In 2001, when the Toronto Raptors were at their best, they fell in the second round to a 56-win Philadelphia 76ers team. That 76ers team would go on to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals and then become the only team that postseason to steal a game from the unstoppable Los Angeles Lakers.
Larry Brown, when explaining his coaching strategy for that highly successful 76ers team, created a vision of ?playing the right way?. He never defined it exactly, but in general terms, this notion of the right way to play basketball was exemplified by the players on his team. From gritty forwards George Lynch and Tyrone Hill to Sixth Man of the Year Aaron McKie and even the team's point guard in Eric Snow, everyone paid meticulous attention to defense and rebounding.
Theo Ratliff, and then Dikembe Mutombo after a massive mid-season makeover that also sent Nazr Mohammed to Atlanta, provided the foil to Allen Iverson's flashy offensive style. Whether in the lithe 6'10?, 240-pound Ratliff or the mammoth 7'2? Mutombo, Philadelphia had a dominant shot-blocker who was capable of single-handedly altering a game ? even if he only scored ten points.
Clearly, the vision Brown and then-general manager Billy King established for the team wasn't in isolation. Contenders across the league have built teams with a similar template: acquire at least one star player, establish a hard-nosed culture based on playing a disciplined defensive system, and make a splashy trade if necessary to complete the roster. (In Philadelphia's case, it was necessary to sacrifice a young clutch scorer named Jerry Stackhouse to acquire Ratliff in 1997.)
Among others, the recent dynasties by the Lakers and Spurs have been built in roughly this way, as have the championship Celtics, Pistons and Heat. In some manner or another, on the court and in management war roomss, contenders play the right way.
By now, you're probably wondering how any of this could possibly be relevant to the Raptors.
Sitting here in 2010, it's not easy to be optimistic while looking over the roster. Aside from reserve forward Amir Johnson, who inconveniently happens to play the same position as Chris Bosh, no one regularly goes out of his way to commit a hard foul. No one other than Bosh averaged seven or more rebounds per game this past season, and Andrea Bargnani (6.2 in 35.0 minutes, which would be fine for a small forward) is the only other player to average over five. Nobody on the Raptors has averaged two blocked shots per game for a whole season since Keon Clark did so on that very same 2001 team, the only Raptors team ever to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs.
Allowing 105.9 points per game this season, well above the league average of 100.4, is a telling sign of this 2010 Raptors team's lack of success. No team this season was truly average in terms of allowing points; 99.3 and 101.0 were the closest to the mean. The only team to allow under 100 points per game and miss the playoffs was Detroit, which was second closest to the league average and also had the second slowest pace. Only two teams, the notoriously offensively minded Nuggets and Suns, made the playoffs while allowing more points than the league average.
Getting into the postseason was almost guaranteed by allowing under 100 points per game, a task at which the Raptors failed miserably. The team allowed 100+ points in 58 of its 82 games; in the ugly transition from 31-24 home-court hopeful to 40-42 spring golfer, its opponents reached the century mark in 21 of 27 outings. Among the few teams held under 100 during this span were the cap room-obsessed Knicks, the 12-win Nets, and the aforementioned Pistons.
Perhaps most telling is that when the Raptors did hold opponents under 100, they played playoff-caliber ball. The team went 22-2 in those games. Both losses came late in the season, were against playoff teams (the Nuggets and Heat), were one-possession games, and the Raptors still allowed 97 in each. When the Raptors allowed 96 points or less, they never lost.
The obvious answer is to somehow get the Raptors to allow 96 points, but that's a huge challenge when confronted with reality. The team's dead-last 113.2 opposing points per 100 possessions, tenth-worst in the past 30 seasons, demonstrates a lack of ability to generate stops. A distant second are the Warriors at 111.7, who are still well above the league median of 107.3.
Creating turnovers hasn't been easy either. This season, the Raptors only blocked 384 shots, not far off of the league average of 398, but better than only two of the 16 playoff teams (San Antonio and Portland, both of which have capable defensive big men in Tim Duncan and Marcus Camby).
The Raptors also finished last in the league in steals, with only 469 compared to a league average of 592. Thankfully for their sake, steals weren't a major factor in team success this season, and a high steal total can often be attributed to a fast pace. Not so thankfully, the Raptors managed their mind-bogglingly low steal count while still finishing with the 13th-fastest style of play.
Not addressing key problems
For all that can be said about the deficiencies plaguing the on-court product, the front office hasn't fared much better. For the league's elite teams, there has been a proven way to build a roster, and the Raptors haven't done anything close to it.
The NBA's two most recent champions reached the league's pinnacle in surprisingly similar ways. The Celtics and Lakers each had a perimeter star in his prime (Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant, respectively), but each lacked a big-time post player to be a secondary scorer and to anchor the defense Boston was able to use an armory of trade pieces (Al Jefferson, an approximately $13 million expiring contract, and two first-round picks) to acquire Kevin Garnett, who became the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year as the team romped to 66 wins and never looked back.
