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The Raptors' Impasse Under Colangelo

Upon his arrival as general manager of the Toronto Raptors, Bryan Colangelo immediately began to overhaul the roster.

Through low risk trades, Colangelo turned Rafael Araujo, Eric Williams and Matt Bonner into Kris Humphries and Rasho Nesterovic. Additionally, he swapped Charlie Villanueva after his promising rookie season for a speedy point guard in T.J. Ford, while signing Anthony Parker and Jorge Garbajosa from European teams. Culminating with the drafting of Andrea Bargnani in 2006 with the first overall pick, these players joined forces with the existing key pieces in Chris Bosh, Jose Calderon and Morris Peterson and went from 27-55 to 47-35 in one season.

The immediate dividends of these rapid changes were two consecutive playoff berths. Although the Raptors failed to make it out of the first round in either season, it seemed that the team was headed in the right direction for the first time since the Vince Carter years.

Unfortunately, the immediate returns and subsequent excitement for Toronto masked a fundamental flaw in the approach of the Raptors: the team had no direction, and as such, no identity moving forward. This lack of identity is what has led the Raptors to their current four-year playoff drought.

Being a “good” team, which is what the Raptors were from 2006-2008 is not an identity. “Good” or “Bad” are adjectives used to describe performance. A team’s identity is intrinsically tied to its best players, and it is up to the general manager to build around the team’s core group of “stars.” The ideology behind this method of team construction is not necessarily to find the best players available, but players that are the best suited to complement the pre-existing core.

For example, the San Antonio Spurs constantly tinker with their supporting cast to surround Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli with the right pieces to get back to the finals, while the Dallas Mavericks finally found the right combination to put around Dirk Nowitzki to win it all in 2011.

From his very first draft with the Raptors, Colangelo has failed to do this. At the time of the 2006 NBA Draft, Toronto had a single foundational piece in All-Star power forward Bosh. Rather than trying to pair his sole All-Star with a talented wing player, or perhaps a traditional back to the basket, defensively-oriented center, Colangelo chose to draft Bargnani. The problem with this is not about Bargnani’s talent level or potential, but the limited potential he and Bosh had to coexist.

By using the first overall pick to select a seven-foot perimeter oriented player with three-point range and poor defense, Colangelo showed little long-term vision by effectively wasting the top pick on someone who had many overlapping skills and attributes to his star player. Whereas teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic worked tirelessly to surround their young stars in LeBron James and Dwight Howard with complementary pieces that had vastly differing styles to their franchise players, the Raptors foolishly opted for redundancy. 

In addition to the lack of a vision, the Raptors' front office has drastically mismanaged roster decisions over the past few years. It is no secret that there are a few franchises that are consistently hot spots for top free agents; Toronto is not one of them. As such, in order to be successful, a franchise like Toronto needs to be aggressive before the trade deadline, draft well, and take some risks in signing talent, even if it means rolling the dice on talented players who have less than stellar reputations. Instead, the Raptors have played it safe in the worst possible way by offering inflated contracts to players who are role players at best. Only for the Raptors is signing Amir Johnson to a five-year $34 million deal on the first day of free agency a success.

The most recent example of the lack of direction that plagues the Raptors can be seen in the decision to draft Terrence Ross with the eight pick in the 2012 Draft. Although many were confused, analysts made sense of the decision by pointing to the slow development of DeMar DeRozan who was in the last year of his rookie deal. The idea then was if DeRozan didn’t take a huge leap forward this year, the Raptors wouldn’t re-sign him and would have Ross as his replacement. This explanation was popular until the Raptors decided to give DeRozan a four-year extension. By committing to DeRozan for the foreseeable future, the Raptors essentially wasted a lottery pick on Ross, who by virtue of playing the same position as DeRozan, will be a reserve at best. The Raptors cannot afford to keep wasting lottery picks, as they may be the only non-playoff team that consistently uses the draft to find role players rather than potential foundational pieces.

