A Raptors Interlude: Bad Gambles

In recent years, there’s been many reasons to be upset about the Toronto Raptors, from underachieving players to incompetent coaches. It’s true, Jay Triano coached 229 games for us.

But much of the disappointment and anger stems from management, and their approach to building a team with short-term fixes and band-aid solutions, most of which are to cover for management’s own mistakes. It’s a vicious cycle that’s left the team fighting for mediocrity, because, well, mediocrity is worth fighting for given the team’s current predicament.

I. Approach and results

We can rehash the hits and misses of Bryan Colangelo’s tenure to date. I try to be fair — not really — so credit has to be given for free agent signings like Jorge Garbajosa and Anthony Parker when he first took the general manager position here in Toronto. Paired with the point guard combination of Jose Calderon and T.J. Ford, alongside a frontcourt tandem of Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani (remember him?), the team won the Atlantic Division in Colangelo’s first season.1

Given the optimism from that season, and because of where the Raptors stood in the Eastern Conference at the time, coupled with the belief that Bosh was a player worth building around, several moves were made by Colangelo to try and elevate the team from perennial playoff contender to something more.

There was the acquisition of Jermaine O’Neal in exchange for T.J. Ford (expendable, unable to co-exist in a timeshare with Calderon) and a first round draft pick that ended up being Roy Hibbert. That experiment lasted half a season before O’Neal was traded for Shawn Marion, which eventually turned into a bloated contract for Hedo Turkoglu.

At the time, there was reason to talk ourselves into a Bosh-Bargnani-Turkoglu front court. Keep in mind, Turkoglu was coming off a Finals appearance with the Magic in which he was instrumental in knocking off LeBron and the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. The pick and roll combination of Turkoglu and Howard was devastating enough for us to think that it could be replicated with Bosh in Toronto.

Instead, it was a terrible signing.

Turkoglu was shipped out after the season, Bosh left because he didn’t sign up for the right cable TV package in Toronto among other things, and the rebuild started.

Up to this point, it was fair to say that while Colangelo’s teams didn’t deliver on the court, his approach was not entirely offside. He had taken the same risks in Phoenix, where his biggest gamble was handing Steve Nash a free agent contract when Mark Cuban refused and spent his money on Erick Dampier instead. That gamble turned the Suns into Seven Seconds Or Less, and off they went contending for several years.

The thinking and approach was no different in Toronto. I’m willing to make peace with the fact that the results didn’t live up to expectations.

But it’s the current rebuild phase that’s creating serious concerns about the team’s future.

II. A Path To Rebuilding

In the two seasons since Bosh’s departure, the Raptors have started the groundwork of building a new foundation, giving the chance for core pieces like Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan to develop, and drafting two more players who are now part of that core: Ed Davis and Jonas Valanciunas.

The latter didn’t even come to the league until this year, which in some ways spoke to the patience that Colangelo was trying his best to practice.

But without warning, the desire to re-model a not-ready team into a contender returned this off-season.

There was the ill-fated pursuit of Steve Nash, which left the Raptors empty-handed unless you count the contract they gave to Landry Fields in what was an attempt to lessen the Knicks’ chances at putting together a sign and trade offer for Nash.

Despite that, the team managed to — or so we thought — solidify their point guard position by trading a lottery pick for Kyle Lowry.

Even though the better move was made, it revealed management’s true intentions in the process, which was to usher in an aging point guard on a rebuilding team.

They were right. But in this instance, they were right only by accident.

There were talks of contending for a playoff spot coming into this season, and even I bought into the potential upside of the team.

If Bargnani continued to progress, if Valanciunas played up to expectations, and Lowry could be a top-tier point guard, there was reason to think a core was in place for something better.

Instead, Bargnani regressed so much that his injury was seen as addition by subtraction. The point guard situation seems as unstable as ever with talks that Lowry is already back on the trade market, and to top it off, management has continued to add salary to hamper future flexibility.

This is all headed in the wrong direction.

III. DeRozan

By all accounts, DeMar DeRozan is a great teammate. He’s a hard worker. He’s in the gym all the time. He cares. He wants to improve.

All of this seems to matter when we talk about the $38 million extension the Raptors gave to their shooting guard before he was set to hit restricted free agency this coming off-season.

I have nothing against DeRozan. I’m happy that he’s earned that money with his hard work.

But as a move that’s a part — a huge part — of the rebuilding program, one that hampers future flexibility and availability of minutes to other players (see: Terrence Ross) who we should develop instead? And the fact that we were bidding against ourselves? It makes me pretty angry.

There’s a difference between a great teammate and a shooting guard that you want as a key piece on a contending team.

DeRozan is the former, but he has shown no signs of being the latter. And yet, we pay him like he’s both.

There’s also a difference between rewarding a player for their hard work and waiting before making a sound financial decision for the future of the ball club.

