We’re only 33 games in, but those 33 games also happen to represent the mid-way point for this condensed season – and odd early happenings seem to be slowly straightening themselves out towards normalcy. A finally-fit Dirk Nowitzki has the Mavs winning again, the 76ers continue to impress but are now finding some expected bumps in the road and Linsanity is licking its wounds after being exposed (for at least one night) against LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
With that, we turn our attention to the Raptors. At 10-23, they currently rank among the East’s bottom feeders, as expected. However, Dwane Casey’s imprint is visible and considering most sports books set their projected win total at 16.5 before the season, well, I guess that means they’re exceeding expectations to date.
*Note: These grades recognize each player’s performance relative to what was expected of them coming into the year. So, no, I don’t believe that Jamaal Magloire and Aaron Gray are actually having better years than DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis and Jerryd Bayless.
*Note 2: This list does not include Anthony Carter or Solomon Alabi, who haven’t played sufficient minutes to really be evaluated.
B+: Dwane Casey; Jose Calderon
Casey’s mission statement for his first season at the coaching helm in Toronto (aside from “Pound the Rock”, that is) has been one of defence, hard work and staying competitive against even the league’s best. In spite of the team’s .303 winning percentage, they’ve held opponents to 94.3 points per game (11.1 points less than their points allowed average last season), they’ve beaten the Knicks, Jazz, Suns and Celtics and they’ve kept things close at Miami and at home to the Lakers. In other words, Casey’s message is slowly getting through.
Is it possible that Toronto’s lack of offensive options is making Jose Calderon look better? Without a go-to scorer (and potential ball-stopper) or dominant interior presence, Calderon has anchored the team’s ball-sharing efforts, resulting in six players averaging double-digit scoring and the Spaniard enjoying his best season since his career year in 2008-09. The Raptors’ offence has been about as putrid as expected this year, but you can’t put the blame on Calderon.
B: Andrea Bargnani, Linas Kleiza
Bargnani would’ve been this team’s lone ‘A’ (and, potentially, an All-Star) if not for a calf injury that held him to just 13 first half games. When he did play, he looked the part of a legit primary scorer and, even more impressively, was clearly buying into Casey’s defence-first approach. Playoffs are all but out of the question for the Raps this year, but they still need Bargnani back in the second half to get their core unit growing together before adding Jonas Valanciunas, Lottery Pick X and whoever else comes on board this summer.
Much like Bargnani, Kleiza showed plenty of promise in an admittedly small window of playing time amidst injuries. In just 19 games, he set a career-best rebound rate (4.6 per game) and displayed a surprising shooting touch (.423% from the field and .348% from three-point range) while playing just 21.9 minutes per game. More impressive is the fact that those numbers came while Kleiza was getting back into game shape after undergoing micro fracture knee surgery that robbed him of nearly his entire 2011.
B-: Jamaal Magloire, Leandro Barbosa
Magloire proved a tough player to rank based on the struggle between what he brings to the table and what he simply can’t do at this stage of his career (or, maybe, ever). When Bargnani went down, the immediate instinct was to thrust the Scarborough native into extended duty. The flaw in that effort was most clearly exposed during a January home loss to the Pacers, when he somehow had his hands on the ball in the dying seconds with a three-point deficit, at which point he was promptly fouled and sent to the line for two not-even-close bricks. That being said, he was brought in to set the tone in terms of toughness and personal accountability and pride and, like I said earlier, the message seems to be getting through.
While Magloire has been somewhat of a victim of circumstance (being asked to take on a bigger role that he’s equipped to at this stage of his career), Barbosa has benefitted from the situation he’s in. The Brazilian Blur may not have been thrilled with the end of the lockout, but he is being offered an opportunity to score in the clutch that he wouldn’t be getting on many other clubs. Am I crazy for thinking that he’s got some trade value as an expiring contract who could also help provide depth and bench scoring?
C+: James Johnson, Aaron Gray
At the same time, Johnson seems to be establishing himself as a valuable role player while also showing that he simply isn’t a starting SF in the NBA. In his first full (well, kind of full) season in Toronto, he’s been a great fit for Casey as the team’s best wing defender and has continued his stat-filling ways with eight points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists and over a block and steal per game. However, his lack of offensive polish has been particularly damaging in light of DeRozan’s struggles and has given Rasual Butler more minutes that anyone is probably comfortable with (more on both guys a bit further down).
