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Goodbye Phil, Goodbye Amir

Yesterday was admittedly a pretty big day for Toronto sports, even by its usually outlandish standards. Two of the best athletes in the city left on the same day. I want to take a moment to look at each of them.

1. Exit stage left: Phil Kessel. Arguably the most talented player the Leafs have had in years and certainly the most divisive they’ve had since Tie Domi, Kessel is now a Pittsburgh Penguin.

Kessel’s time in Toronto was marred right from the get-go, when then-GM Brian Burke traded away two first-round picks for the forward. Could the trade really have been six years ago? A story of mine at the Good Point suggests it’s been nearly that long. I defended the trade then; these days, I don’t feel the same way, although I don’t know I care enough to bang out that many words on an off-season trade anymore, either.

The trade is easy to nitpick now. The Leafs lost out on a second-overall pick and Kessel, never much of a talker, burned bridges with the media. By the end of his time here, the Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk was insinuating Kessel was a coach-killer and even positive stories on him still mentioned an image of laziness. Even now, as he leaves the city, sportswriters are throwing him under the bus for eating too many honk dogs.

In Scottish lore, there were people called sin-eaters. When someone died, these people went to the house and ate a piece of bread, symbolically taking the sins of the deceased onto themselves. The more I think about it, the more I think Kessel filled a similar role for this Leaf team. For basically his whole tenure here, the Leafs were bad. They made the playoffs once and collapsed on an almost annual basis. Problems abounded, but the media honed in on Kessel.

Why? Maybe because he didn’t play along with their games and make them feel like one of the team. Maybe because his trade symbolically defined an era of putting it all on red and seeing the ball land on black. Maybe because somebody had to fill that role and the media weren’t going to throw people they liked being around under the bus. But as the Leafs seasons collapsed into defensive miscues and teams that seemed rudderless, it was the guy who played hurt and alongside replacement level talent and still managed to score 60-points a season who caught the flak.

In all his time here, Kessel was one of the most exciting players on the Leafs to watch. Think I’m kidding? Go watch clips of him in full stride, taking a pass and moving in on the net. At his best, Kessel is a pure skater who can score with ease. He wasn’t always at his best because teams realized they could shut him down and not worry about players like Bozak or Clarkson. Even so, Kessel had moments like this, where he made it all look almost effortless.

I hope he scores 50 in Pittsburgh next year.

2. Exit stage right: Amir Johnson. Perhaps not the most talented Raptor, but certainly one of the most compelling, a fan-favourite who was a lot of fun to watch even when the team wasn’t and someone who genuinely loved the city, hanging out in Toronto long after the season ended. He is now a Boston Celtic. 

When Amir Johnson came here in 2009, the Raptors were a mess. It was their last season with Chris Bosh and they came within a hair of making the postseason, but were eliminated on the last day. The next year, the Raps were in free-fall, winning as many games as the total of different players on their roster: 22.

Over the next couple of years, there was some ugly ball played by the Raptors. This was a time when Andrea Bargnani was avoiding contact and playing away from the basket, when Aaron Gray was making 40 starts at centre and when the Raptors offense struggled to score 90 points per game.

Through it all, Johnson was a blast to watch. He struggled with fouls, yes, and had some injury trouble. But he was a reliable bench option, good for about ten points and ten rebounds per 36 minutes. He was also a lot of fun to watch, someone who gave a lot on the court and looked like he was having a blast, too.

It sounds silly, but in the years after Vince Carter, who admitted he didn’t always try his hardest, after Bosh who left right as he hit his peak and after Hedo Turkoglu, who basically didn’t want to be in Toronto, it was refreshing.

In my files, I’ve got a pitch I wrote for The Classical that I don’t know if I actually sent. It was for a Why We Watch on Amir Johnson. Here’s a small excerpt:

Johnson came to the Raptors in Bosh’s last season. After Bosh left, he settled into a starting role, mostly in the same role: the other big alongside Barganani. He’s also filled another role, too: the fun Raptor.

