I’ve taken my time in writing a year-end review for the Raptors. There are things that have already been said much better than I and at the end of the day I’m not really sure how I even feel about the way this season transpired.
The Raptors were not a great team. They lost a lot of games. Hell, they lost twice to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats (quite possibly the worst team in history). They missed the playoffs again and did not secure a great chance at a top three pick.
Still, I’m a “glass is half full” kind of guy and I still feel the team had enough positive this season to be hopeful for the future.
While we saw problems with the club like the lack of a bona fide star, poor wing play for most of the season and a rash of injuries, we also saw marked improvement in a number of areas. Our defense was much improved, some unexpected players stepped up to show they belong here and our coaching staff showed that they can strategize with the best in the league.
Overall it was a tough year, but one that has given the fan base reason to beleive next year is going to be better.
Zan for Three
My Captain, My Captain
It was clear early in the year that Dwane Casey was going to be the voice of this team. He addressed the media at every turn and preached the same philosophies over and over. He talked about “building a culture”, improving the team defence and to keep working hard. His mantra “pound the rock” was adopted by each of his players and became a rallying cry throughout the year in the locker room, interviews and on twitter. In wins and difficult losses his players continued to stick to the plan.
The turnaround in this team is most notable on the defensive side of the ball. Last year the Raptors ranked near the bottom in all defensive statistics. This year they finished 9th in points allowed, 8th in Opponents field goal percentage, and 5th in opponents three-point field goal percentage. They were also significantly improved in their rebounding numbers, soemthing that has plagued them since Charles Oakley left town.
A nice improvement in a number of defensive areas. What is also a credit to the coaching staff is that these improvements materialized all with a back court that many thought was too weak on the defensive end.
Who then should be credited with the turnaround? Look no further than the coach and his staff.
Casey was able to mask the defensive shortcomings of Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani (two players that everyone thought were hopeless on the defensive end) in his zone defense and turned the Raptors into a tough team to score against.
The effort Casey put forth helped make Bargnani a top-tier player during the first half of the season and helped rejuvenate the career of Jose Calderon.
Casey, for his efforts, has already had his contract extended and bigger and better things should be expected from the team with improvements to the roster.
Had Casey been on a higher profile team he might even be a candidate for coach of the year. His extended contract was a no-brainer and a bigger pay day may be coming if the team keeps heading in the direction it is currently pointed.
In this shortened Raptor season Casey has given Raptor fans a reason to be hopeful for the future.
Jekyll and Hyde
So no one knows on any given night which Andrea Bargnani or which Demar Derozan will show up. Both had polarizing years, to say the least, and neither player could put it all together for an extended stretch of games.
Early on it looked as though Andrea Bargnani was going to bust loose on the NBA. He was shooting the ball with confidence, driving the lane, hitting shots and playing with confidence on both ends of the floor.
For the first month and a half of the season all of the Dirk Nowitzki comparisons were beginning to finally make sense.
Then he got injured.
Andrea wasn’t the same player when he returned. He was hesitant, lost his confidence and could not find his rhythm. Either the injury was not fully healed or opposing defenses made adjustments. Either way he wasn’t a dominant player in the second half.
Raptor fans are now left wondering which player was the real Andrea Bargnani and which player is going to show up next year.
While Andrea was having a great start and rough finish, Demar Derozan’s season was almost the complete and utter opposite.
Demar started the season terribly. By the all-star break he was averaging 40% shooting and averaged 15 points a game. He was getting to the foul line 5 times a game. He was sputtering and everyone in the city seemed to be noticing. Journalists, bloggers, pundits, everyone was questioning whether Demar was going to be a significant part of this teams future.
He looked like a player destined for a career off the bench.
In the second half, he spent a lot less time trying to shoot three-pointers and started focusing on getting to the foul line. He was able to draw contact and get to the stripe a lot more. In December Derozan averaged little over 2 free throw attempts per game. Later in the year he averaged as high as 6 attempts per game. A small but significant improvement.
