By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Dec 19 2011 11:09AM
After two straight seasons as The Worst Defensive Team in the League, the Toronto Raptors could use a new identity. They'll start with a new coach, Dwane Casey, who arrives with a reputation as a defensive stickler.
If only for the sanity of their fans, the Raptors need to get better at stopping the other team once in a while. That's probably all they need to worry about right now as they can't realistically worry about contending for a playoff spot.
The plan in Toronto is to build a foundation around the team's youngest players, pick up some more talent in next summer's Draft and add Jonas Valanciunas (the No. 5 pick of the '11 Draft, who will not play in the NBA this season) to the mix next season.
"We've got a plan in place," team president Bryan Colangelo said in training camp. "We're being very patient, very strategic with these things that we're doing to make adjustments. It's as much about adding to the system, adding to the culture of the team, as it is about adding talent."
So while the Raptors had the cap space to add talent in the abbreviated offseason, Colangelo more or less stayed put, signing only a few modestly priced veterans to provide size and leadership.
"We want to find out what we have with the young guys that we currently have under contract," Colangelo said.
In the NBA, there is no joy in mediocrity, so the youth movement is clearly the way to go after Chris Bosh skipped town. The Raptors' highest-paid players, Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon, are now just afterthoughts on the roster, and the guys at the forefront of the team's plan are a pair of 22 year olds, DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis.
Bosh's departure in the summer of 2010 allowed DeRozan to blossom into a serious scoring threat. Only two players, Dorell Wright and Nick Young, increased their scoring average more than DeRozan, who went from averaging 8.6 points per game as a rookie to 17.2 ppg last season. The jump came thanks to a combination of increased minutes and increased usage. DeRozan's shooting percentage and scoring efficiency actually went down a bit.
And that's where he needs work. Among 127 wings who played at least 750 minutes last season, DeRozan ranked 103rd in effective field goal percentage and 71st in true shooting percentage. He did a decent job of getting to the line (35 free-throw attempts per 100 shots) but clearly needs to improve his shooting.
There were 200 players who attempted at least 50 3-pointers last season, and DeRozan was the worst shooter among them, connecting on just five of his 52 threes. To take the next step in his development as a primary scorer, he'll need to improve his range, and Casey will allow him the opportunity to do so.
"He's got the green light to take [3-pointers] in the right situation," Casey said. "I don't know if that's his strength yet, but he's really been working at them."
Inefficiency is not the issue with Davis, who shot 58 percent as a rookie. The 6-foot-10 power forward just needs time on the floor after missing training camp and the first 17 games of last season with a knee injury.
Davis is already a solid rebounder, and he shot well (46 percent) from mid-range as a rookie. But he needs to get stronger and polish his post game.
The Raptors signed Aaron Gray and Jamaal Magloire so that both Davis and Bargnani can spend most of their time at the power forward position. And Colangelo says that Davis will "be in a situation where he's going to get a lot of playing time."
The same will be true for DeRozan. And most important for both is their improvement defensively. They each have the length and quickness to be effective defenders, but Casey will need them to add energy and discipline to that mix.
In his first stint as an NBA head coach, Casey got only a season and a half to prove himself. Stressing system and culture, Colangelo seems willing to be more patient now than he was earlier in his tenure with the Raptors.
"It's a process you can't rush," Casey said. "And the only way you can go through it is going through the fire and getting stronger with it."
1. Play the kids. DeRozan and Davis are each 22. Amir Johnson is in his seventh season, but is only 24. Those three and James Johnson (24) should lead the team in minutes.
2. Help each other defensively. Casey: "The help system has to be huge when you have deficiency with foot speed and foot quickness. And we have that."
3. Get lucky on May 30. The 2012 Draft promises to be stacked with talent, so the Raptors will undoubtedly have another piece to add to their young core. But if the ping pong balls bounce their way, their rebuild could be accelerated.
1. James Johnson was a nice trade-deadline acquisition by Colangelo, who got him for what turned out to be the No. 28 pick in the 2011 Draft (Norris Cole). Johnson was the Raptors' best fit at small forward and looks to be the starter there this year.
2. Bargnani's rebounding regressed from bad to terrible last season, when he grabbed less than 9 percent of the boards he had a chance at getting. Casey has set a goal for Bargnani to grab two boards per quarter.
3. Casey should keep the Raptors from finishing last in defensive efficiency again, but the only thing that might keep them from finishing last in 3-point percentage for a second straight year is internal improvement. Or maybe Rasual Butler, who hasn't really shot well the last couple seasons.
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LAST YEAR: 22-60, 5th in Atlantic
FINISH: Missed playoffs
2010-11 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2010-11 Stats|
JOSE CALDERON, POINT GUARD
9.8 PPG | 3.0 RPG | 8.9 APG
A true point (fifth in assists last season) who finds the open man and can shoot, Calderon remains a stiff on defense.
DEMAR DEROZAN, SHOOTING GUARD
17.2 PPG | 3.8 RPG | 1.8 APG
Athletic, a big leaper with a nifty touch, DeRozan is one of the more dangerous 2s in the league. He rarely passes, though, and defends even less.
ED DAVIS, FORWARD
7.7 PPG | 7.1 RPG | .576 FG%
A skinny lefty who's good pulling down boards and can block shots, he's still extremely limited with the ball in his hands.
JAMES JOHNSON, FORWARD
7.1 PPG | 3.7 RPG | 2.3 APG
Energetic, scrappy forward who gets a little too herky-jerky at times, Johnson's effort is often offset by some inexplicable mistakes.
ANDREA BARGNANI, CENTER
21.4 PPG | 5.2 RPG | 0.7 BPG
The big Italian can score but would rather make peace than scrap under the basket, as his 4.9 career RPG -- woeful for a 7-footer -- attests.
|Leandro Barbosa||6-3||202||G||Has played just 102 games over the last two seasons.|
|Amir Johnson||6-9||210||F||His length and defense should make him a favorite of Casey's.|
|Jerryd Bayless||6-3||200||G||Another guy who shouldn't be shooting from beyond the arc.|
ADDED: C Jamaal Magloire, G/F Rasual Butler, G Anthony Carter, C Aaron Gray, C Jonas Valanciunas, F Gary Forbes
LOST: G Sonny Weems, F Reggie Evans
DEMAR DEROZAN, G
Last year, DeRozan increased his scoring average by almost nine points per game. But the 6-foot-7 guard still has a long way to go to become a complete player. DeRozan is 9-for-68 from 3-point range in his career and had one of the lowest assist ratios among non-bigs last season.
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As LeBron James continues to build his resume as an NBA all-time great, it's his ability to lift the level of play of those around him that makes him a unique talent.
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