He has his own Youtube channel, AmirTV. Along with DeMar DeRozan and Sonny Weems, he was part of a group calling themselves The Young Gunz. He’s released a mixtape. And he’s active in Toronto in a way few others are: right before the season’s start, he took part in a Toronto zombie walk. He hangs out here. Bosh was a nice guy, but he didn’t live here.

My pitch is a huge mess – probably why I never bothered sending it – but I think that label is as true now as it was in late 2012. Johnson was a lot of fun, on the court and off. Even now, as his role on the team has been eclipsed by DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross, Johnson was still a sentimental favourite, someone who had bad ankles and still picked up fouls at a ridiculous rate, but had captured something among the fans. Just look at the goodbyes he’s getting from blogs like Raptors Republic.

Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago they were literally giving Raptors tickets away. I was at a game with my friend Eric and an usher came up to us and just handed us a pair of free tickets to another game. We didn’t even have to ask. They have a lot of cultural cache now, thanks to consecutive playoff runs and Drake’s stamp of approval, but for a while there wasn’t much to cheer for. But there was Amir.

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Thoughts on a Raptors sweep

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The headlines today are as witty as they are predictable: “Sweep the North,” wrote the Toronto Sun, for example. The Raptors season is over with a dud of a game four, a blowout I didn’t even bother watching. Because let’s be real: this series ended after game three and the whole team spent last night going through the motions.

It sucked, but this Raptors season has more or less been a downer since the New Year and I can’t say it’s overly shocking now I look back at it.

Going into this, I picked the Raptors in six. It seemed like a good idea at the time and frankly, I wasn’t alone: only five of ESPN’s experts picked Washington and none had them winning in five games, let alone four straight. It made sense: Toronto swept them this year and the Wizards were not looking great, certainly not as good as they looked in all four games.

But Toronto certainly looked as bad as they ever did this season. And in game four, which I admittedly skipped watching live, they probably played their worst game all year. But maybe the signs were there all series long, like when Lowry went 5-of-22 shooting in game three. Or when he went 2-of-10 in game one. Hell, through the series, Lowry had a .316 shooting percentage, down from his .412 this regular season.

Lowry’s getting a lot of blame, but he’s hardly alone. Lou Williams – who won this season’s Sixth Man Award – shot a dismal .314 and jacked up about 13 shots per game. And DeMar DeRozan averaged 20 shots a game and hit about 40 per cent of them.

Given how this Raptors team lived by it’s offense all year, it’s fitting they died with it in this series. The Raptors couldn’t match the offensive production of John Wall or Bradley Beal, let alone slow it down. And in the close games, the Raptors couldn’t get stops.

For example, late in game three, the Raptors took a lead on a hell of a possession: Lowry made a steal, moved the ball quickly up court and dished to Amir Johnson, who slammed it home. It was 85-84 with about six minutes left. After that, it was downhill: Toronto’s shooting went ice-cold and they took some long threes. As the fourth wound down, Washington scored six points in under a minute and the Raptors lost 106-99.

In sum, it’s worth noting that Toronto averaged over 104 points a game this season, but broke 100 points in only one game.

But whatever, the season is over and frankly, I’ve moved on. I’m sure there’s going to be handwringing and gnashing of teeth, but really what is there to do with this team? Even on their best nights, they’re not really that good defensively and they’re not well constructed; remember, it wasn’t long ago that this team was getting blown up. Lowry was nearly traded to New York!

So what comes next? Is firing Dwane Casey the answer? Can you salvage this roster’s core and make another run? Or should they sell high-ish on DeRozan, Lowry and Valanciunas and start a rebuild? I don’t know if any of those are the answer; if anything, the Atlantic division is so weak, this team could probably make the playoffs again next year, even without a major overhaul. But they’d still probably lose in the first round.

My mind keeps going back to Bosh’s heyday here, when two good Raptor teams made the playoffs and amounted to basically nothing. And even though Bosh is arguably one of the best players they’ve ever had, his tenure here was vaguely depressing and kind of frustrating. They won a few games, picked up a division title and never made it out of the first round.

