New coach Kevin O'Neill has many worries, but in Vince he trusts
By Chris Ballard
Team Page | Conference ranking: 10 | Overall ranking: 21
Though some may doubt new coach Kevin O'Neill, even they can't impugn his work ethic. Within three weeks of being hired, he had watched tape of the Raptors' entire 2002-03 season. (His review: "I'm telling the guys to pretend last year didn't happen.") Asked how he likes Toronto, O'Neill says, "It's all right, from what I know of it." Which, it turns out, is basically nothing. O'Neill has spent almost all his time inside the team's training facility or in his new home, a hotel room.
Needless to say, O'Neill is a departure from the Raptors' coach of the last three years, laissez-faire Lenny Wilkens. Already the team is adjusting to the idea of playing defense -- lots of it. As he did as a Pistons assistant, O'Neill has written his 68 defensive principles on a whiteboard in his office. The basics: Play aggressive man-to-man, front the post, rely on help from weakside rotations, and put a body on all cutters coming through the lane. Says guard Vince Carter, "We're better prepared. He wants more out of us so, of course, that's going to call for more work."
O'Neill knew going in that his success will depend on Carter, so he flew to Daytona Beach this summer and had dinner with Vince and his mom. He came away convinced that the talk about Carter being soft is just that: talk. "The thing people need to realize is that Vince had two serious injuries last year," says O'Neill. "Frankly, Vince Carter is the least of my worries."
Asked what he is worried about, O'Neill mentions the team's lack of inside bulk. And its rebounding. And the transition to a new defensive system. And, as he continues, it's clear that his worries could go on until a reporter's tape recorder runs out. Which, to many in Toronto, is a good thing: Better to care too much than too little.
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Raptors
"Kevin O'Neill is a defensive specialist from the Riley-Van Gundy school. He'll keep the lane compact, demand that teammates provide help and put a stop to easy layups. I bet they'll go from being the worst defensive team last year [the Raptors allowed opponents to shoot 46.1%] to being in the top eight. But they'll be one of the worst offensive-rebounding teams because they don't want to give up easy baskets in transition.... Vince Carter is running out of time to prove that he's a great player. He's in the same position Jerry Stackhouse was two seasons ago when Rick Carlisle and O'Neill took over in Detroit and Stackhouse elevated his all-around game. Carter isn't as good a passer as Stackhouse, but he's talented enough to carry his team to within three or four games of making the playoffs.... The other key guy is Antonio Davis, who needs to quiet the whispers that his body is falling apart. He's got a large salary [$37 million over the next three years] for an undersized center who can't rebound or finish inside the way he used to.... The Raptors lack leadership, which is why they traded with Detroit for Michael Curry. While Curry is past his prime, he's as smart a player as there is.... Jerome Williams is coming off his best season, but he's going to have a difficult time in O'Neill's structured system. Williams is notorious for not following the game plan: Tell him to show on the pick-and-roll and he's going to trap; tell him to trap and he's going to drop off. The fans love him because he makes so many hustle plays, but his undisciplined style leads to just as many baskets for the other team.... A lot of people figure that Chris Bosh [the Number 4 pick out of Georgia Tech] won't give the Raptors much as a rookie, but he might be their best shot blocker, and he's a decent finisher with a nice little jump hook."
Issue date: October 27, 2003