Mitchell the real lame duck

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:06 AM ET

Don't know if you saw those plucky Raptors that everyone is so proudly talking about.

I was at last night's 120-95 whipping inflicted by a mediocre Indiana Pacers and a flatter, more disinterested basketball team I have yet to find.

Whoever is doing the Raptors' public relations should get a raise.

The Raptors are 27-54 with a game to play.

Last year they went 33-49. This is considered progress.

For engineering a worse record than the year before, Raptors coach Sam Mitchell gets to come back for the third and final year of his contract. Many feel he is due a contract extension.

This season, Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn delivered his seventh consecutive winning record, including two Stanley Cup semi-final appearances. He finally missed the playoffs this season. The consensus is he's toast.

STABLEMATES

The Raptors and Maple Leafs are stablemates all right. They also are wildly different animals and nothing bears that out more vividly than the different vibe surrounding the teams.

Despite a season in which they worked six different young defencemen into the lineup, a season in which their best player on many nights was a rookie named Alex Steen, the Leafs would be wise to enroll in the witness protection program.

For the Raptors, 27 wins with one game to play shouldn't get you giddy. Nor should half a dozen blowout losses by more than 20 points, but the idea persists that the Raptors are a draft and a canny trade away from a winning record.

"If we can add a few more pieces, we'll be sitting here next year talking about getting ready for playoffs," said Morris Peterson, a player so hardworking he should be wearing skates.

I don't buy it.

Sure, the Raptors will grow with the continued development of Chris Bosh and Charlie Villanueva. And yes, the recruitment of Bryan Colangelo added a front-office heavyweight to the mix.

But there are massive question marks on the bench and in the lineup.

Let me put this in stark terms: Those Raptors still are one lousy basketball team.

If the Raptors were so close, youthful enthusiasm would allow them to at least win their fair share of close games or even the home finale. Instead, the Raps have lost 11 games by three points or less, second most in the league.

And while Mike James has hit the 20-point-per-game plateau, he insists he is a starting point guard. When asked if he would consider coming off the bench with a true point guard directing the attack, he said: "You guys are all the same." I don't think he meant it in a nice way.

James is a terrific player, but he also is responsible for a portion of those 11 close losses. And if getting the love means paying $6 million US for a player wholly unwilling to do anything but shoot regardless of circumstance, he's a bargain better left in the bin.

I don't understand. The Raptors' recent 10-game losing streak was blamed on the loss of Bosh to a hand injury. Okay, but Bosh was on hand when the Raps won just one of their first 16 games. So was the offensively able Jalen Rose.

The early season Raptors sounded like a club unprepared to compete. The blame for that should land at the coach's door.

"We lost a lot of close ones, but that's part of having a young team," Mitchell said yesterday.

Or maybe it's part of having a coach with no track record fumbling his way through the early stretches of his career.

By the standards the Leafs play under, Mitchell -- with only two seasons of experience as an assistant -- is gone by Thursday, the day after the Raptors finale in Chicago.

ROOTED IN FAILURE

But a decade into their existence, the Raptors remain an entity so deeply rooted in failure that even modest gains sound like wholesale improvement.

So the burghers at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., point to Villanueva and Bosh and fawn over the club's potential.

The truth is, the elements many see as essential -- signing James without extracting a vow to change his play and extending Mitchell's contract -- would be mistakes.

Mitchell deserves his lame-duck status. And James deserves whatever he can get from a team looking for nothing more than points.


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