Maybe the Lowry era is the same way: they have a very good player, a couple of good supporting players but not enough. Lowry took a ton of shots this series, but maybe he had to since nobody else’s shots were dropping, too. That’s also how I remember the Bosh era ending, too.

Lou: Sixth Man of the Year

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I’d been hearing buzz about Lou Williams deserving the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award over the past couple weeks, but truthfully I hadn’t really paid it much heed: I like Williams, I guess, but I truthfully never really thought of him as the league’s best off-the-bench player.

Maybe it’s because in my mind, I want to compare anyone who wins the award with people like Manu Ginobili or (Oklahoma City Thunder-era) James Harden: guards who play off-the-bench but dictate the action when they’re on the court. But I suppose maybe the comparison is unfair: Ginobili is a generational talent and Harden is, well, really good. I mean I just picked him as the NBA’s MVP.

And while Williams isn’t either of those, nobody’s saying he is. But he is good, especially in the role he’s been placed in. So let’s dig in!

This is Williams first season in Toronto and his tenth in the NBA. He’s 28, which is about when players start peaking and his play this season has been full of career-highs. He’s played in 80 games, his most since 2008-09, and logged over 2000 minutes, a career high. Per 36 Minutes, Williams is averaging about 22 points, three rebounds and three assists. Compared to previous years, his rebounding is about the same, his assist rate is down and his scoring has gone through the roof.

In part, it could be called a simple twist of fate: as per a 82 Games report, the second-most used Raptors squad is Williams, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, James Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough. Not what you’d call a fearsome squad, but that’s basically their second unit. And of those five, only Williams averages more than 10 points per game.

So he focuses on scoring, letting Vasquez control the ball and Patterson or Hansbrough rebound. Remember, Vasquez’s Usage Rate is averaging around 20 per cent, meaning he’s used in a fifth of all plays when he’s on the court. Not bad for second-string guard!). And Williams takes a lot of shots.

This year, Williams has attempted 928 shots, third-most on the team and only slightly behind DeMar DeRozan’s 990. And honestly, I’m surprised is only that few: in my mind’s eye, I can see him taking like a dozen shots a game, hitting a few big ones and missing a few, too.

For every time he’s hit an important bucket (here’s one, here’s another and here’s one from the preseason), I feel like there’s been a game where he shot them out of contention. Two examples: a 109-93 loss to Brooklyn where Williams went 1-of-11 and a 82-75 loss to Milwaukee where he went 1-of-12.

I don’t mean to shit on his parade, though. I’m pretty psyched that Williams won the award and frankly, it’s pretty cool to see any Raptor win an award like this. And usually, after a poor shooting night or two, Williams rebounds with something good. So here’s hoping his 4-for-16 afternoon on Sunday was his Bad Game of the series against Washington.

Written by M.

April 21, 2015 at 11:22 am

In the Crowd Outside the ACC: Raptors/Nets, Game One

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The bus lets you off at the station on Bay and a tunnel takes you into the Bay Atrium next door. From there it’s just a short walk down the Path to Union Station and a series of tunnels that takes you to the Air Canada Centre’s doorstep. I made the trip yesterday with my buddy Eric, hoping to watch some Raptors magic.

It’s been a while since the Raptors were in the playoffs. I’m pretty sure it’s been even longer since they were on ESPN, since people in the US paid any attention to this team. Raptor fans have been waiting for a national spotlight like this for a while. And that’s not even getting into this season’s special circumstances, either.

Coming into this season, the Raptors weren’t highly regarded. Rudy Gay was a high-volume, low-output scorer, although laser eye surgery was supposed to help that a little bit. Near the end of last season, DeMar DeRozan had started playing a lot better and Kyle Lowry was, too. All three seemed like trade bait, a way to help the Raps quickly rebuild as they looked forward to a stacked draft, topped by local talent Andrew Wiggins.

The Raptors flipped Gay to Sacramento early in the season and almost immediately looked better. But they weren’t done: there was a rumoured deal to send Lowry to the Knicks, but someone in New York vetoed the deal. Soon the wins kept piling up and, amidst a poor Atlantic division, the Raptors were in the thick of it. They couldn’t tank, they were just too good in a bad conference: by year’s end, they’d finish with an identical record as Phoenix, a team that didn’t qualify for the postseason.

