Essay: I’m Mesmerized By The Raptors
This morning I woke up ready to embrace the possibility of a world where the Toronto Raptors are a relevant basketball team. It’s super strange to think about, and it’ll be a refreshing individual adjustment if it happens. For multiple reasons, and a healthy mixture of long/short term planning and luck, Toronto could transform themselves into one of the more compelling teams in the entire league by October. Whether or not they make the playoffs won’t be a question that first year, and what they do after that is optimistically unknown. But of course, it all hinges on the increasing possibility of this team signing one man: Steve Nash.
Now that Jose Calderon is closer than ever of either being given the NBA’s equivalent of a Scarlet Letter, banishing him to a life of point guarding in some terribly depressing land like Charlotte or Orlando, or being dealt to an exact opposite situation in New York or Los Angeles, a serious, realistic run at Nash has been made.
Despite his age (38) and inability to play typical starters minutes (he’s averaged about 32 minutes per game in the past four seasons), Nash will undoubtedly be the biggest free agent signing in the history of Canada’s association with the NBA. He’s still one of the best at placing an incredible amount of pressure on the defense, but his most significant value comes in making other players better.
With the likes of Shannon Brown and Jared Dudley flanking him in transition last season, he ranked first in assist percentage and second in assists per game throughout the entire league. The Phoenix Suns were a few missed shots away from making the playoffs. Insanity.
If Nash joins Toronto, it would not be unlikely to see Andrea Bargnani, Ed Davis, James Johnson, Amir Johnson, DeMar DeRozan, Gary Forbes, and Linas Kleiza (I think that’s everybody currently under contract) all experience the most basketball playing fun in their entire lives. This doesn’t even begin to mention the effect Nash would have on the casual fan’s relationship with their wallet, or his creation of more national TV exposure for Toronto in the next three years than they’ve seen in their combined history as a franchise.
If Nash instead chooses to play in New York (Nets/Knicks), the Raptors relegate themselves back to being the Raptors, and everything I write after this sentence is useless, but if he takes the reported three-year, $36 million offer and ends his career north of the border, a franchise’s reputation shifts 180 degrees.
Let’s start with the front court, because what we have there are two interesting seven-foot puzzle pieces that, separate from Nash, could compliment each other splendidly on the basketball court. The first is former number one overall pick Andrea Bargnani. Bargnani has spent the first stage of his career as the “best” player on a crappy team. Not too many people have seen him play, and to date he’s failed greatly at raising Toronto from the muck and placing them on the right track. Comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki have fallen short (as they always do), but Bargnani is far from garbage. Before injuring himself last season, he’d begun taking baby steps at showing us he’s more than a pretty good shot. His assist numbers were up, he got to the free-throw line more often, and his PER was a career best 17.9. Was there enough growth to show us he might be the best player on a champion someday? Not even close. Bargnani is still one of the weakest defenders at his position and he still hasn’t the slightest clue how to rebound the basketball, but there was growth, which was obviously a positive sign.
This feels like a good time to enter the other guy into this discussion, last year’s number five overall pick Jonas Valanciunas. On the latest B.S. Report, ESPN.com’s Chad Ford declared Valanciunas as someone who would’ve been a lock to be selected after Anthony Davis in this year’s draft, which is an extremely exciting statement for Raptors fans. This is someone who can rebound, play a little defense, and score with his back to the basket, which allows Bargnani to flutter out on the perimeter like the Italian butterfly he is.
As if one lottery pick coming aboard isn’t enough, the Raptors also have Terrence Ross, who they selected with the eighth pick in last Thursday night’s draft. Ross can shoot and play defense, and people have compared him to a more tempered Nick Young. (For what it’s worth the Raptors thought he was the seventh best prospect available.)
Elsewhere we have DeRozan, a so-far-disappointing slasher who possesses the raw athleticism to someday become a respectable scorer in this league. Today, however, he’d be tagged as expendable if it didn’t make financial sense to keep him (with one year at an affordable price left on his deal before he becomes a restricted free agent, there’s no reason to part ways just yet.)
For the first time in nearly forever, we can seriously say that they’re building something meaningful in Toronto. Apart from Nash, who’s key in all of this, the Raptors appear to be molding a roster full of players who can fit into well-defined roles. Behind a coach who preaches defense and motivates guys to give it their all, this should be a nightly League Pass follow.