Friday, April 3, 2009

Solving the Problems in Raptorville

By Jonathan Hamelin

Get out the salami and cheese mama, the Toronto Raptors' season is over.

The Toronto Raptors are almost officially out of playoff contention as their dismal season comes to a close. After making the playoffs for two successive years, the Raptors' inability to make it to postseason play this year was a disappointment. Unlike the last two seasons, the Raptors never seemed to have a chance to make it back to the postseason. Their season was filled with inconsistent play, huge leads blown, and mental lapses.

Following a slow start by the Raptors, head coach Sam Mitchell was given the hook. Jay Triano took over as interim head coach, becoming the first Canadian-born head coach in the NBA. The move didn't seem to spark the Raptors, who were never really that competitive after the move. Under Jay Triano, the Raptors went 16-36 and slowly watched their postseason hopes disappear.

Now that Toronto's season is over, there is really only one thing to do: reflect on what went wrong and work that much harder in the offseason to fix it. As a team, the Raptors obviously need to improve on shooting and rebounding; management would be wise to bring in some players to fill those needs. On a positive note, this season saw the emergence of Andrea Bargnani. Bargnani, who had some success last season, emerged as a multiple threat this year, averaging 15.2 points and 5.5 rebounds. Chris Bosh had another solid season, averaging 22.6 points and 9.6 rebounds, as well as Jose Calderon, who averaged 12.7 points a game and 8.6 assists a game while notching an impressive free throw percentage.

Here is some advice to the Raptors if they are looking to be competitive next season:

1) Shoot 'Em Up

When it comes to shooters, the Raptors need to look at who they have and decide the best way to improve. Jose Calderon was one of the most effective shooters on the team, shooting an impressive 50.1% from the field. However if Calderon is to be effective in running the offense, he will need more help. If Calderon is driving the lane, he needs a solid shooter to pass the ball off to. Toronto's current starting shooting guard is Anthony Parker. He is the man the Raptors should be counting on to make shots consistently. Unfortunately, the opposite has been true. Parker is averaging around 10 points a game with a mediocre average of 43%. Just how low is that field goal average? There 105 players in the league that boast a better percentage.

The Raptors have a few good shooters such as Jose Calderon, Shawn Marion, Chris Bosh, and even Andrea Bargnani, but they need a solid shooter. Management would be wise to get rid of Anthony Parker. Though he is a safe player, yet one that will shine on occasion, he is not the consistent threat the Raptors need to move forward. Toronto would be wise to add a solid shooter on the team. They should look for a Joe Johnson or Moe Williams type of player through free agency. Or perhaps the team will look to the draft and snap up sharp-shooter A.J. Abrams from Texas.

Just what is the difference between a good shooting team and a bad one? If you compare the Raptor's stats in their wins and losses, you will notice some glaring differences. In 28 wins, the Raptors shot an impressive 49.8% from the field and in their 45 loses, they shot 43.4%. There is also a glaring difference in the three-point percentage, as the Raptors shot 43.2% in the games they won and 34.3% in the games they lost. Winning translates into points, and the Raptors averaged 104.5 points a game in a win and a mediocre 94.8 in a loss.

2) Get Tougher Down Low

It has become a broken record in Toronto; the Raptors aren't physical enough. At 39.97 rebounds a game, the Raptors were among the league's worst in rebounding. The Raptors' failure to control the boards led to many second-chance opportunities for their opponents and ultimately cost them games. Ideally, the Raptors need to add a player like Anderson Varejao who will fight for every offensive and defensive rebound and play physical against even the toughest opponents.

The Raptors also need tougher play out of the players they already have. Chris Bosh is the team's all-star, and he has gotten better in his post play, yet he should still strive to be an even more dominant presence. The 2008-2009 season saw Andrea Bargnani continue to develop his game further, but now he needs to become a better physical threat. Bargnani started off as a great three-point shooter in his rookie season, started driving the ball more in his second year, and will hopefully become a more intimidating presence in his third year. Toronto will never intimidate any team until they become more physical.

3) Stop Losing to the Worst

Before the Raptors can hope to compete with the best, they need to beat the worst. Toronto lost too many winnable games against bad teams last season. Twenty-nine percent of Toronto's losses came against non-playoff teams. While this isn't a striking percentage, consider this. If Toronto won, say, 70% of these winnable games, which should be plausible, their record would change from 28-45 to 37-36 and they would be in the playoffs. Suddenly, that 29% looks pretty drastic.

While most of these losses were fairly close games, Toronto also suffered some embarrassments. The team lost 127-97 to the New York Knicks and lost two times, 112-86 and 102-89, to the Charlotte Bobcats. Toronto needs to adopt a better attitude when preparing for these games. It's been said a million times that if you take a team lightly, they will burn you. Bad record aside, Toronto has made the playoffs two years in a row, and as their roster hasn't changed, there is really no excuse for losing to these mediocre teams.

4) Fire Jay Triano

Can Jay Triano be a solid coach in the NBA? Yes. Is he the right coach for the Raptors right now? No. The Raptors are a fairly solid team in need of a smart coach who can push them over the top. Triano isn't experienced enough yet to be coaching a team with the potential of the Raptors. His interim record of 16-36 is not impressive and the Raptors would be wise to dip into to the pool of talented coaches available.

The name that comes to mind immediately is Avery Johnson. In the 2005-2006 season, Avery Johnson led the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals where they fell to the Miami Heat. He also led the Mavericks to 67 wins the next year. Johnson's winning percentage of 73.5% is impressive and he transformed Dallas' defense during his tenure. With his veteran leadership, Avery Johnson could lead the Raptors to new heights.

5) Bring Back Chuck Swirsky

How will bringing back the former commentator help the Raptors? Not much, but it would certainly delight the fans. Anyone who has watched a Raptors game knows that Chuck Swirsky was one of the best in the business. Swirsky left at the beginning of the season for Chicago and is now the play-by-play voice of the Bulls. Chuck Swirsky always knew how to entertain, yet his knowledge of basketball was evident. And, of course, Swirksy coined the phrases: "Onions, baby, onions!", "Raptors win, Raptors win, Raptors win!" And the classic, "Get out the salami and cheese mama, this ball game is over!" With no disrespect to Matt Devlin, Leo Rautins, and Jack Armstrong, Swirsky just brings that extra element to every broadcast.

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