Toronto Raptors: How to Build with What We Have: Bargnani, DeMar and Valanciunas

Stephen BrownCorrespondent IISeptember 2, 2011

Toronto Raptors: How to Build with What We Have: Bargnani, DeMar and Valanciunas

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    The Raptors have some solid pieces on their roster. They have some big men to build around and some accompanying talent in the back court. The biggest issue I have seen with this team over the past couple of seasons is the lack of real direction.

    I am convinced that Bargnani cannot play center in this league. He will never turn into the player that can go up against Dwight (yet who really can?) or any other big, bumbling center.. We need to put him in a position to succeed. 

    This article looks at the squad we have to date (those who are signed) and tries to give some direction and allow the team to build and grow together.

The Curious Case of Andrea Bargnani

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    I have been saying for years that with Bargnani at center we cannot compete in the dismal East. He is plainly too soft to play center.

    Who has Bargnani been compared to most over the years? Dirk. Try and picture Dirk playing center for the Mavs. It would not happen (however, if they went to a real small lineup it could be a quick on the floor strategy) and the Mavericks would be foolish to dampen Dirk’s talents by asking him to play that position.

    Bargnani is not put in a situation to succeed when playing center. Does he have some decent back to the basket moves? Sure. But that does not mean that he must utilize them all the time. Bargnani needs to create on the perimeter, come into the paint when necessary, yet maintain the fact that his greatest assets are out on the wing.

    Let the man succeed, play him at the four, if there is a rotation where he plays center for a bit (if the opposing starting center is on the bench) then that is fine, but don’t try and tell me he is your starting center.

    No starting center should average five rebounds a game.

Three's a Crowd? Ed Davis, Amir Johnson and Andrea Bargnani at Power Forward

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    Now that we have understood that Bargnani plays the four we have a logjam at the position. Second year budding star Ed Davis, Amir Johnson and Bargnani are all power forwards. It is tough as well since none of the three can really transition to a small forward. But is this an issue? Like this picture illustrates, three is never too much. 

    So what to do? Personally, I believe that Davis and Johnson could start for the Raptors. They both crash the boards with purpose and could easily grab 10 rebounds a game. Davis should bulk up and play the five and get Amir to play the four. Of course this changes once JV arrives in Toronto but I think this would be the best way to maximize the potential of each power forward. If we had Andrea playing a similar Ginobili role I think that would best serve his talents. By coming in as a sub, he would be fresh, and could be called on for some great instant offense whether that be at the four or VERY LIMITED time at the five in certain situations. 

    The first issue that would be raised with this idea of starting Davis and Johnson is that Davis is too small to play center. Now I don’t necessarily disagree with this claim, but if you look at the Eastern Conference there are not many dominating center that have game. Only one of the playoff teams have a dominating center, yet other All-Star caliber centers, like Horford, would not necessarily be tough defense for Davis, as they present similar skill sets. Even Roy Hibbert or Brook Lopez, who both stand 7’0 or taller, aren’t bruising players, so Davis could compete with these stalwarts. I could see some issue with Bogut but that is about it. Davis, at 6’10-6’11 could satisfy the center position for now.

Continue with the Development of DeMar DeRozan

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    DeRozan took some big strides last year. With only a 13 minute increase in playing time, DeRozan exactly doubled his scoring output from the previous season (17.2 from 8.6). That shows that he made some great strides, is improving and becoming a go-to option on this squad. At the age of 22, he can continue to grow.

    Personally, I have never been the biggest fan of his game, as I feel that he plays a little tentatively and lacks a killer aggression to his game. Maybe that is because he barely gets worked up and often looks uninterested in the game (see: Vernon Wells). I also say this because in roughly 35 minutes of playing time he averaged a paltry 3.8 rebounds. For someone with his talent, athleticism and vertical that is unacceptable. Rebounds are all about positioning, desire and energy. Sometimes I find that DeMar does not encompass some of those traits. 

    Anyway, enough with the DeMar criticisms. I was impressed with his progression and at this point he is the brightest star in the organization. Dwayne Casey and the coaching staff need to put DeMar in a position to succeed where his skill-set can be best utilized. He needs to learn how to rebound. He should easily average more than one offensive rebound a game.