Gray seems to be the ultimate ‘marginal contributions have helped him meet low expectations’ guy on this team. Prior to a surprise 12-12 effort in the first half finale against Detroit, Gray hadn’t had any more than eight points in any game, nor had he been expected to. But as a big body with six fouls to give who can pull in rebounds (his 6.4 per game represent a career-high), he’s filling his role and even starting games.
C-: DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis, Jerryd Bayless, Amir Johnson
The central problem with the Raptors’ first half is spelled out in this crowded C- group: too many of their young, core players not taking any kind of meaningful step forward. At the top of that list is DeRozan, who excelled at the beginning and end of the half, but was maddeningly inconsistent in the middle. In 24 mid-first half games, the 22-year old averaged 2.4 turnovers and produced more single-digit scoring games (eight) than those in the 20-plus range (six). His scoring average currently shows an adequate 15.7 points (albeit down 1.5 from last season), but he’s also been the focal point of the team’s offence with Bargnani out and is averaging 13.8 shots per game. His .410 shooting percentage is the worst of his career.
The Raptors’ 2010 first rounder can commiserate with his 2009 counterpart. Davis’ setback might even be more frustrating, considering how circumstances were coming together so well to allow for the lefty to rise up in his sophomore season. Reggie Evans was let go in free agency, Jonas Valanciunas was staying in Europe, neither Magloire nor Gray were expected to threaten his playing time and then, of course, Bargnani got hurt. With all signs pointing to a potential breakthrough, Davis instead has regressed, decreasing in points and rebounds per game from his rookie year and, as a result, seeing a drop in minutes from 2010-11. Most disconcertingly, he routinely gets outmuscled in the paint and hasn’t demonstrated enough of an inside scoring game – supposedly his strength coming out of UNC – to be trusted with touches within the offence.
Toronto’s resident ball-stopper hasn’t been a complete disappointment – Bayless did, after all, put up 30 points in Washington. However, he is nearly a full season’s worth of games (76) into his Raptors’ tenure and still hasn’t looked the part of a comfortable fit. In PER (John Hollinger’s signature measure of per-minute production and efficiency), Bayless’ 13.1 is well below the league-wide average of 15.0 and good for eighth on a struggling team. It offers a statistical indication of just how much his .382% shooting (strangely, Bayless is shooting better from beyond the arc than his over-all percentage) and 1.63 turnovers per game are hurting the team. Of course, so much of the 23-year-old’s second half hinges on the ability to remain healthy and stay on the floor long enough to get on the same page as his teammates.
As the final member of the young, core C minus-ers, Johnson just hasn’t looked the part of the athletic energy guy that won over some fans last season. It’s not the stats – his scoring drop (9.6 to 7.0 points) can be explained away as a by-product of a team averaging 10 fewer points per game, while his rebounding is actually slightly up (6.6 per game, from 6.4 last season). There’s been speculation that he didn’t arrive to camp in the best shape and, interestingly, he has nearly as many double-digit scoring games (four) in the previous six games as he had in the first 27 (five). To date, though, it’s hard to characterize Johnson’s year as anything other than a disappointment.
D+: Gary Forbes
Of the underwhelming quintet of low-risk veterans brought in over the off-season, the 26-year-old Forbes probably had the biggest upside as a defensively sound wing believed to have an offensive game that had not been tapped into by the Nuggets. However, even with injuries to Bayless, he hasn’t established enough trust from Casey to earn significant minutes. The reality for Forbes right now isn’t pretty: as a point guard, he’s a shaky ball-handler and not quick enough to defend opposing ones; as a wing, he isn’t explosive enough to create his own shot, nor does he have a reliable jumper.
D: Rasual Butler
Sign a guy for his three-point shooting who hasn’t been able to shoot from deep for years … what could go wrong? Butler is having a career-worst shooting campaign across the board, shooting .308% from the floor, .273% from long range and even just .583% from the line. Perhaps no moment from the season’s first half was more representative of any Raptors’ play than in the Feb. 15 game against San Antonio, when Butler was positioned in the corner, wide open (surprise) and waving frantically as DeRozan came down the floor with the ball. DeRozan clearly saw his teammate, but quickly thought better of giving him the shot. These struggles wouldn’t be so problematic if Butler hadn’t been getting a curious amount of playing time (14 minutes per game, including 14 first half starts). He’s supposedly starting on account of his defence, but I don’t see any defensive edge that the nine-year vet holds over James Johnson. It seems like Casey is finally seeing things the same way, as Butler got a DNP-CD in Wednesday’s win over Detroit, hopefully representing the first of more to come in the second half.