reinforced that Bargs can become the player that Colangelo has always envisioned with consistent minutes as long as he plays those minutes as a big and not as a three.

The recent play of Bargnani has made Jermaine O’Neal the expendable piece; his value for the Raptors was in the short term and clearly that time has passed. It will not be easy to pawn off a player like O’Neal in light of his ongoing health issues, despite a massive contract that expires after next year.

Colangelo must make every effort to flip JO and address the glaring flaws weighing down the current roster; as it stands, there’s no denying his ability, the issue will be convincing teams he can still play.

With a lack-luster draft looming, the Raptors will have no guarantees of acquiring an impact rookie in the offseason. Colangelo’s only currency for making roster additions will be to clear enough cap space in order to either directly sign or indirectly peddle for the sort talent that can help the team.

After repeated close losses, morale in the locker room is dangerously low.  If the dynamic doesn’t change sooner than later, this roster could implode causing irreparable damage to any remaining functioning team chemistry. And the Raps’ lack of competitiveness will only serve to further alienate Bosh.

As big a disappointment as this season has become, it is absolutely necessary an immediate move is made to keep the current state of malaise from spilling over to future seasons. Maintaining the status quo could lead to a downward spiral that may be impossible to recover from for an organization that once held such a promising future.

Toronto Raptors: Defining a Scary New World

December 9, 2008

by Rico Trinidad… First of all, I have to confess, I’ve been waiting for Sam Mitchell’s dismissal.

For years.

I place value in a coach who has a superior strategic acumen; one who will rigorously game-plan his opponents and make real-time adjustments to steal the periodic game from the bench.

I know this implies a harsh indictment of Sam’s abilities, and it completely disavows all the work he did developing a young and often uneven roster. But, all the same, you figure I’d be ecstatic with the recent turn of events.

Well, not exactly.

Sam was a known quantity, and it would be ridiculous to expect some immediate reversal of fortune in his absence. After all, there are still more ways to lose than to win in professional sports.

The Raptor faithful must now warily enter a new and uncharted world, one ruled by a double-edged sword of uncertainty. You have to give Bryan Colangelo credit for acting swiftly and decisively on behalf of a team that had shown all the signs of giving up on its coach.

But at the same time, this is clearly not the time of year for a GM to make this magnitude of a change. There is a considerable morale crisis that has affected everyone surrounding the team.

The current team is maybe an upgraded version of a roster that pulled out a high-character, gut-wrenching win in Boston at the beginning of 2008, but now your favourite beat writer will have you believe that two-thirds of virtually the same squad is D-League material.

The rules have changed, my friends. And it may get worse before it gets better. Certain realities must be embraced before we go forward. So here is an attempt to break down the most pressing questions of the Raptors’ uncertain future.

What can we expect from Jay Triano?

It is moot to say that, philosophically speaking, Smitch and Colangelo were contradictory; they were like a reverse version of Mike D’Antoni and Steve Kerr. Bryan has always wanted his team to play an up-tempo style and that’s what his new coach will strive for. An effective, faster-paced system will open up offensive opportunities for those who struggle in the half-court, something the Lakers have recently committed their second unit to with some degree of effectiveness.

The key here will be getting the Raps to rebound and play the sort of defense that will allow them to get into the open court. Triano appears ready to embrace this challenge.

Is the roster really THAT bad?

Off the top, with Chris Bosh, Jose Calderon, and Jermaine O’Neal on the court, the Raptors will be able to compete, talent-wise, with anyone in the league. That has not changed. This nucleus can make plays against the highest caliber of opponent. However, wing play continues to be the eyesore, as the presence of the sort of player who can consistently create his own offense from this position is lacking.

As bad as the positional offensive production has been, it’s the defense that has been the most mortifying. Combine this with Calderon’s lack of defensive aptitude (even when healthy) and you have one of the worst defensive backcourts in the league. And we haven’t even brought up Jason Kapono’s name yet.

Again, these defects will surely require individuals to step up, but only a concerted team effort will put this fire out or make it manageable. A system will have to be installed to suit the Raps’ players. JO’s back-line presence helps considerably, but employing gimmicky defenses like zones and traps will aid in keeping opponents off balance.

This still doesn’t change the fact that (with apologies to all the Anthony Parker fans) there may not be a starting shooting guard left in the NBA whom AP can reliably stay in front of. And we haven’t even mentioned the offensive inconsistencies that plague the team here.

Mitchell had every right to complain about the situation at hand, but there comes a point where you actually have to deal with it — even if it means resorting to using smoke and mirrors.

Will the Raps be plagued by the injury bug the whole season?

O’Neal’s playing time will have to be carefully managed for the rest of the season, even if it means having to sit out stretches to save him for more important ones. One can only hope he will reach close to 100 percent health by the end of the year. “Hope” is the operative word. He’s not there now.