Ultimately, as Colangelo’s reign comes to what seems to be an inevitable end, the Raptors are a franchise that has hit rock bottom. The team is near the bottom of the standings, and unlike most of the other teams with whom they share that space, the Raptors don’t have a set, promising franchise player like a Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, or even a DeMarcus Cousins moving forward. Poor decisions stemming from a lack of foresight in the front office have left a franchise in disarray and fans in disappointment. Hopefully, the Raptors front office begins searching for an identity and a sense of direction to move forward sooner than later.

Mavericks Get Younger, More Talented

With Dirk Nowitzki unable to play at 100%, Lamar Odom mentally checking out, and Jason Kidd and Jason Terry miscast a few spots too high on the depth chart, the Mavericks went from NBA champions in 2011 to a first round exit in 2012. Although their offseason took a turn for the worse when Deron Williams decided to remain with the Nets, Dallas has managed to succeed in achieving the main goal that every franchise should work towards during the offseason: improving the team.

Backcourt Losses: Jason Kidd (Knicks), Jason Terry (Celtics)

Gains: Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Dahntay Jones

This past season may have been Kidd’s first in which his intangibles finally ceded to the tangible aspects of the game, as he averaged a career low in points, assists and rebounds. Although this isn’t apparent from the box scores, the inability of Dallas to win a single game against the Thunder in the playoffs was as much about Oklahoma City's adjustment to not react to Kidd’s drives, knowing that he was unwilling and perhaps unable to score inside, as it was about any roster changes the championship team might have made the previous offseason.

The acquisition of Collision will effectively end teams choosing to defend the Mavericks by ignoring the point guard position. A natural scorer, Collision offers the quickness and ability to create off the dribble that Dallas hasn’t possessed since Devin Harris. A capable shooter from deep, Collison will not only be able to space the floor for Nowitzki, but aid him in the scoring department, which is especially pertinent given Dallas’ struggle to put up points this past season. On the defensive end, Collison should also allow the Mavs to field a consistent starting line-up, as opposed to their previous approach of having to be creative in order to hide Kidd from specific matchups.

Similar to Kidd, Jason Terry struggles to create off the dribble. Although people often assume that he is quick due to the fact that he is a 6”2 shooting guard, Terry’s effectiveness begins and ends with his ability to spot up, curl off screens and run the pick and roll.

Unlike Terry, Mayo is a player who has a lot of upside and is severely undervalued. An athletic combo guard, people forget that Mayo averaged 18 points per game while shooting just below 45% from the field, and almost 40% from the three in his first two seasons. His decline in production can be attributed to his sacrifice in accepting a bench role to facilitate the Grizzlies’ inside-out offensive approach, rather than a loss of ability. Along with Collison, Mayo will provide the Mavericks with their most dynamic, and offensively capable backcourt in years, while being a defensive strength rather than liability.

As for Dahntay Jones, look for him to be a defensive specialist similar to Deshawn Stevenson, except with the athleticism to make some highlight plays throughout the year.

Frontcourt Losses: Brendan Haywood (Bobcats), Ian Mahinmi (Pacers)

Gains: Chris Kaman, Elton Brand

Although neither acquisition was received with much fanfare, Kaman and Brand will arguably be the most offensively skilled big men that Dallas has ever paired with Nowitzki. Whether he is facing up or has his back to the basket, Kaman has a potent and diverse offensive game consisting of a reliable midrange jump shot, and a consistent hook shot over both shoulders. Kaman’s ability to not only catch and finish a la Tyson Chandler, but independently create scoring opportunities can only help free up space for Nowitzki to operate.

Possessing a similar offensive game to Kaman, Brand will fulfill the crucial role of providing Dallas with a more than ample back-up for Dirk. Over the past few seasons, Dallas has struggled to rest Nowitzki as the team has struggled to score without their All Star on the court. With Brand’s ability to post-up and hit mid range jumpers, look for Dallas to execute more consistent substitution patterns, and ultimately have a very dangerous frontcourt.