During that season, Los Angeles traded the rights to Marc Gasol, an approximately $9 million expiring contract in Kwame Brown, and two first-round picks for Pau Gasol. Since then, the Lakers have won the 2008 Western Conference Finals and the 2009 Finals, and are currently the top team in the West. While the Celtics gave more for Garnett, commensurate with the future Hall of Famer's higher trade value at the time, the trades are uncannily similar. Indeed, the Pistons' 2004 pickup of Rasheed Wallace en route to their championship that season followed roughly the same pattern ? the team traded expiring contracts and a first-round pick.
For those wanting the Raptors to become a contender, or wondering why marquee franchises land the Garnetts and Gasols of the world while the Raptors don't, look no further than the accumulated asset bank. Danny Ainge had spent his tenure as general manager tirelessly seeking draft picks and young talent in order to have the kind of stockpile that would allow for such a trade. Even in a trade as maligned as the one that sent Shaq to Miami, the Lakers managed to win back a first-round pick, along with two young players in Caron Butler and Lamar Odom. One of the picks in the Garnett deal, ironically enough, was a pick that Minnesota had given Boston in a prior trade between the teams.
The trend is that in order to have the vaults of picks necessary to pry a disgruntled star from a rebuilding team, those picks have to be acquired in the first place. The Raptors, conversely, have a history not of obtaining extra draft picks, but of trading them away.
Due to being left with draft pick debt that cost the team its first-rounder in 2007, and then his decision to ship the 2008 pick in the T.J. Ford/Jermaine O'Neal trade, Bryan Colangelo will be making only his third first-round selection this coming June despite having been with the team since 2006. Had the Raptors made the playoffs, their pick would have reverted to the Heat, the consequence of Colangelo's inclusion of it in the Jermaine O'Neal/Shawn Marion trade.
What was essentially two first-round picks to turn T.J. Ford into Shawn Marion became disastrous, as the team used its new-found opportunity to land Hedo Turkoglu for $53 million over five years. Turkoglu's contract has emerged as a noose for the team, while his on-court production has suffered considerably. Even though it would be tempting to trade a pick or two as enticement for a team to pick up Turkoglu's contract, the team would be back into pick debt. Even a basic contract dump would be virtually impossible at this point, let alone a deal that could convert Raptor futures into a promising present.
Even more disconcerting is that the Raptors haven't historically been in the market for extra picks. In the 2001 trade that sent Corliss Williamson and scraps to Detroit for Jerome Williams and Eric Montross, for example, the Raptors were the team giving up the draft pick despite also trading the best player in the deal. While the spirit behind gaining Lamond Murray the following year was admirable, the Raptors yet again traded a first-round pick in the exchange.
Only the Damon Stoudamire for Kenny Anderson and Alvin Williams trade, in which the Raptors received two first-rounders and a second-rounder, really stands out among the heap. That trade, of course, was all the way back in 1998.
The soon-to-be-expiring contracts of Reggie Evans ($5,080,000) and Marcus Banks ($4,847,586) allow for a little more hope, but not much. Of the many types of players the Raptors have traded during their 15-year history ? the sulking star, the over-the-hill pint-sized point man, the overpaid benchwarmer ? the expiring contract has not typically been one of them.
A long line of talented expiring Raptors, from Donyell Marshall to Mike James to Morris Peterson, each could have fetched something of note in a trade. Naturally, the Raptors let all of them walk without receiving anything in return... not even, say, a low first-round pick.
Building around Bosh... or not
That 2001 76ers were built around Iverson and didn't deny it. King and Brown wanted to surround Iverson with defensive talent no matter what the cost on the offensive end, and the result was exactly as it sounds. The team played well because Iverson ran the offense and everyone played defense. Having Ratliff/Mutombo in the paint even allowed Iverson, often considered a poor defender, to become a steal-generating menace.
The three-peat Lakers surrounded Bryant and Shaq with players like Robert Horry, Derek Fisher and Rick Fox. Somewhat like the tough guys in Philly, they complemented the team's two stars by playing solid defense and by contributing whatever was needed for the team to win. The current version won a championship with Fisher and Trevor Ariza in identical roles.
The 2008 Celtics had Kendrick Perkins helping Garnett defending the interior, and Rajon Rondo was still seen as a defensive point guard who would defer to his accolade-laden teammates. The 2004-05 Heat complemented their star backcourt with Shaq, who was still such a big post presence that he almost won the MVP in 2005, and Wade and Shaq won the 2006 championship together. When a team has a special player (or few) and is serious about contending, it will identify needs around that player and then fill them.