Juxtapose this welcome surprise against the Toronto sports landscape: the Jays disappointing 2013 campaign, the Leafs crashing and burning late in the season. Two teams everyone expected to go places, both of whom crushed fans in new and exciting ways.

Essentially, going into Saturday, there was a lot of pent-up emotion.

The crowd outside the ACC packed into a tight square. There was a big fence and off to one side, a pile of steel bleachers. Some people brought signs, others brought their kids. One guy in front of me had his son on his shoulders, each wearing Raptors gear. I got there as the second quarter started and the Raptors were keeping pace with the more-experienced Nets team. People were shouting, yelling when calls didn’t go their way. When someone – Vasquez or Lowry, it usually seemed – made a play, they all cheered. It was a good scene and the lone TSN camera outside – a lens on a pole, occasionally swinging around like a pinata, just above our heads – didn’t do it justice.

***

The Eaton Centre is a changed place from even last December. The big Sears is gone, replaced by a gaping white tunnel. The food court is open now, looking more like a restaurant than the place where you could buy Sbarro’s. There’s nice tables, the food stands give you plates and flat screen TVs on every wall. All of them were on the Raptors game.

Eric and I sat there to watch the end of the game. Even here, in a crowded food court, people were yelling and shouting about the Raptors. The guy behind me was there with a young woman and a kid; we often yelled variations of the same line right around the same time. Usually something about Lowry, who was carrying the team on his back. He scored baskets, gambled on huge steals and created the fast break that led to the game’s highlight dunk.

Lowry was doing it alone, it seemed. DeMar DeRozan shot 3-of-13 and seemed even less a factor than that; Amir Johnson scored two points in over 20 minutes of play. Going into this series I worried about the Nets outside shooting and what’d happen if it went to the wire, if Toronto has someone as willing to take the big shot as Brooklyn’s Paul Pierce is. Now I wonder if it’ll even be close – if Toronto can even recover from this game. Lowry was going everything, doing everything.

I remember one possession well: after a turnover, he rushed it back up the court and was fouled hard on his way to the basket, landing on his side and slamming into the base of the net. He was down for a moment; all I could think was how he can’t do this alone. He was still trying, though, in a way I haven’t seen a Raptor try in years. I don’t think I’m alone: as I left the crowd outside the ACC, people were chanting “Ky-le! Ky-le!”

Is It Too Soon To Pull the Trigger on Casey?

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A crappy Raptors season is winding down and with it comes change in the front office. This offseason, where the Raptors don’t have a pick and their cap’s loaded with giant contracts, should still be one of change: Bryan Colangelo’s contract is up this summer. He’s on the proverbial hot seat.

But he’s not the only person surrounded by rumors. Coach Dwane Casey is also being speculated on. And perhaps not unfairly: his rotations this season have been questionable and there have been some strange moves during the season. But is it anything worth firing over?

Going by the Pythagorean Win formula, a measure using points versus points against, the Raptors record should be a couple of wins higher. This makes sense when you look back and remember how poorly the team’s done in close games: they’ve dropped eight games this year by three points or less. Some of this goes on questionable moves late, but sometimes it just goes on the other side hitting a late shot or the referees missing calls, including one the NBA recognized they got wrong.

And for as bad as the season has gone, it’s not like the Raptors have played below expectations, either. Looking at preseason predictions for this year’s squad, most had the Raptors in the bottom half of the league. ESPN’s John Hollinger had them with 33 wins, which seems uncannily accurate now. The National Post’s Eric Koreen had them winning between 31 and 37, too. Despite what a few people – Basketball Reference, Zach Lowe and a few Raptors blogs –predicted, I wouldn’t call a finish that puts them with something like 33 or 35 wins and a tenth spot in the conference completely unexpected, at least from a season-starting point of view.

