Whether they intended to or not (and they probably didn’t, at least to this degree), the Raptors have hitched a lot of their franchise to Andrea Bargnani. And in the first season that he’s actually had to prove he’s worth top dog status, Bargnani has basically fallen on his face.
So have the Raptors.
They’re competitive, they try hard and they’ve been hit by injuries big and small, but the Raptors have lost 12 straight games, they’ve won only five of their last 30 and they are playing dispiriting hoops on both ends of the floor.
If it weren’t for Cleveland’s misery, we’d be talking more about this dismal team and its uncertain future. The Raptors sit 29th in points allowed per possession, which isn’t a surprise. Their defense has long been miserable, and there was no reason to expect much improvement this season. What’s more disturbing is the degree to which their offense has regressed following Chris Bosh’s departure. After another stinker Monday in Indiana, the Raptors are tied (with the Timberwolves) at No. 21 in offensive efficiency. This was the fifth-best offensive team in the league last season.
This isn’t all on Bargnani, obviously, though his shooting has dipped as his burden has increased. He and Jose Calderon, a better offensive point guard than most realize, have both been dealing with leg injuries. Jerryd Bayless, too. Reggie Evans has been out for months, Linas Kleiza has missed time with a sore knee and Sonny Weems’ back kept him out of the lineup for weeks. Most of these guys aren’t much better than league average even at their best, but the trickle-down effect of losing a bunch of so-so guys can be devastating.
And it’s not all Bargnani’s fault that Toronto’s defense is broken. And, man, is it broken. Check out the Raptors’ lineup data: You have to scroll all the way down to their 10th most commonly used lineup to find a five-man group that has been anything better than awful defensively. That’s right — the nine lineups Toronto has used most have all played like sieves on defense. That is basically unheard of in the NBA; even bad defensive teams have a couple of scrappy lineups they can use to get some stops. Seriously, check out the numbers for Cleveland; even the league’s worst defensive team has two lineups that have performed well defensively in more than 100 minutes together.
When basically all of a team’s core lineups struggle defensively, something is systematically wrong. There is one player all nine of those units have in common: Bargnani.
Again, it’s not all on him. Calderon tries hard, but he can’t stay in front of anyone and he falls further behind than most point guards on pick-and-rolls. DeMar DeRozan is hit or miss and sometimes fails to close out on guys adequately. Evans, when he’s healthy, is always out of position. And Bargnani is better at some aspects of defense — one-on-one work in the post, for instance — than he gets credit for being.
But you can’t excuse Bargnani, no matter how badly Evans might want everyone to lay off. Not when Josh McRoberts grabs an offensive rebound on the left side of the rim, sees a 7-foot center in his way and decides, “Hey, I’ll just ram my shoulder into his chest, move him and dunk the ball in his face” (see the 7:41 mark of the third quarter Monday). Not when Jeff Foster, upon seeing a Mike Dunleavy jumper go up, simply slides in front of Bargnani, boxes him out and snags an offensive rebound (see the 3:51 mark of the third quarter). And not when the Raptors’ announce team, proud homers and defenders of Bargnani, are now openly pining for Ed Davis to get more minutes.
If you watch the Raptors, you know these are not isolated things. And it’s the rebounding, of course, that still grates on you. More than halfway through the season, Bargnani is grabbing 5.6 boards per 36 minutes — tied for the worst mark of his career and on pace to be one of the worst marks a guy at least 6-10 has put up in NBA history. Bargnani has rebounded 9.1 percent of all misses while on the floor this season. If you’re not familiar with rebounding percentage, you need to understand how awful that is. Just now — one minute before I wrote this sentence — I closed my eyes and thought of the first random wing player that entered my mind. It was Paul Pierce. But Pierce is a good rebounder for his position, so I started over, thinking the comparison would be unfair.
Next guy to pop into my head: Travis Outlaw. His rebounding rate this season: 8.7 percent, a tad below his career rate of 9.3 percent.
Over the first few weeks of the season, we could excuse this (at least a bit), because Evans was on the court grabbing every rebound that came near him. It seemed a perfect if untenable fit — Evans could concentrate on rebounding and Bargnani could concentrate on scoring and containing pick-and-rolls.
But Evans has been gone for months, and the numbers haven’t changed. And the Raptors rank 23rd in defensive rebounding, so there are plenty of boards to be had.
Bargnani is scheduled to make $41.5 million over the four seasons after this one. And right now, at 25 and in his prime, he does not look worth it. He’s a fine third option, but he’s not carrying your team anywhere — not right now.
Which raises another question: Where can this team go from here? It won’t have much cap room after this season if it exercises team options on Weems, Julian Wright and Joey Dorsey (far from certain) — and if Leandro Barbosa exercises his $7.6 million player option (would seem likely). The Raptors’ core right now would seem to consist entirely of Bargnani, Davis, DeRozan and Amir Johnson.
And that’s not a bad start, really. Davis is clearly a keeper. Johnson is putting up the best numbers of his career even if he still fouls too much, and he has improved his ability to finish non-dunks on pick-and-rolls. DeRozan has come on in fits. He’s not ready to be a second option on a good team, but he gets to the line a lot and has shown flashes lately of being a serviceable passer on side pick-and-rolls. (And if I’m a Raptors fan, I want the team running a lot of those down the stretch in hopes that DeRozan could emerge soon as an Eric Gordon-style pick-and-roll option.)
Depending on how the new collective bargaining agreement looks, the Raptors should have some nice cap room after next season. Barbosa will be an expiring contract a year from now, and Calderon’s deal, which expires after 2012-13, becomes more tradable every day.
There will be opportunities, and the front office is going to have to nail them, because the current core looks more “so-so” than “foundation of a future contender.”