Early in Bosh's career, a few key aspects of his game and physique became apparent: he wouldn't be able to keep the ball in his hands the majority of the time, he would never be bulky enough to bang around in the post like a true interior scorer, and he would likely never become a dominant shot-blocker. By the logic that most teams with a star player employ, the Raptors should hypothetically have surrounded Bosh with a point guard who can feed him the ball inside, a rebounding center to keep Bosh's body fresh, and to have that same center be an impact defensively in the lane.
For the most part, Bryan Colangelo has done a decent job of putting some of the required pieces around Bosh. He's kept Jose Calderon at point guard, also bringing in Jarrett Jack to add a tough defender who's a friend of Bosh's. DeMar DeRozan, Sonny Weems and Johnson all play their roles ably. As awful a signing as Turkoglu has looked to be, his acquisition was at least supposedly well-intended.
Frank Ziccarelli's statement in Friday's Toronto Sun that ?Bryan Colangelo has tried to surround Bosh with players and has gone to great lengths to accommodate Bosh? is indicative of many of the franchise's moves, most notably the Jack pickup. However, it fails to address the fact that the organization went to all the effort of expending a first overall pick to ensure that Bosh's most important need would never be met.
Andrea Bargnani is the antithesis of what Bosh needs in the middle. Unwilling to initiate contact in the post, horrendous on the glass and with an offensive game located in large part outside the arc, Bargnani is in no way able to help Bosh bang with opposing big men. On a typical offensive rebound opportunity, Bargnani will already be running back on defense, this leaves only Bosh. At Bosh's slight 235-pound build, he is often matched up against multiple players who weigh more than he does.
Weight matters in the NBA. In Bosh's rookie year, he went down with an injury after an unfortunate collision with the Wizards' 6'9? 290-pound hulk, Jahidi White. Bosh has never played all 82 games in his career, although he did hit 81 once, and tends to miss 10-15 in a typical season. Concerns have also been raised about Bosh's long-term knee health, even prompting the RealGM Raptor faithful to wonder aloud as to whether Bosh should be given a maximum salary. Bosh may look durable when he's grabbing any one of his almost 11 rebounds per game, but not having a stouter player dressing for 30+ minutes a night is proving difficult for the cornerstone forward.
Colangelo's greatest effort to give Bosh help inside was the trade for O'Neal, which I liked at the time and would still defend. Unfortunately, Bosh and O'Neal were given very little in the way of wing talent; more specifically, the starting tandem of Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon made about $5 million combined despite neither player being on a rookie contract. In a league in which good starters almost universally command good money, that hardly constitutes accommodation.
It's one thing to make frenzied signing after frantic trade in the name of an abstract accommodation toward a star player. It's another to realize that player's greatest need, observe how the league's elite have answered similar needs (like Dallas's Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood trades to accommodate Dirk Nowitzki), and then act on what has to be done.
Are the Raptors really this bad?
None of this is to say that the Raptors were a total failure this season, or that they have been in general. Had Bosh been available for Sunday's game against the Bulls, it might have ended differently, and the Raptors might be a .500 team with an upcoming playoff berth. Obtaining the privilege of being the NBA playoff equivalent of Meow Mix would have been a hollow prize, but the fact that the Raptors were so close to an at least marginally successful season despite these vast and glaring problems is a testament to the things they've done well.
The Raptors had one of the league's best offenses, not least because Bargnani becomes more intriguing as a scorer with each passing season. Furthermore, Turkoglu finished the season with a sparkling 2.43 assists per turnover, and Calderon is always among the league leaders in that category. Although the offense isn't perfect by any stretch, and its improvement will likely have to start by getting Bargnani more inside touches, it's encouraging.
The team's trade history hasn't always been so bad either. Colangelo's offseason swap of Roko Ukic and Carlos Delfino for Johnson and Weems has given the Raptors a better bench than they've had since they won 47 games in 2006/2007. Johnson and Weems have teamed with DeRozan to give the Raptors just enough athleticism to offset what can't really be termed as much but a lack of athleticism on the part of Bargnani, Turkoglu and Calderon. In that sense, many of the team's pieces do fit.
There's still a long way to go for this team to reach contender status, though, even if Bosh does re-sign in July. If he doesn't, the Raptors will face a level of difficulty unseen since the expansion draft days. If he does, the Raptors will have to build a winner the same way everyone else has ? by improving their defense, by accumulating an asset bank, and by granting Bosh the defensive center he so desperately has to have.
Until the Raptors start playing the right way, on the court and in the front office, don't expect much more out of them than what you see today.
Matthew Gordon can be reached at email@example.com
P.S. There are many other contenders I could have discussed who have employed some variation of the principles I have outlined here. Atlanta's acquisition of Joe Johnson and Orlando's search for defenders and shooters to buttress Dwight Howard are a couple more examples. Due to space concerns, only the most flagrant (pun intended) examples were used.