The Toronto Raptors were supposed to be one of the more improved teams in the NBA this season. We say goodbye to the first month of the NBA season and ask: what on earth happened? Some of it we really should have seen coming, like the difficult schedule the Raptors faced. Other things, like injuries to key pieces of their puzzle, could not have been foreseen.
What makes this start perhaps more painful is that this is the first time, since the departure of Chris Bosh to Miami, that fans of the Raptors had some legitimate hope. Andrea Bargnani, and his slow start this season, has been another source, or target, for the fans' frustrations. He, as I suggested in my last article here, no longer seems to fit the Raptors philosophy.
That sparked a pretty good debate, but you wonder how much longer Raptor fans can still have passion for this club's goal of competing for the playoffs as it slips further away with every loss. Raptors enter December already in a huge hole and need to find answers quickly.
Signing Mickaël Piétrus to a one-year deal is just a band-aid solution for a number of problems that Raptors face. He was good, as he debuted in a win over the Suns, one of his former clubs.
Andrea Bargnani, with two stops at the end of a game and defensive rebound, still doesn't wash away a terrible November for him and for the Raptors. Toronto still end November with a far from spectacular 4-13 record.
Dwane Casey did a miraculous job last season in getting a team that lacked the amount of talent; this current roster has to play defense. This season the Raptors' defense has gone back to being the more traditional laughing stock it has been in the past. That might be a tad harsh, but they clearly have taken a step backwards.
Here are some numbers from the year before Casey arrived, last season and some stats for the Raptors as of Nov. 25 of this current season. Keep in mind, the losses to Houston and Memphis, both which were blowouts, are not part of this nor is Friday's win over the Suns.
- 2010-11: PPGA (Points per Game against) 105.4
- 2011-12: PPGA (Points per Game against) 94.0
- 2012-13: PPGA (Points per Game against) 100.3 (As of 11/25/12)
- 2010-11: OTPP (Opponents Three Point Percentage) 37.6 percent
- 2011-12: OTPP (Opponents Three Point Percentage) 32.8 percent
- 2012-13: OTPP (Opponents Three Point Percentage) 34.7 percent (as of 11/25/12)
- 2010-11: OFGP (Opponents Field Goal Percentage) 48.2 percent
- 2011-12: OFGP (Opponents Field Goal Percentage) 43.5 percent
- 2012-13: OFGP (Opponents Field Goal Percentage) 45.3 percent (as of 11/25/12)
People can get into your advanced stats if they choose, but I like to stick to basic ones that everyone can understand. It is clear by these numbers that Raptors have not fallen back to the days prior to Casey coming on board. However, they have taken significant steps backwards in all three of these basic defensive statistics.
You can get into the individual defensive performances of guys like Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon and others, as well. Jonas Valančiūnas has been targeted and is not getting much help when Bargnani is on the floor with him.
However, for my money, it comes down to just a couple simple things. The Raptors are too slow in coming out on three-point shooters and they fail to close out good defensive efforts with rebounds. We saw many examples of this at key points in the conclusion of a number of close losses for this team.
There have been so many, you can take your pick. I can almost guarantee that one or both of these things happened down the stretch at some key point in all of them.
In fairness, Dwane Casey had his small forward situation devastated in just two games. That being said, Landry Fields was not at the point he was setting the world on fire with his defense nor was Alan Anderson. Also, Kyle Lowry missed a chunk of time and has yet to look like he is truly 100 percent since returning early from a bone bruise. No one will debate the difference in defensive merits of Lowry, as opposed to Calderon, is a massive one.
At some point, some person, be they a fellow fan or a member of the media, has mentioned the Raptors’ difficult schedule as part of the problem. Here is a stat that supports that claim as teams the Raptors have faced prior to action Nov. 30 are 132-108 combined for a .550 winning percentage.
They have faced some of the top teams in this league with visits to Brooklyn, Oklahoma City and Memphis—all games that they lost. The Raptors game against the Suns on Friday was only their seventh at home this season, while already playing seventeen games in total.
This is nothing new for the Raptors, mind you, as they traditionally have a schedule similar to this. It is in part, that they share their arena with the NHL Maple Leafs. Who, at the time the NBA Schedule was made, were supposed to be playing hockey. They are not, of course, with the NHL Lockout.
The fact of that, along with few home dates, has not had this lousy start impact on Raptors' attendance in a negative way. Attendance is actually up slightly for the Raptors and they sit somewhere in the top ten in the league.
The Raptors will see the schedule turn in January and February, but you have to wonder how many folks will care by that time if things do not improve. Also, the NHL could finally come to some agreement and play that sport I don’t watch called hockey.
It could happen, you never know. What you do know is that things will improve with the schedule for the Raptors as it always does. However, will it matter, or will it be like in past years where their fate in terms of the playoffs is long decided?
The Raptors once again find themselves with an absolute mess at the small forward position. Really, you could have said this at any point, since Vince Carter was traded to New Jersey, and be right. The list of people that have started where Vince once did is a long one.
This year, in the role of Vince Carter, it was supposed to be Landry Fields who the Raptors did like. They just liked the idea of him playing with Steve Nash and being paid his high salary than with Kyle Lowry and that same salary.
Fields started off terrible and it would later be revealed he had a problem with his right wrist and elbow. This would lead to his eventual surgery and being on the shelf indefinitely. Alan Anderson stepped into the role, only to go down to his own foot injury in the very game he replaced Fields.
