There is no blueprint without a beginning.
There can be no beginning without a careful study of a blueprint.
That’s where the Toronto Raptors are right now. They have a blueprint. As of last night’s win over New Jersey, they have their beginning.
This was a different kind of end of season. No one said the club was better than their record. No one is kidding themselves about a quick entry into the league elite. The club finished 23-43.
But everyone believed that a blueprint exists. To quote that noted hoopster Winston Churchill, this is not the beginning of the end but rather the end of the beginning.
“We need to keep building,” said shooting guard DeMar DeRozan. “The improvements on the defensive end are obvious.”
“To go from a team that was basically at the bottom of every area defensively, I went with my gut and my teaching and it came through,” said coach Duane Casey. “I learned that about myself… to go with my gut in these situations.”
His instincts were rewarded. The Raptors announced they had added another year to Casey’s contract. The deal will carry him through the 2013-2014 season.
From day one, Casey delivered precisely what he said he would, a fanatical attention to defence that turned one of the league’s softest teams into a team that competes, often ferociously, when defending.
Those improvements are rendered concrete with a glance at the NBA stats. The Raptors were 9th best in points allowed per game with 94. Their opponents’ field goal percentage of .435 was also ninth. A year before the Raptors surrendered 105.4 per contest, fifth worst in the NBA. Only one team in 2010-2011 had an opponent’s field goal percentage worse than the Raptors figure of .482.
“Statistically, defensively we were off the charts in terms of what we accomplished,” Casey said. “Offensively we didn’t get there.”
Any progress in the standings was undone by the team’s difficulty in scoring. The Raptors offence fell to 90.7 a game from 99.1. Much of that could be attributable to the loss of 20-point a night contributor Andrea Bargnani to a leg injury for more than half the season, but no one doubted recalibrating a team’s emphasis from run-and-gun to grab-and-grunt wouldn’t result in a dip in offence.
“We’re really growing,” said point guard Jose Calderon. “We are just one step short of where we wanted to be.”
Now that young players such as DeRozan, Amir Johnson, Ed Davis and James Johnson have been indoctrinated, Casey will spend more time refining and less time reinventing. He will be gifted with a few new weapons. Lithuanian pivot Jonas Valanciunas will arrive next season after an excellent European campaign. The Raptors are also contestants in the draft lottery and will enter the lottery with the seventh or eighth best odds to win. GM Bryan Colangelo has been open in his desire for a free agent who could help, particularly at small forward.
The combination left the players upbeat.
“You can’t be enthusiastic about not making the playoffs but Coach Casey has changed the culture and we are doing things that are very good,” Bargnani said.
The seven-foot Italian was on his way to his best season when he was knocked out of the lineup for 26 games with a left calf strain. His defence had improved markedly but Bargnani was shut down for the last seven games of the season when the injury returned.
DeRozan at times struggled with the confines of Casey’s system but came out of the season with an average of 16.7 points a games and a dramatic uptick in his defensive play. Just 22, DeRozan had no real experience in a system that emphasized defence. By the last legs of the season DeRozan was consistently asserting his will.
“I thought we saw tremendous growth from DeMar,” Casey said.
“He’s learning how to read situations, how to get to the basket when the team needs him to,” Calderon said of DeRozan. “I think he’s just growing as a player.”
Likewise, Calderon delivered one of his best seasons in a defensive scheme that gave him more help. He finished the campaign averaging 10.5 points and 8.8 assists, comfortably above his career average. Colangelo said Calderon, frequently the topic of rumors as a possible target with the team’s amnesty clause, looked much more confident embedded in Casey’s defensive scheme.
“I thought Jose was a much more effective defender” Colangelo said. “There were far fewer blow-bys.”
Calderon led the league in assists-to-turnover ratio with 4.50,12 percentage points better than the Clippers Chris Paul and continued to exert a calming influence in the dressing room. The chances of an amnesty seem more remote than ever.
“There is tremendous value on this team for Jose Calderon,” Colangelo said.
James Johnson delivered a tantalizing skills set. He led the team in both blocks and steals (a first for a Raptors player), but his offence remains a work in progress. Johnson finished with nine points a game.
Ed Davis’ wonky jump shot continued to bite into his offensive production. If you throw out his 24-point effort in the season finale against New Jersey, Davis didn’t score more than 13 points in any game this season. Davis’ rebounding numbers were a different story and reached double figures in rebounding 16 times.
A better offence, built around better shooting, especially from distance, will be the Raptors’ greatest need. The team was 20th in three-pointers made.