These are weird times in Toronto.
In the last two weeks, the Raptors have seen quite a lot. Reserve forward Amir Johnson got tossed for a bizarre incident in which the referee would not let him feel the ball after another player’s free throw attempt. Amid a winless five-game road trip, the team called a meeting to address the many issues and grievances, and the rousing result of that catharsis was a 32-point loss to the Jazz. They went to Portland to finish that trip, and left with serious injuries to Andrea Bargnani and Kyle Lowry.
By the end of it, Raptors beat writer Doug Smith described the attitude in the locker room this way for The Toronto Star: “I don’t know what it’ll be, but something’s gotta give before people start punching each other.”
So, that’s bad.
In subjecting myself to three Raptors games so far this season (let it never be said I don’t take this job seriously), my professional opinion is that the Raptors are terrible. They are aggravating to watch not simply because they are terrible, but because for all their flaws they really should not be terrible. It is like watching that friend of yours who could be a perfectly average, respectable member of society if he could just get his act together, but is repeatedly guilty of being his own worst enemy. No one expects the Raptors to be championship contenders any more than they expect your buddy to become president, but both of these abject failures really should be capable of achieving a happy medium.
The Raptors do not lack for talent. Bargnani purportedly is a decent offensive player, although it is only a mild exaggeration to say I have never seen him hit a shot. (Bargnani’s .398 field goal percentage reveals that his cold shooting is not a figment of my imagination.) Jose Calderon is a heady player who can hit an open shot and never turns the ball over, even if the trade-off is that he never really makes anything happen. Lowry was thrilling to watch the last two seasons in Houston. DeMar DeRozan is as skilled as any player in the league. Johnson and Ed Davis do some intriguing things. Terrence Ross is a promising prospect. John Lucas plays hard. Landry Fields allegedly is on the team.
Yet still they stink. They entered Wednesday at 7-19 even after their three-game win streak, and there again is the aggravating part. Without two of their best players, the Raptors managed to keep every Cavaliers player other than Kyrie Irvin and Anderson Varejao in check for a 14-point win on Tuesday. One night before Jeremy Lin went off in New York, the Raptors rendered him useless at the Air Canada Centre. They even held O.J. Mayo scoreless from beyond the 3-point arc, which has been just about impossible for any of Dallas’ opponents this season.
A big part of the inconsistency, admittedly, is the personnel. Bargnani is such a drain on the defense that the team is better on the whole not having him on the court. Calderon protects the ball largely because he does not make any of those risky, creative plays that make for winning basketball. DeRozan’s fundamental problems are legion. Lowry, who seemed to be one of those guys who would will the Raptors to improve simply with his fierce attitude, has sounded either frustrated or out of place, when healthy.
Every team — save maybe the Thunder — has flaws, however. The Heat have no true center to speak of and a troupe of aging sharpshooters. The Knicks have trouble with opponents who have two strong offensive post players. The Grizzlies are susceptible to dead spots that allow their opponents — hello, Clippers — to go on huge runs.
Other teams, like the Celtics, Pacers or Magic, have managed their flawed personnel to at least float around .500. By contrast, the Raptors seem either unconcerned or unaware that Bargnani and DeRozan are an awful duo. They have played more minutes together than any two players on the team, yet they have made Toronto six points worse overall per every 100 possessions. Then again, Bargnani plus anybody is a bad combination right now. One of the most common offensive sets in coach Dwane Casey‘s playbook appears to be an isolation on the wing for Bargnani, leading to a missed shot by Bargnani. Not surprisingly, the Raptors’ improved play has coincided with Bargnani’s absence.
Adding a layer of complications is that two of Toronto’s four best players play the same position. Lowry and Calderon, while imperfect, present differing skill sets that can benefit the Raptors. Lowry is often too aggressive. Calderon is too staid.
Largely because of injuries to both, Casey has been unable to play them together for significant portions of time. But even if both were healthy, Casey’s lineup decisions suggest he sees both as competing, rather than complementary, players. Trade rumors have circled around Calderon all season, even though Casey trusts him more than Lowry, by virtue of having worked with him longer. In limited action together this season, Lowry and Calderon have not provided encouraging results, but 104 minutes is too small a sample size to draw conclusions.
The Knicks and Nuggets have shown that good things can happen when a team has two facilitators on the court at the same time. Lowry and Calderon may not be Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton, or even Ty Lawson and Andre Miller, but there is no harm in experimenting at this point. The alternative is to wait for Bargnani to magically get better or for DeRozan to suddenly become consistent. The Raptors can sit back and continue to underachieve from their already modest potential, or get creative and see if they can surprise some people — especially themselves.
At the very least, Lowry and Calderon together in the backcourt would be interesting to watch, for better or worse.
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