What may be more of a concern is the status of Calderon’s hamstring. Going back to questions about the roster, the issue of the backup point guard has been tenuous at best.

Maybe with more direction from the coaching staff, someone can step up and provide some functional minutes. Because anybody who thinks Jose is playing anywhere close to 100 percent is out of his or her mind. Even opponents have recognized his lessened mobility and will continue to pressure him, as the Nuggets just did, until he proves otherwise. This is another scary, “hope for the best” scenario.

How can Colangelo more aggressively improve the roster?

Barring a blockbuster deal given the status of Bosh and Calderon, the most attractive trade bait on the team is Andrea Bargnani. And every indication points to Bryan having none of that.

This means the Raps’ primary lure becomes … Jason Kapono. I know, I know. But given the NBA’s demand for shooters and his somewhat weighty contract, it allows a foundation for acquiring a player making significant money. AP, Joey Graham, Jamario Moon and, to a lesser extent, Kris Humphries or Will Solomon could all be packaged with him.

The question of 2010 could actually help the franchise make a significant deal if you follow this logic: Toronto will struggle to sign the majority of desirable free agents and the clearance of any cap space would, most probably, be for naught. Given the borderline xenophobic tendencies of most NBA players and the virtual stepchild treatment of the Raptors by the American media (see Smith, Kenny), this concept is not much of a stretch.

Colangelo could target teams looking to dump salaries for 2010. Sure, there’s a good chance the Raps will be straddling luxury tax scenarios, but at least there will be actual talent on the roster to keep Bosh happy and willing to stick around. I don’t think anybody wants to start on the prospect of a Bosh-less scenario.

So the Raps’ biggest lure may be, in fact, the ability to save teams from a bad or potentially bad contract. I hate to be the guy who throws ridiculous, homer-pleasing trade scenarios off the wall (like all those writers did back when Calderon was a projected free agent), but I’ll address some players who are rumoured to be available:

Gerald Wallace – An undeniably popular prospect from a fan prospective, and his bad contract is apparently out there for the taking. One beat writer will have you believe Wallace would pull an Alonzo and refuse to report to the Raps.

I’d suggest that his source may be floating propaganda to mask the disgruntled section of hindsight thinkers who theorize “Crash” should already be a Raptor as opposed to JO.

But from a skill set perspective, Wallace does provide a lot of what the Raps are lacking. A whole lot. I would like to add the caveat that back when Wallace was in his contract year, I heard from a well-placed source that Colangelo was less than bullish on Gerald’s basketball I.Q., knowing full well that he was out of the Raps’ price range anyway. He still may not be ideally priced, but a lot can change in a couple of years.

Leandro Barbosa – His name has apparently been floating around the net as well, allegedly for Anthony Parker. Rationalize this one as you like, but I apologize to Suns’ fans in advance. There is no way Phoenix does this.

A trio of players that could become available, having worn out their welcomes on their current teams, include Rashad McCants, Corey Maggette and, of course, Stephon Marbury. First off, anybody excited at the prospect of Maggette should read this.

Talent is not a question here, for the most part. But expecting any of these players to not self-destruct in a new environment as they have in the past is an extreme stretch, not to mention that their presence will inevitably become a huge burden for a new coach.

At this point, it would probably make more sense to approach free agents such as Bonzi Wells, Kirk Snyder or even Damon Stoudamire. However you look at it, you are now scraping the bottom of the talent barrel.

On a final note, I would encourage those Raptor fans desperate to find trade options to keep their aspirations within the realm of plausibility by targeting teams willing to dump salary or young teams loaded with talent that may have pending cap issues.

A personal favourite scenario of mine would be trying to lift Travis Outlaw from Portland, as their superior roster depth alludes to some tough future decisions and potential player availability.

All signs point toward the Raps moving on from the Sam Mitchell era by building from within, at least in the immediate future. They will be more entertaining to watch on certain levels but the progression needed to shift to an up-tempo style will certainly lead to some lopsided defeats.

The most pressing demand placed upon the new, under-manned coaching staff will be to institute a system that puts the current roster in a position to succeed. And that may mean minimizing the decision-making made by players on both ends of the floor; an approach that should sharply contrast that which was employed in the first 17 games of the season.

Nobody is saying the Raps will enjoy a smooth immediate transition under Triano, although they may have caught a relative break by drawing a beat-up Utah squad tonight combined with the shock value and potential bounce-back factor of exorcising an unpopular coach.

Ultimately, the new coaching staff may be judged upon the way next week’s vital home-and-home series with New Jersey plays out. Given the fragility the team, this next week will be a significant test of character for the roster.

And for Colangelo, how the team responds will be a potential turning point in how he is viewed as Raptors GM, with his legacy hanging in the balance.