As this retooling — not rebuilding, as general manager Bryan Colangelo made clear back in the fall — Raptors team creeps towards the halfway point of its season, it is time to take stock of how the process is unfolding.
Unlike some teams, who tear the existing roster down and start over upon losing a franchise-leading talent the way the Raptors did last season, Colangelo has chosen instead to build and add to what he already has on hand.
The result? Progress, with a lot of work still to be done both on and off the court.
The Raptors are among the youngest outfits in the entire NBA and, on many nights, show as much.
As a team largely lacking in experience, they tend to make critical mistakes at crucial moments — such as against Atlanta on Wednesday night when an Amir Johnson offensive foul factored hugely in the outcome, along with the cardinal sin of fouling long-range shooters that Toronto players repeatedly committed.
They also don’t get the benefit of the doubt from officials the way veteran, star-laden franchises do, though even that line of complaint has been overblown, according to free throw-related stats (opponents shoot two more free throws per game, in line with the numbers compiled by the East-leading Boston Celtics and the discrepancy was even less before Atlanta was given 31 attempts to Toronto’s 12).
Proficiency, rather than poor refereeing has been the problem with this group — opponents outshoot the Raptors from the field (48.9% to 47.2%), the line (77.5% to 73.8%) and from deep (37.5% to 32.9%) and the team’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) ranks a dismal 28th out of 30 teams (111.3).
And yet, the team has 13 wins, plays a fast-paced, energetic style that pleases its long-suffering fans, and sits as close to the playoffs as it does to the high lottery (14th-place New Jersey has only three less wins).
Most importantly, building blocks like DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis, Amir Johnson and Andrea Bargnani have made significant strides.
Though defence is still a major concern for Jay Triano — “We need to take more pride in our man-to-man-defence,” he said after practice on Thursday — the head coach also recognizes that his players are getting better through force-fed experience, and takes pride in the fact they give him an honest effort every night.
“Our effort and intensity is good, we just have to finish plays and I think a lot of that has to do with youth,” Triano said.
“Our young guys are learning how to play. (Atlanta veterans) Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby have been around double-figure years, against our guys, who are in their infancy in terms of their development as players. We just have to keep working them and they have to learn from playing guys like that what it takes to score, how they’re getting scored on.”
To a man, Triano and his charges feel things are on track and progress is being made of late.
“We’ve been playing much better,” Jose Calderon said.
“Atlanta was beating us every game easy, so it was kind of nice to compete against them (for the entirety of Wednesday’s heartbreaker), because (they were) one of the teams we never played good against.”
Added DeRozan, the sophomore who has taken the biggest leap forward this season: “We’re getting better and better every game, learning from our mistakes and it’s definitely working.”
Baby steps, perhaps, but you have to learn how to crawl before you can learn how to walk.