The Backcourt Part 1

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    Calderon:

    I have had countless conversations regarding the ability of Jose Calderon. At 29 years of age, Calderon still has a lot of stock left in him. In a down season he averaged 10 pts and 9 assists. I don’t think anyone is questioning his amazing efficiency and offensive statistics, but his subpar defense.

    There is no reason that Calderon cannot play 25+ minutes (depending on the matchup because Rose would put 50 against him) and give you 13 points, 9 assists, 1 steal and 2 turnovers on great percentages. I would take that any day of the week from my PG. His defense can be masked if need be. Should he be the starter? Tough to say. More on that later.

    Bayless:

    I have been a Bayless fan since his days at Arizona. Bayless just turned 23 and has not come close to reaching his potential. There is no reason to say he cannot play 30 minutes and he deserves to have the chance to be the starting PG for the Raptors. He absolutely exploded last April (22.5 PPG, 3 REBS, 1.1 STLS, 5.5 ASTS) and with that performance the Raptors should let the backcourt of Bayless and DeRozan show what they can do.

The Backcourt Part 2

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    Barbosa:

    Barbosa is a great talent and the prototypical sparkplug off the bench. Although he has been a pro for eight years he is still only 28, Barbosa can play the one or the two. He should spell DeRozan when needed and when he is hot, ride the inferno. He could also be parlayed as a great trade piece, hopefully for a small forward.

    I believe that this could be a great four man rotation. The backups, Calderon and Barbosa are more than capable of becoming starters if injury or any other issue would come to pass on Bayless or DeRozan.

    The biggest tool that needs to be properly utilized is Calderon. Just like his European teammate Bargnani, Calderon can thrive in certain situations, but also look completely lost in others. If his minutes are altered to maximize his potential as an offensive floor guru then he can have a great season. He should play most of his time against a less offensive minded explosive point guard and if Casey can strategize his minutes accordingly, the Raptors have a great rotation for this season.

    Also, keep in mind that the Raptors are most likely going to draft a young PG from the upcoming draft in 2012, so this unit can only improve.

Small Forward: The Abyss

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    I am convinced that the Raptors will sign a free agent to play small forward. I do not see how they could play a season with only Kleiza and J.J, Wright at the three—that would quite possibly go down as the worst small forward package of all time. I personally think that if DeRozan could play the three in some cases it would free up some time for Calderon or Barbosa in the back-court. This could also be a good option to spell the disappointment of the aforementioned big three at the three spot.

    An interesting name on the Raptor's roster is James Johnson. In his last three games of the season he finished with an average of 14 points and five rebounds. He has some talent, yet still needs some seasoning. I think this season would be a good way to gauge whether or not he is worth a spot  in the rebuild. Personally I think he could be a solid rotational player but never a starter—but at the age of 24, he has some years to prove me wrong.

    Raptors, you need to sign a small forward yet maintain any sort of progression with J.J during his first full season with the Raps.

Conclusion

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    I am an optimist. I believe the Raptors have some solid young assets on this squad. Even though it feels like Bargnani has been on the team for years, he is ONLY 25 years of age!

    I believe the main direction that this team needs to work toward is developing a culture similar to that of the Blue Jays. They are an easy going group who is young, very close and work extremely hard. They all push each other to improve while maintaining competitive balance. Three of the main building blocks of the Raptors are 23 or younger—Amir and Bargnani are both only 24 and 25, respectively.

    Dear Raptors, make sure that DeMar develops into the go-to guy he has the potential to become and give Bayless the keys to the car and see how he runs that offense. Put those two big, young men (Amir and Ed) at the four and five and see how they develop. The average age of those four starters would be 22. Build around them.

    Use Calderon and Bargnani as two big weapons off the bench where they can thrive. Just because they do not start does not mean they cannot play big minutes, but be very strategic on how you use them.

    Raptors, don’t be afraid to use the zone in more circumstances. It can mask defensive efficiencies and help team defense as a whole. Communication improves, which can carry over to man defense.

    Once Valanciunas arrives, we can reassess based on 2012 performances but the main goal is to put the young guys in a spot to succeed. As they develop so too do the Raptors and we could be back in contention before you know it.