Hollinger's Team Forecast: Toronto Raptors
T.J. Ford was playing like an All-Star while sharing time with backup Jose Calderon -- often in a perfect 24-24 minutes split, and the Raps were playing better than their record. In fact, they ripped off two 30-point road wins in the season's first two weeks.
W-L: 41-41 (Pythagorean W-L: 51-31)
Offensive Efficiency: 107.7 (9th)
Defensive Efficiency: 104.3 (14th)
Pace Factor: 92.4 (25th)
Highest PER: Chris Bosh (23.88)
That came to a sudden end, however, when a blow from Atlanta's Al Horford knocked out Ford, who has a history of neck and spine problems. In addition to scaring the bejeezus out of everyone present, the injury kept him out action for nearly two months.
Act II, however, saw the Raptors fail to skip a beat. Calderon took over as the starting point guard and played even better than Ford, registering near-nightly double-doubles in points and assists while hardly ever turning the ball over and shooting over 50 percent from the floor. Toronto went 18-14 from the Ford injury until late February, when he'd been able to work his way back into a regular rotation spot and back into his time-share at the point with Calderon.
At this point, the Raptors looked like a dark horse to make a deep playoff run -- they'd even had an impressive road win in Boston -- and the general thinking was "imagine how tough they'll be when Ford is back at full strength."
Instead, their season went off the rails. Ford tried to force the action at every opportunity and bristled at coming off the bench behind Calderon. He was such a distraction that eventually the Raptors put him back in as a starter, but by then the damage had already been done.
From Feb. 25 -- the first game where Ford saw more than half the action -- through the end of the playoffs, the Raptors went 13-20, closing with a five-game dismissal at the hands of Orlando in the first-round of the playoffs. Toronto was 3-17 on the road in that stretch, lost home games to Indiana and Charlotte, and generally bore no resemblance to the cohesive, efficient unit that played the first 54 games.
L'Affaire Ford dominated the headlines, but the other interesting story was the development of Andrea Bargnani or rather, the lack of it. The first overall pick in 2007 was handed a starting job and major minutes after a solid rookie year, in anticipation of a possible breakout in Year 2. Instead the Raptors got a very different break -- a total breakdown in his shooting and confidence. Bargnani shot 38.6 percent from the floor with a 10.68 player efficiency rating; given his defensive shortcomings, he was one of the worst players in the league to see regular minutes.
Compare him to the Raptors' other big men and you can see how costly his playing time was. Rasho Nesterovic shot 55 percent with a 16.23 PER; Kris Humphries shot 48.3 percent and had a 15.72 PER; and little-used Maceo Baston also shot well and posted a strong PER. Had the Raptors simply benched Bargnani and played the other three guys more, they would have projected to win 3-to-5 more games, depending on your playing time assumptions for the others. That, in turn, might have been enough for them to finish fourth in the East and host a first-round playoff series.
Instead, Bargnani played 1,856 minutes, and for the most part he played them quite badly. His situation immediately brought up echoes of the last guy the Raptors gave heavy minutes to solely because he was a first-round pick, but let's not start the Rafael Araujo comparisons just yet. Unlike Hoffa, Bargnani demonstrated considerable ability in his rookie season; it's just unfortunate that he regressed so much last season.
Despite Bargnani's struggles, the Raptors were one of the league's best shooting teams overall. Toronto was second in the league in 3-point shooting at 39.2 percent, and was also second with an 81.2 percent mark from the line.
Unfortunately, they didn't attempt either shot in large quantities. The low free-throw rate won't surprise longtime Raps fans, who have watched their team play largely outside the paint for years -- as a result, Toronto had the league's lowest rate of free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt, pretty much undoing any advantage from shooting so well from the stripe.
More surprising is that the Raptors' 3-point rate was slightly below the league average; you'd think a team full of jump-shooters would find a way to get three points more often. The shining example here is Jason Kapono, a free-agent flop despite shooting 48.3 percent from downtown -- largely because fewer than a quarter of his attempts were 3s.
Lowest Turnover Rate, 2007-08
|TEAM||PCT. OF POSSESSIONS W/ TO|
The Raps also took remarkably good care of the ball. With two point guards playing at a high level and several low-turnover, catch-and-shoot guys around them, Toronto's best offensive attribute was that they almost never turned the ball over. The Raptors gave it away on only 12.6 percent of their possessions, easily the best rate in the league (see chart). Because of this they took an above-average number of shots per possession despite being a horrible offensive rebounding team.
