Insider Preview - Sonics at Toronto
25-37 RECORD 33-29
3-2 LAST 5 2-3
99.3 PF 98.7
108.1 Off. Eff. 109.0
101.3 PA 98.5
110.5 Def. Eff. 108.1
39.8 RPG 38.9
.491 Reb % .481
Sonics (25-37) at Toronto (33-29)
Sunday, March 11, 10:00 a.m.
Air Canada Centre
Radio: KTTH AM 770


When Bryan Colangelo left the Phoenix Suns for the role of president and general manager of the relatively-lowly Toronto Raptors, it was assumed Colangelo would need some time to orchestrate a turnaround like the one that earned him 2004-05 Executive of the Year honors in Phoenix. After all, the Raptors would finish 2005-06 with the NBA's fourth-worst record. Little more than a year later, however, the Raptors are the NBA's most-improved team. They lead a weak Atlantic Division and have the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference.

Colangelo made over the Toronto roster over the off-season. The Raptors won the Draft Lottery and used the top overall pick on Italian forward Andrea Bargnani, just one part of a Europeanization of the Raptors. Colangelo hired highly-respected former Benetton Treviso GM Maurizio Gherardini, who had brought Bargnani to Benetton. Then, Toronto signed Europeans Jorge Garbajosa and Uros Slokar as free agents as well as Anthony Parker, an American who had become a star playing in Euroleague. The Raptors also dealt for another European, center Rasho Nesterovic, from San Antonio as well as signing Fred Jones (later traded at the deadline for Juan Dixon) and trading for T.J. Ford and Kris Humphries.

Add it all up and just six of the players Colangelo inherited returned from the 2006-07 season. Besides holdover Chris Bosh, the other four regular starters for Toronto are all newcomers. The makeover has paid dividends at the defensive end of the court, where the Raptors have made one of the biggest turnarounds in league history. 29th in the league in Defensive Rating in 2005-06 (only the Seattle SuperSonics were worse), Toronto has improved to a respectable 16th this year.

Check out the ten NBA teams (dating back to the 1978-79 - 1979-80 pair of seasons) who have improved their Defensive Rating more relative to league average than the Raptors this season as compared to last year:

Year 2
What Changed?
San Antonio
Popovich first full year; drafted Tim Duncan
New Jersey
Added Jason Kidd, others
L.A. Lakers
New coach (Phil Jackson)
New coach (Lenny Wilkens)
New coach (Doug Collins)
New York
New coach (Hubie Brown)
Added Dikembe Mutombo; no Paulball
Added Dwight Howard, others
New coach (Avery Johnson)
New Jersey
New coach (Larry Brown); added Buck Williams

In most cases, the common denominator here is a coaching change - which the Raptors did not make. Besides Sam Mitchell in Toronto, the only other coaches to coach all of both seasons were New Jersey's Byron Scott and Denver's Paul Westhead (in case you're wondering, "Paulball" is Westhead's nickname for his fast-paced, offense-first (and second) style of play, which was toned down his second season with the Nuggets). Much of the list is a who's who of the best defensive coaches in NBA history. The teams that didn't change coaches generally added players with elite defensive reputations. Toronto didn't do that either. So who is behind the improved Raptors defense?

Rasho Nesterovic
Anthony Parker
Jorge Garbajosa
T.J. Ford
Chris Bosh
Jose Calderon
Andrea Bargnani
Joey Graham
Morris Peterson

One way to break down individual credit is to look at Toronto's Defensive Rating with a given player on the court, provided by The table at right shows these numbers for the nine Raptors regulars (excluding Dixon, acquired from Portland at the trade deadline). These numbers give the credit to three Toronto newcomers - Garbajosa, Nesterovic and Parker.

Nesterovic is the only one of the three with an NBA track record, and he was found wanting this past off-season by San Antonio. However, Nesterovic had good defensive numbers while playing for the Spurs as well. San Antonio was 6.4 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Nesterovic on the floor in 2005-06 and 5.7 points better in 2004-05. Nesterovic isn't a physical defender in the post, which can be aggravating, but he positions himself well and can block shots at 7-0.