Demar has begun to learn what he does well. Casey had him attacking the rim consistently in the second half. Although he didn’t always get the call, he kept attacking, kept “pounding the rock”.
By the end of the second half Demar began to look a lot more like the player Raptor fans were expecting when he was drafted out of USC. He was more in control, wasn’t afraid of contact and eased into his role as a number one option.
Now Raptor fans have to hope that ‘First half Andrea’ and ‘Second half Derozan’ are actually who these players really are.
Many question marks may remain, but one thing is certain; the success of this team next year depends on how Andrea and Derozan play.
The Raptors may not have a bona fide superstar at the moment. They may have to steal that star from the draft or in free agency, but what the team does have a plethora of are character players. Guys that come to the court and leave it all on the floor. A squad of fighters that any coach would love to have coming off the bench.
Jerryd Bayless showed himself to be a very capable point guard and 2 guard this season and is perfectly suited to a bench role next season, if he stays in town. He can shoot, drive and dish and can potentially cause matchup nightmares for opposing teams.
James Johnson can play many positions as well and does a little bit of everything. He can block, rebound, defend and occasionally score. He plays the 3, 4 and occasionally the 5 and has a high basketball IQ when he’s on the floor. If he has not burned bridges with coach Casey he will be a valuable part of the team next year.
Jose Calderon had one of his best seasons as a professional basketball player in 2011/12. He distributed the ball with ease averaging 8.6 assists good enough for 4th in the league behind only Rondo, Nash and Chris Paul. He established himself as a team leader going forward and one that Dwane Casey is not afraid to put full trust in. He also became a much better defensive player under Casey. Calderon may just retire here in Toronto and the fans, who have cheered and jeered him over the years, likely have no issue with him staying after the year he has had.
Plus the foul…
The Colangelo Factor
Raptors fans were subtlety reminded of the fact that they have one heck of a GM in Bryan Colangelo. Though his star is not nearly as bright as it once was in Toronto, Colangelo has positioned his team to be a player once again in 2012/13. The steady GM has cleared capspace for his team and has drafted a number of strong young players to build around. He’s also got all of his players signed to team friendly contracts meaning that they are very tradeable.
This kind of flexibility has given the Raptor faithful some hope for next year especially with the arrival of highly touted 2011 first round pick Jonas Valanciunas. Jonas made Colangelo look even better this year by having a stellar year overseas and raising eyebrows with his strong play on both ends of the court in Lithuania.
Colangelo should also be credited with his very clever scouting of the D-league. He brought over three players (Anderson, Uzoh, Dentmon) and in the final two months of the season all three played valuable minutes and showed they belong in the league. That kind of success in finding D-League players is a rarity in this league. Uzoh and Anderson may actually have a shot of sticking with the club next year while Dentmon will garner an invite to someone’s training camp.
If that doesn’t prove to people that Colangelo has got some skill as an executive, then hopefully his off-season moves will.
Zan of the Year
A tough call, but Calderon was the Raptors most consistent player. He learned to minimize his weaknesses on the court and played to his strengths. There isn’t a better veteran point guard than Calderon to be handing the ball out to young players like Ed Davis, Demar Derozan and Amir Johnson. He protects the ball, puts it where it needs to go and genuinely seems to care about his teammates.
He is, far and away, my favourite All-time Raptor, but this year he proved his worth on the court too. Going forward Dwane Casey knows he has a great leader in Calderon. Someone who will lead when asked and who also isn’t afraid to step aside for a teammate.
A great comeback year for Jose.
Not Zan of the Year
Yeah, so that philosophy didn’t quite work out did it? The Raptors were playing Solomon Alabi and 3 D-League-ers at the end of the year, but even they couldn’t lose. The Raptors were a team that over achieved in many ways. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but on draft night when Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Andre Drummund will likely be heading to the Bobcats, Wizards and Cavs the Raptors will be looking on wishing they had lost a couple more games (or played the Bobcats an extra game or two).
Still, a solid season that ended on a high note. The team has Jonas, a first round pick , tradeable assets and host of capspace. This is definitely a team headed in the right direction.
The Zan Tabak Herald