Without Garbo, Raps just vanilla

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:08 AM ET

There is a large photo on the wall of the media centre at the Air Canada Centre that, without words, says much about this rather unimposing Raptors season.

In the photo, Jorge Garbajosa is diving for a loose ball, his mouth open, his expression pained, his effort level captured impressively.

It isn't just that Garbajosa is lost for this season. It's what he brought to the Raps that seems lost, also.

This is not about statistical analysis of a team that has seemingly flattened out, but about the human qualities. The passion he brought to every game. The intelligence he brought to the court. The expectation that came with him contesting more shots than his teammates would, or diving for balls they would not skin their knees for.

Garbajosa wasn't the best player or the fastest or even the most important. Only symbolically, what he brought seems to have gone missing.

There is no one here to set his kind of example. There is no one here who brings with him so many intangibles. On a soft team, he didn't play soft. On a fast team, he didn't play fast. He was the perfect piece that you can't always explain or define.

So here are the Raptors, nearing the halfway point of the season, looking neither here nor there. There is little reason to believe this is a disaster in waiting, or to believe they can hope to contend.

They are lost, somewhere in the midst of the NBA, blowing no one away, not even the really ordinary Philadelphia 76ers last night on the kind of night that is made for NBA midweek blowouts.

It isn't just that Garbajosa isn't playing. It isn't only that T.J. Ford awaits medical clearance for his return. The Raptors have never looked like the dangerous team they were last year even with Ford in the lineup this season.

Last season they were, at times, the talk of the NBA. Now they go on relatively unnoticed, searching for some kind of identity. They sneak up on no one. In a 30-team league, there may be 14 teams better, 14 teams worse.

The hunger that was seen in Garbajosa's face appears to have gone missing. And this isn't anything new. Teams that come out of nowhere often have difficulty finding their way back a second time. The first ride is magical, unexpected, exhilarating.

The second time around, you can't just show up and win. It doesn't work that way. If talent was all that mattered, the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks would not be wallowing at the bottom of the Central Division. You need a little -- or a lot -- of whatever it is Garbajosa brings: That infectious grit which makes everyone care just a little bit more, try a little bit harder.

Don Matthews, the retired football coach who won a championship or seven in his day, had an expression he liked to use that seems applicable here: "Teams are doing only one of two things," Matthews used to say. "You're either getting better or you're getting worse."

At this point of the NBA season, can anyone truly say the Raptors are getting better?

"We're not focused or worried about last year," said coach Sam Mitchell last night. "We're trying to get healthy, trying to get better, trying to get in some kind of rhythm."

The last year Mitchell doesn't want to talk about had a sense of urgency to it, a real excitement. Mitchell was coaching for a contract. The future was unknown. The team was invigorated by winning for the first time in years and played with an edge. And the Raps seemed to get off on their own energy.

An energy they need to find again soon because there's nothing worse than a team that is irrelevant.

DRAFT CONFUSION

There seems to be confusion -- including my own -- over the first-round draft pick the Maple Leafs traded to San Jose in the Vesa Toskala deal.

I wrote the other day that general manager John Ferguson was lucky that Sharks GM Doug Wilson used the pick last year instead of this year.

It turns out that the pick was lottery protected this year and would have reverted back to the Leafs had it been a top-10 choice. Ferguson, it appears, protected the Leafs' interests for 2008 but not '09. Had the Sharks not used the pick last year, the Leafs would have been without a first-round choice in the John Tavares draft of 2009.


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