That difference is more glaring when you consider this: according to HoopsHype, even if you remove Bargnani’s salary (as most think he will be traded soon2), the Raptors will have $25 million committed to just DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Fields in 2015.

And if we’re to believe the latest in the Rudy Gay-Toronto rumors, assuming Gay exercises his player option of $19 million in 2015, that’s $44 million committed to four players who would form a core that is at best a fringe contender (for a playoff spot, we don’t talk about championships around these parts). This is without considering a salary for a point guard.

The DeRozan signing has severely hampered the Raptors’ flexibility, at a time when they need to be stripping down and finding both time and money for players worth building around for the future. Any transaction to acquire Rudy Gay or other players at that price will only restrict the team further.

IV. Lowry

Another puzzling thing that’s happened in Toronto has been the treatment of Kyle Lowry.

I need to preface this with the following: Lowry does not come without a history of problems. His departure from Houston came partly due to Daryl Morey’s desire to accumulate assets for an eventual blockbuster deal (see: Harden), but also because of an irreparable rift with coach Kevin McHale. The Raptors were aware that while talented, there was a potential for volatility. Regardless, they deemed it a worthwhile risk to give up a lottery pick to secure their point guard position.

Second: this is Lowry’s sixth season in the league. He has proven himself as a starter and shown the ability of being a top-end point guard when given sustained minutes.

Third: He can at times be a point guard that looks for his shots first and is a high turnover player. He is less efficient, at this point in his career than Jose Calderon. The Raptors knew this when they acquired him.

And yet, despite all of that predisposed knowledge, halfway into his first season, Lowry’s not only lost his starting job to Jose Calderon, but is nowhere to be found in key situations.

On some level, if Lowry has truly alienated both the coach and teammates, this treatment is understandable. But only to a degree.

To hear that the team is actually looking to move Lowry in a trade is troubling. It’s rash. It’s short sighted. It’s management correctly their own mistakes again.

We’re not a team that can afford to be giving away lottery picks for half a season from a point guard.

And to the point about Lowry, I have no idea why anyone is getting excited about what Jose Calderon has done this year.

In the five game winning streak we went on immediately after Lowry’s injury on December 10th with Calderon as the starter, we beat in order: Dallas (without Dirk), Houston, at Cleveland, Detroit and Orlando.

Further, the Raptors are 2-17 against teams over .500 this season. This is not a statistic that will regress over time based on luck or probability. This is an indicator that the team is just not that good.

We can focus on five game samples against lesser competition. We can belabor the fact that they’ve had a poor record in close games, or that the schedule was difficult to start, or we can accept the reality that we’re mediocre, and understand which point guard actually holds the keys to a better future.

We need to stop looking at what’s best for the next ten games, and instead try to think about what’s best for five years, or ten years down the line. In truth, the Raptors would be better off giving minutes to a Lowry-Ross back court, and nothing that Calderon is doing right now should be worth anything except helping the team extract additional value from his expiring contract at the trade deadline.

IV. Conclusion

As it currently stands, Colangelo is looking for another quick re-tool for the Raptors.

We are fighting to stay mediocre, because there’s bottoming out is not advantageous to a team without a lottery pick as consolation at season’s end. If the Gay transaction goes through, it’ll put the team in a position where they can sell the illusion of contending to those willing to believe and grasp at straws.

Colangelo has always been a gambler and not one to sit idle. That is fine for a team that only needs several moves to position itself as a legitimate contender. The Raptors are not that. Far from it3.

He has done nothing to show that he is capable of rebuilding the team without inflicting further damage to its future, one that he may not even be a part of.

And who knows, Colangelo might be crazy enough to think that his luck will come around and that odds are one of these gambles will eventually pay off. Problem is, I think he’s already got us so deep in the hole, we’re going to need someone else playing the cards to get us back to even.

Footnotes:

1 Even the year we won the division, we did it with 47 wins. The Eastern Conference was before the Big Three in Boston, and obviously preceding the Miami Heat team now. In subsequent years, it took 66, 62, 50 and 56 wins to win the Atlantic. Also, Chris Bosh was shut down by Jason Collins in the playoffs. That was also a sign we should’ve picked up on. Again, hindsight. But whatever, I’m using it.

2 Call me crazy, but after thinking it through, I still think Bargnani has value to either to this team or somewhere else in the NBA. This is really a matter of a player wearing out his welcome in a particular place, and to some extent, misplaced expectations when you’re selected first overall. Sure, Bargnani has underachieved in every regard, and he will never be a great or even average defensive player or rebounder. But he can score, and still has tools as a big man to be useful in this league. If he get back to a certain level of performance, I don’t see why we can’t proceed with him. At worst, he works himself up to an acceptable level where he has decent trade value for us anyways. I’m trying to say: Bargnani’s struggles is like ninth on my list of concerns when it comes to the Raptors.

3 Manti Te’o reference?

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