Those positives allowed Toronto to finish ninth in the league in offensive efficiency, and combined with a league-average defense that was notable mainly for the high number of 3-point attempts it allowed, it enabled the Raptors to outscore their opponents by 238 points on the season.
In fact, the Raptors were a far better team than most folks realized. Though their record was only 41-41, they heavily outscored their opponents -- Toronto had the victory margin of a 51-win team. The Raps had the greatest differential between real and expected wins in 2007-08; in fact it was one of the largest in recent history (see chart).
Real vs. Expected Wins: Biggest Negative Differentials
|TEAM||REAL W||EXPECTED W||DIFF.|
That last part, at least, is a good omen for the coming season. Point differential is a better predictor of future success than win-loss record, so the fact that margin was so strong is a great indicator.
And the Raptors were unlucky in another way, too. Their opponents shot 77.6 percent from the line; no other team's opponents shot as high a percentage. Obviously, this was luck, unless you want to argue that Toronto has an innate inability to "defend" free throws. Compared to the league average of 75.5 percent, it cost the Raptors 0.42 points per game, which was worth slightly more than one win over the course of a season. All told, then, the Raptors went 41-41 but with the stats of a 51-win team.
Biggest Strength: Interior defenseIt sounds crazy to be saying this about a Raptors team, but if O'Neal is even remotely healthy it will be true. His defense hasn't received a lot of attention so I'm not sure casual fans understand what a force he is at that end -- he not only block shots, rebounds and takes charges, but he's tough enough to guard the opponent's top post threat every night. Those attributes will be immensely helpful to Bosh, as he often was an undersized center in previous Raptors lineups.
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Instead, he can be the active, perimeter-focused guy who guards the lesser of the opponent's frontcourt threats and can make plays from the weak side with his quickness and length. Those who watched the U.S. Olympic team saw what a force he can be in that role.
In addition, don't forget about small forward Jamario Moon, another long high-flier who blocks shots like a big man. Between he, Bosh and O'Neal the Raps should be among the league leaders in shot blocks and defensive rebounding, even with relatively little help from the frontcourt off the pine.
Biggest Weakness: Backcourt depthThe Raptors had a strong second unit on the perimeter a year ago, as the Ford-Calderon tag team at the point was incredibly effective and Delfino often gave the team a big spark on the wings.
This year it's the opposite situation. At the very least, Ukic is going to need an adjustment year before he's ready to be an effective contributor; for this year it's more of a "please don't kill us" situation for the 10 minutes or so that he relives Calderon. On the wings, the loss of Delfino leaves Adams, Kapono and Joey Graham fighting for minutes; none are particularly appetizing solutions.
Kapono probably offers the greatest potential because of his long-range shooting ability, but that's only a factor if he actually shoots some 3s. Otherwise his defensive shortcomings will swallow up any benefit he provides offensively. Graham is a good athlete but has looked lost at both ends, while Adams is a limited energizer who won't score much.
About the best thing Toronto could do here would be to trade for a more proven reserve, but they can't cobble much together in expiring contracts or prospects to make such a deal happen.
OutlookIn projecting Toronto's record, it's important to note that they had the performance of a 52-win team a year ago, even though they only won 41 games, and that they could have won even more had they not sabotaged themselves by keeping Bargnani in the rotation.
The trade for O'Neal offers another potential bright spot. While Calderon can take over most of the minutes that Ford played a year ago, O'Neal fills in a large defensive void and, if healthy, should greatly improve Toronto at this end. That's the rub, of course -- I projected him to average 27 minutes a game, including injury time-outs, and even that may have been optimistic.
Additionally, the bench seems nowhere near as strong as the unit from a year ago. Toronto finds itself counting on players like Ukic, Kapono and Bargnani, and based on their numbers from a season ago that's a scary proposition indeed. It's possible Bargnani surprises us with a breakout year, but the odds of the other two doing so are remote.
Add it all up and you have a sleeper in the East, but one whose lack of depth and injury-prone frontcourt make it unlikely to pile up a huge regular-season victory total. They may very well win a round in the playoffs, but they're not quite ready to move into the conference's upper crust yet.
Prediction: 47-35, 3rd in Atlantic Division, T-5th in Eastern Conference
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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