This left the Raptors with Linas Kleiza and Dominic McGuire as their options for the position. Bryan Colangelo decided, with Anderson and Fields likely far away from a return, to shuffle the deck and sign Mickaël Piétrus and part ways with Dominic McGuire.
Some Raptors fans have made mention of the Raptors’ trading James Johnson to Sacramento for a second round pick prior to the season. This was done based on a falling out Johnson had last season with Dwane Casey. The Raptors initially gave up the first round pick they acquired from the Chris Bosh sign-and-trade with Miami to get Johnson. The point to all of this is, in retrospect, the Raptors could really have used Johnson as things turned out.
Not that James Johnson was the answer to the Raptors’ long standing issues at the small forward position. He really wasn’t, nor were Hedo Turkoglu, Shawn Marion, Jason Kapono and the list could go on and on.
Maybe in the summer we should do an article on all the people that have started as a small forward for Toronto since Vince left town. Kind of like what they do when a legendary quarterback like Dan Marino or Troy Aikman leaves a franchise and they can’t seem to find a replacement that sticks. Not saying Vince is that class of player in terms of the NBA, but in Toronto, for the Raptors it is hard to argue they have had anyone better than him.
The bottom line to all of this is, for yet another season, the Raptors are getting nothing in terms of the production that they need at the small forward position. Injuries have been a large part of that, but even if healthy, many questioned if Colangelo had done enough to address this problem.
Good teams that make the playoffs and are considered contenders find a way to win games. The Raptors have been the exact opposite of that, finding ways to lose games at a rather alarming and regular rate. Even a game they won against the Indiana Pacers in Mid-November they set some dubious NBA history. They scored the lowest amount of points (in the shot clock era) in a fourth quarter (five) while still managing to win.
The Raptors managed just one field goal in that game in the fourth quarter. It is not just the offense that has issues in the final frame of games, it is the defense, as well. They have had chances to close out wins against several teams including a game against the Spurs which also made some history. It was the closest game in NBA History through one overtime, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
There was that game where the NBA admitted that they got it wrong and that would not change the fact the Raptors lost to the Charlotte Bobcats. A loss in the dying moments in Detroit and I could go on but will save you anymore pain.
All these historic moments and crazy rare events, are the Raptors simply cursed? Not exactly, but it would be nice to just believe that. Most of these games the Raptors entered the final quarter with decent leads only to see things fall apart.
The failure to finish off good defensive possession with rebounds, the lack of a true closer to count on and other teams simply stepping up their game are all good answers. The Raptors are also still a very young team on top of all of this. Even the guys you would class as veterans on this team are mostly no older than 25.
Dwane Casey can come up with 99 reasons as to why this happens to the Raptors, but he needs to find one solution and fast. If the Raptors could break though and win one of these close games, it might be something they can rally from. Cue Friday night's victory at home over the Suns.
Was that the confidence builder they needed to break through? A five-game western conference road trip should give us some indications on if it was.
It really isn’t all his fault. That said, he is, no question, one of the biggest parts of the problem and not much help to the solution. Bargnani has been the main focus of Raptor fans displeasure with their start to the season. The reasons are nothing new for anyone that has followed the Raptors with any frequency over the past few seasons.
However, for the people still hanging on the Bargnani bandwagon, his failures are not erased with one or two minutes of high-level defense. Yes, he did a solid job down the stretch on Luis Scola to close out a Raptors win. Consistently though we do not see this type of performance and we really should.
Bargnani has never been a particularly good defender. That is not news to anyone. What you may not have thought of is how that impacts Jonas Valančiūnas. You might have noticed, like me, that other NBA teams take full aim at Jonas to see if he can handle his business on the defensive end of the floor. If he was playing alongside a good defender he could be bailed out by help defense sometimes.
Help from Andrea Bargnani is not coming very often, if at all. That would include on the boards for rebounding, as well. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been more helpful on that front than Bargnani. Even in those rare games when Bargnani shows up on defense it is almost always at the expense of his offense.
But at least he is still doing his primary and perhaps only true exceptional skill of scoring, right? Yes and no, as Bargnani still has his bursts of scoring as in past seasons. The problem is many times this comes in the first half and Andrea fades into the abyss in the second half.
His scoring average has dipped consistently in three seasons without Chris Bosh. After the expected boost when Bosh left town, where he averaged 21.4 points in 2010-11 a career high he would fall from there. Last season he only played 31 games and his points per game dropped to 19.5 per game. While through 15 games played this season he sits at 17.9 per game, his lowest since the last season Chris Bosh was a Raptor.
Another concern is that he is not getting to the line as much. In the two seasons prior to this one he averaged above five trips to the line per game. That number has dipped to three times per game range. That is not a direct indicator of effort, but it does imply Andrea is not driving to the hoop as much.
Ethan Norof, assistant NBA editor here at the Bleacher Report, brought this shot chart to my attention on Twitter when I mentioned what I was working on. If you click on the link you will see a lot of red. We already mentioned his scoring average slumping. This is while being a volume shooter averaging 16.5 shots per game and just 39.9 percent from the field on the season as of entering play Nov. 30.
Not exactly a season to write home about for him or the Raptors so far. Will we look back on a win over the Suns as a turning point? Perhaps, or it might just be a blip on the radar in another season of unspectacular play for the Raptors.