“You are what are you are.”
It was one of Bill Parcells’ favorite lines. After taking over a Dallas Cowboys team that had gone 5-11 in three consecutive seasons, he didn’t want to hear about how talented the team was.
Every professional team has talent. The problem for many teams is their inability to evaluate that talent in the right context. So you end up giving Mike Conley a $45 million contract when he’s not even an average NBA starter at his position.
No one wants to admit the season is over in November. But realizing your team is not that good canbe liberating. If you’re going to lose anyway, you might as well make it to your advantage.
That’s where the Toronto Raptors, with a 2-8 record and a -4.0 point differential, are.
They need to take advantage of that weakness—lacking the talent to win NBA games—and turn it into a strength.
On a winning team, someone like second-year shooting guard DeMar DeRozan is a negative. He’s a player whose skill level hasn’t caught up with his athleticism.
A rugged 6’6", 220 with a 39" vertical, DeRozan could get away with overpowering smaller guards his whole life. Now, for the first time, he is adjusting to a game where the athletic disparities are much, much smaller.
He makes mistakes and doesn’t always play aggressively, posting a PER of only 10.7 this season. But then he’ll show a flash—a quick burst of speed to the basket, a soft touch on an outside jumper, a solid handle for such a big guard—and remind you of why he was a lottery pick.
That’s the type of high-upside player you want on a rebuilding team. You take advantage of a lack of talented players by developing players who will lose you games.
Minutes and shots on an NBA court are a precious commodity. There’s no reason for DeRozan to have a lower usage rating than Jarrett Jack and Linas Kleiza; both of those mid-20’s veterans aren’t going to get significantly better.
Toronto has three players who have not yet reached their ceiling—DeRozan, former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani and free-agent pick-up Amir Johnson.
Those are the building blocks for the future, at least until rookie Ed Davis returns from knee surgery.
Bargnani, with his high release point and soft touch out to the three-point line, can become a devastating finisher on offense. He would be a great pick-and-pop player alongside an effective point guard.
Unfortunately, his defense and rebounding are abysmal. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen him literally escort a player directly to the front of the rim without contesting his shot. So you have to pair him with a versatile shot-blocking partner in the front-court, like the Mavs playing Tyson Chandler with Dirk Nowitzki.
Toronto is currently starting the rebounding specialist Reggie Evans alongside Bargnani. While this mitigates the Raptors’ disadvantage on the boards, the 6’7" Evans can’t protect the rim and is an absolute non-factor on offense—he can scarcely be trusted to make an open lay-up.
Johnson, a springy 6’9", 210 forward with a 7’ wingspan, is much more suited to be Bargnani’s caddy. He can block shots (a career average of 2.4 in 36 minutes), rebound (9.9 in 36 minutes) and move his feet on the perimeter.
His main problem has been an absurd tendency to commit fouls, often racking up two in the span of a few minutes. That’s not a bad problem for such a young big man to have, especially one so athletic. Too aggressive is much better than too passive.
And if he fouls out after playing 30 minutes, what’s the harm? What is Toronto gaining by running out Reggie Evans and the utterly defenseless David Anderson for significant minutes? Not wins.
Because make no mistake, the situation in Toronto is bad.
They have no offensive identity right now; no player who they can consistently count on to run offense through. You can see that in the career high usage rates (how often they are initiating offense) of career role players Jarrett Jack (21.6), Linas Kleiza (23.7) and Leandro Barbosa (26.7).
The Raptors are throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Their defense is even worse. In their starting five, only DeRozan has the physical ability to defend his position. And when players get into the lane, they are greeted by the worst defensive tandem in the league at center in Bargnani and Anderson.
Any team with the ability to score points at the rim will have a field day against Toronto.
That’s why a spread like the one Charlotte got against the Raptors this week, a pick ‘em in Toronto, is so easy to jump on. Charlotte wound up winning by five.
Betting against the Raptors is some of the easiest money in the NBA right now. And until Toronto accepts that that is what they are, nothing will change up north.