Preliminary Outlook

Despite missing out on the marquee player of their choice, Dallas has gotten younger, more athletic, and has filled their roster with a handful of offensively gifted players. This version of the Mavericks should offer a completely different look on offense, with multiple scoring threats playing alongside of Nowitzki, rather than requiring him to create for them.

As for the defensive end, there is no reason to believe that this team will struggle. Rick Carlisle and Monte Mathis have created a culture that emphasizes team defense, and all of the players added thus far are either strong or have the potential to be above average defensive players. 

Lakers' Path Of Least Resistance

After being on the wrong side of a Game 1 blowout, Kobe Bryant quickly dismissed the notion that the lack of rest his Lakers had after a full seven-game series had nothing to do with the loss.

To paraphrase, Bryant argued that no amount of rest would change the fact that the Thunder are faster and more athletic. While Kobe’s understanding of Oklahoma City’s biggest advantage over his squad is a positive, it wont count for anything unless he allows the Lakers to harness their biggest strength and advantage: their size.

The fact that the Lakers finished with the third seed in the Western Conference, and are in the second round is a testament to how good Bryant remains. He has been so dominant for so long that it almost seems ludicrous to argue that the offense should not run through him. However, the 33-year-old Bryant needs to accept that he is no longer the unanimous best option on offense.

Although Bryant has shown a slight decline, the reason that the Lakers are a more dangerous basketball team when they operate through Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol in the post has less to do with Bryant, and more to do with the rest of the league and the fact teams are generally less equipped to deal with a pair of offensively gifted seven-footers than they are a perimeter scorer of Bryant’s stature.

Specific to their series against the Thunder, the combination of Bynum and Gasol, both players who shot over 50% from the field during the regular season have a bigger advantage against any combination of Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed than Bryant does on Thabo Sefalosha, James Harden and Kevin Durant.

It is important to note that in order for the Lakers to exploit their advantages at their frontcourt positions, they need to make them a priority and utilize them as their primary point of attack. What this means is, instead of giving the ball to Gasol at the three-point line and trying to find an entry pass to for a Bryant post-up on his defender, Gasol should be the one getting the ball in the paint.

It means that a few missed shots should not deter the Lakers from feeding their big men. It means taking out a page of Lionel Hollins’ playbook, circa 2011 playoffs vs. the Spurs.

Their optimal game plan should be simple but effective: establish the inside game through Bynum and Gasol, make the defense react, then get the perimeter guys, including Bryant more involved with the easier looks that will undoubtedly follow.

Don’t let Ibaka’s highlight blocks on Gasol in Game 1 mislead you. Despite being the active weak side shot blocker that he is, Ibaka’s main weakness as a defender is his on-ball defense in the paint. With Gasol handling the ball form 20+ feet out, Ibaka is able to use his athleticism to make up ground, and challenge or even block his drives. If Gasol is allowed to do what he does best, operating from the block, look for Ibaka to not only struggle with Gasol’s diverse offensive arsenal, but also to get into foul trouble.

Gasol’s inside finesse game is almost a perfect compliment to Bynum’s dominance in the paint. Arguably the most skilled offensive center since Shaquille O’Neal, with the right amount of touches, Bynum is able to impose his will on virtually any center in the league. The only Thunder player who’s physical attributes even come close to matching Bynum is Perkins, who gives up two inches and 10 pounds, is far less skilled and is nursing a nagging hip injury. 

Finals X-Factors

While Chris Bosh is the X-factor for the Heat, the center position will prove pivotal for the Mavs in determining which superstar gets his first ring.

Previewing The Western Conference Finals (Mavericks Vs. Thunder)

While they playoffs have largely been about a changing of the guard, the very veteran Mavericks have the makings of a team that can get past the young Thunder.
 

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