Sunday, March 15, 2009

Disappointing Raptors have some shaking up to do this summer

There was a stark contrast between Wednesday's Raptors-Sixers game in Philadelphia and the last time Toronto played at the Wachovia Center.

Watching the Raptors on Oct. 29, opening night, many came away saying, "Hey, these guys are pretty good." At the time, the Raptors looked like one of the five best teams in the East, beating the Sixers comfortably. And Chris Bosh looked like one of the five best players in the NBA, scoring 27 points and pulling down 11 rebounds.


On Wednesday, you came away saying, "What the heck has happened to this team?" The Raptors have lost six straight games. Bosh was just outplayed by Samuel Dalembert.

After a 3-0 start to the season, Toronto has gone straight downhill, winning three straight only once since then while losing at least five straight five times. They were 8-9 when Sam Mitchell was fired on Dec. 3 and they're 15-33 under Jay Triano. No team has underachieved as much as this one.

Since Jan. 21, only the Kings and Grizzlies have a worse record than the Raptors (7-21). Technically, Toronto is still alive for a playoff spot.

Realistically, they're as much eliminated as the 15-50 Wizards.

So, what's next for Bryan Colangelo's team? Most likely, more retooling this summer.

The first priority is trying to determine if Bosh will be a Raptor beyond next season. He has a player option for the 2010-11 season, but at this point, he can't be too confident about the direction this franchise is going.

Determining that direction, and a team identity, is also at the top of the to-do list for Colangelo.

Over the last few years, the Raptors have given lip service to the idea of being a running team, like the one Colangelo built in Phoenix. But they've been nothing of the sort. They've been last in the league in fast-break points per possession in each of the last two seasons.

Colangelo traded his fast point guard, T.J. Ford, last summer and handed the position over to Jose Calderon, a borderline All-Star when he's healthy who doesn't turn the ball over. But he's slow and conservative, preferring to walk the ball up the floor and run pick-and-rolls with Bosh. Calderon is under contract for four more seasons, too, so it's hard to see the Raptors turning into the 2005 Suns anytime soon.

Shawn Marion, who thrived while playing alongside Steve Nash, is not a good fit in Toronto, either. He needs a point guard that will push the ball and is willing to take some risks in the open floor. Considering that, it would be hard to see him re-signing with the Raptors this summer.

The lone bright spot in this disappointing season has been the long-awaited growth of Andrea Bargnani. The No. 1 pick in the 2006 Draft is playing with confidence, looking more and more like Nowitzki-light. But he, too, is more suited to a half-court game.

Whether or not the Raptors want to run, they have to improve defensively in order to get back to the playoffs. Calderon doesn't defend very well, making him the source of many breakdowns. Marion, given a full season in Toronto, might help make the Raptors an average defensive team with his length, athleticism and willingness to work. If he re-signs.

Marion's expiring contract gives the Raptors some flexibility this summer. If he leaves and the team is willing to spend money, Colangelo should have more leverage and more options than last year, when he dealt Ford and Rasho Nesterovic for Jermaine O'Neal, a risk that clearly didn't work out.

Something Familiar

While Stephon Marbury and Mikki Moore are adjusting to new plays and new teammates in Boston, and while Drew Gooden is doing the same in San Antonio, Joe Smith only has to worry about one part of the equation. Smith, who signed with Cleveland last week, played 40 games (including the playoffs) with the Cavs last season.

The Cavs made some changes to their offense over the summer, but their defensive principles and their personnel are largely the same as they were the last time Smith wore the wine and gold.

"I'm pretty comfortable with these guys, what we did last year and what we're trying to do this year," Smith said Tuesday in Los Angeles. "I'm trying to shake a little of the cobwebs off and get a little rhythm out there, but at the same time, it does feel good to be back and to be able to get on the floor with these guys again."

After Smith went 3-for-3 in the Cavs' comeback win over the Clippers on Tuesday, LeBron James remarked that it was as if Smith had been with Cleveland all season long. Smith, who started the season 2-24 with the Thunder while the Cavs began the season 26-4, quipped, "I wish I could say the same thing."

Will the Real No. 8 Seed Please Step Forward?

The race for the eighth spot in the East is closer than it was a week ago. Teams 8-13 are all within a game and a half of each other. Somehow, the Bucks are back in the eighth spot, but they have more losses (37) than three of the teams behind them. The six teams in the race are a combined 2-6 since Monday, with the Knicks picking up the only two wins.

In discussing the race for eighth, one Eastern Conference assistant, whose team is not among the group involved, said he'd like to see Milwaukee win the trip to the postseason. "You've got to admire what Scott Skiles has done there," the assistant remarked, citing Milwaukee's improved defense despite several injuries.

None of the six teams vying for the final playoff spot plays against another contender for that last spot until the Nets visit the Knicks on Wednesday.

What They're Saying

"I said, 'Baby, that's for you.'"
-- Cleveland guard Daniel Gibson on what he said to R&B star Keyshia Cole, who was sitting courtside when he hit a 3-pointer to tie Tuesday's Cavs-Clippers game in the final minutes.

"My best memory was when they started cheering my name, 'Dawkins, Dawkins, Dawkins!' I was like. 'I've arrived. I'm big time now. Big Daddy's on the beach.'"
-- Former Sixer Darryl Dawkins on his fondest memory of playing in the Spectrum, which will be demolished later this year. The Sixers and Bulls will play a final game in the 42-year old arena Friday night.

"They stole my move."
-- LeBron James, channeling Frank Costanza, on how officials have been whistling him for traveling when he attempts a jump-stop on his way to the basket.

Behind the Numbers

0.991 -- Free throw percentage for Ray Allen since Dec. 28. He's made 112 of his last 113 attempts from the line.

23 -- Number of players the Bobcats have used this season, the most of any team. It will become 24 if Dontell Jefferson, who Charlotte signed to a second 10-day contract on Wednesday, plays in a game.

36.1 -- Scoring average (in 12 games) since the All-Star break for Dwyane Wade. Kobe Bryant is second among post-break scoring leaders at 29.5 ppg.


The Hawks' Marvin Williams will be out an indefinite amount of time with lower back pain. "It's going to be anywhere from four to six weeks," Williams told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Hawks are 5-0 without him so far this season ... At the age of 34, Antonio McDyess had a career-high 22 rebounds in the Pistons' overtime loss to the Knicks on Wednesday ... Bucks forward Charlie Villanueva updated his Twitter feed 12 times as he watched (on TV) his alma mater, Connecticut, lose to Syracuse in six overtimes in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals Thursday night.

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