Garbajosa and Parker have both brought a staple of Euro-style defense - willingness to take a charge. When looked at players' ability to draw offensive fouls in early February, both players were amongst the 29 league-wide who had drawn at least 20 fouls. Toronto ranked sixth in the league in drawing offensive fouls. Garbajosa is a classic Euro pick-and-pop big man who put up a career-high 18 points on 9-for-17 shooting the last time the Raptors faced the Sonics.

A star in Europe - he was named Euroleague MVP each of the last two years - Parker has been a versatile contributor for the Raptors, emerging as their stopper on the perimeter and averaging 11.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. Parker has missed the last five games with a sprained ankle, but is expected to return against the Sonics. Not coincidentally, Toronto lost three of the five games Parker missed.

Earlier this week, ESPN Insider's Chris Sheridan wrote about how unproductive last summer's free-agent crop has been with their new teams. Sheridan explicitly considered only players who changed NBA teams, excluding Garbajosa and Parker. Given their success and Charlie Bell's role with the Milwaukee Bucks since returning to the NBA in the summer of 2005, European free agents might be an untapped market.

Toronto's improvement on defense would not be as notable if, like the Sonics, they also slipped on offense. The Raptors remain eighth in the league in Offensive Rating, thanks in large part to leading scorer and rebounder Bosh. Bosh is averaging 22.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, shooting 50.4% from the field. Bosh was rewarded by being voted an All-Star starter. Ford and a European who preceded Colangelo, Spaniard Jose Calderon, give Toronto one of the league's best point guard duos. Either player is capable of starting, and combined they have averaged 22.9 points and 12.8 assists per game.
The number one overall pick hasn't really factored into Toronto's turnaround on defense (though he too has proven adept at taking charges) and won't likely contend for Rookie of the Year, but he's flashed plenty of the potential that has drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki during his freshman campaign. Bargnani was Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for February, averaging 14.3 points in the month and shooting 50.8% from the field and 48.3% from downtown. Bargnani must improve his rebounding (3.8 boards per game), which his Euroleague history suggests he can do, but he already looks like a matchup nightmare as a 7-0 sharpshooter. Sonics big men Chris Wilcox and Nick Collison struggled against Boston's Al Jefferson on Friday and are presented with a challenging matchup against Toronto - one post scorer in Bosh (who can step outside) along with floor spacers Bargnani and Garbajosa.

Two players making their return to the lineup led the Sonics to a 110-97 victory over the Raptors on Dec. 23, snapping a six-game losing streak. The Sonics lost forward Rashard Lewis to hand surgery two days earlier, but got both Ray Allen, who had missed nine games, and Danny Fortson, out since Nov. 15, back in the lineup. Allen led the Sonics with 28 points, adding six rebounds and five assists, while Fortson, making just the second start of his Seattle career, pulled down nine rebounds in 15 minutes. Together, they helped the Sonics start strong. The home team never trailed, scored a season-high 36 first-quarter points and held off a second-half Toronto surge for the win.

The Sonics were hot all night, shooting 51.2% from the field, 58.3% from three-point range and 90.5% from the free-throw line. Six players scored double-figures, including reserves Collison (15 points, eight rebounds) and Johan Petro (10 points), while rookie MickaŽl Gelabale came off the bench to grab a career-high nine rebounds. The perimeter trio of Ford (24 points, nine assists), Jones (19 points) and Calderon (10 assists), along with Garbajosa (career-high 18 points) led the Raptors.

Today's Kia Surprising Stat - The Sonics are 15-7 all-time in Canada (6-4 in Toronto, 9-3 in Vancouver).

View From Afar:

  • Chuck Checks In Blog
  • Toronto Star
  • Toronto Sun
  • Raptor Blog

    Sonics - Guard Luke Ridnour (herniated cervical neck disc) and centers Danny Fortson (team suspension) and Robert Swift (torn right ACL) are out.

    Toronto - Guard Anthony Parker (sprained right ankle) is probable.

    For more analysis before tonight's game, listen to the Sonics Pregame Show starting at 9:30 on KTTH 770 AM and Sonics Radio Network stations.