Of course, there’s a monkey wrench in this: the midseason trade that brought Rudy Gay aboard and changed expectations for this team. I’ve speculated before that the trade was to justify Colangelo’s time here and try to buy him an extension. It was an all in kind of move, shoving the chips to the centre of the table and, as it turned out, into someone else’s pile.

If the trade was a move designed to make Toronto better in the short-term, it worked: the Raptors won their first game with Rudy Gay. One month after the trade, Toronto had gone on a five-game winning streak and won six of 11 games. It was around then that the floor fell out: through March then went on two separate five-game losing streaks, including losses to teams like Charlotte, Detroit and Washington. Whatever potential was there was gone nearly as quickly.

Indeed, the most interesting thing to come out of this stretch was a Grantland piece by Zach Lowe about the Ghost Raptors and the SportVU system. Even this was depressing: the YouTube clips attached showed the Ghost Raptors routinely out playing the real thing, actually making plays and not making idiotic passes. What was even more interesting, and not getting nearly the same attention, came buried in a followup post by Lowe. In it, he explained the dichotomy between making smart moves like the VU system and signing players like Bargnani or DeMar DeRozan to big deals or trading for the inefficient (at best) Gay. To wit:

“The Gay trade was a calculated risk … it represented an understandable move from a team that doesn’t attract star free agents and needed to monetize both an expiring deal (Jose Calderon) and a non-core asset about to go up dramatically in price (Ed Davis). Gay’s next contract will be telling, though.”

In other words: the team wouldn’t be able to land a free agent with Calderon’s expiring deal and couldn’t keep Ed Davis in Toronto. Never mind that Davis reportedly cried when told the news and was visibly shaken when seen leaving the ACC.

But of course, these are all moves that are on Colangelo, and along with many others – everything from Jermaine O’Neal to Hedo Turkoglu to trading for Gay – have kept the Raptors in a perpetual state of mediocrity. That’s enough to not extend his contract. But what about Casey? How much of this season’s end results can we put on him?

The biggest change from last season is on both ends of the court. Last year, Toronto was one of the worst-scoring teams in the NBA: they finished ranked 29th in Offensive Rating. But they could defend, or at least play slow enough to finish with the 14th best defensive rating in the league and the ninth best points-allowed per game. This year, their pace has stayed about the same, but flipped the results: 16th in the league in scoring, 22nd in defense. They’re allowing nearly 100 points per game.

And what of Casey’s moves? He’s commonly leaning on players like DeRozan, Gay and Lowry while Terrance Ross and Jonas Valanciunas sit on the bench. It’s a lost season at this point, so what harm would come from giving extra minutes to the rookies? Why is Ross playing fewer minutes per game than Landry Fields or Mickael Pietrus? These are on Casey.

As a whole, I’m still not sold on him, but I don’t think blaming him for this season is entirely his fault, either. The right course is probably the easiest one: let Colangelo’s contract expire and let Casey have another season. His contract is up at the end of year anyway and if the Raptors continue to tread water, or even move backwards, let his lapse too. I’m not really sure anyone could a better job with the pieces Colangelo’s given him.

Written by M.

April 9, 2013 at 8:00 am

Raptors rotations are rotating them out of contention

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Things have pretty much bottomed out for the Toronto Raptors.

After a brief period of looking good in the immediate Rudy Gay era and a five-game winning streak, the Raptors have come back down: they’ve lost five in row, including some to teams they’re supposed to be better than: Washington and Cleveland. And losing to Milwaukee was bad too: it set them back a ways in the postseason race. Over at Club Sport Stats, their playoff chances are at 0.4 per cent. That seems maybe a tad charitable to me.  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

March 5, 2013 at 10:19 pm

The Rudy Gay Trade, Continued

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It’s been a while since I weighed in on the Rudy Gay trade and I’ve had time to give it sober second thought. And after a surprising win over Indiana and an impressive win over New Orleans, the time seems right to touch on the trade once again.

The trade can be broken down into a few different aspects: individual, team and future. Or, more specifically:

  • What has Gay brought to the Raptors?
  • What does that mean for their short-term success?
  • What about the team’s future?

Let’s look at these in order.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

February 14, 2013 at 4:00 pm