RaptorForum Contributor - •LX•
The Raptors of the past two seasons were similar to the Grizzlies under Hubie Brown. They surprised people, over-achieved and raised expectations, all while making use of a deep bench that was often indistinguishable from the starting lineup in terms of abilities. And that depth went from being a notable strength that the coach did a good job of taking advantage of, to a cause of division that in the Grizzlie’s case lead to a full-scale rebellion, while in Toronto it brought recognition that within all that depth there was no way to find a solid second option to Bosh or the kind of toughness that was lost when Jorge Garbajosa suffered his terrible injury. In Memphis, Hubie Brown lost his locker-room, and his job. In Toronto, Sam Mitchell succeeded in at least keeping the ship upright while storms brewed all season long, beginning with the turmoil of Garbajosa’s status, moving through the various difficulties represented in the form of Andrea Bargnani, on through any number of players unable to fill roles with key pieces missing due to injury, and ending with two point guards outgrowing their ability to benefit from sharing the same duties. The season was a disappointment, and many fans called for “blowing it all up” as the Grizzlies had, but there was enough left intact here that they could still find something to build upon.
More than the clashing of egos that Hubie had to deal with, the Raptors suffered mostly from the lack of Garbajosa. I believe there is a Garbajosa-effect that can be identified from the results of the season he played, and the one where he wore a suit. When he played, he brought the cohesion among the starting line-up and the bench that proved so effective. He could play alongside any part of the rotation, and usually it resulted in steady play no matter who was on the floor or not. The guy knew what needed to be done, and when, and he put those things ahead of stats. As a result, we saw good, effective play from Bargnani, Graham, and Humphreys, and less pressure on the point guards and Bosh. Graham alone picked up Garbo’s knack for the ball fake and used it to raise his own basketball IQ by about 35 points. Without Garbajosa there were just too many players trying to do too much, and not all that smartly, particularly from the wings. While the pressure on the defense, the reserves, the franchise player, the number one pick, and the two point guards kept mounting. The Raps became more compartmentalized, and less of a well-constructed team.
You can merely look at the difference at home and on the road during Jorge’s first season here. He played poorly on the road in general, not being well-equipped to handle the NBA schedule. And what the team missed in far too many road losses the year before, is just what they missed for all of last season. Or look at the play at home last year, when opposing teams too often appeared completely comfortable, unlike the previous year when Jorge was at his best. The numbers often looked nice, the defense was better statistically, Moon added some athleticism and scoring, but the problem lied exactly where the only numbers that mattered were those in the win column - the area that Garbo proved to be so adept at understanding.
In addressing the weaknesses at the end of the season, Bryan Colangelo noted two particular problem areas - the need for a 20 point scorer (which was assumed to take the form of an aggressive wing player), and the need to improve defensively with an injection of toughness that he felt had been missing since they lost Garbajosa. So the blueprint moving forward looked fairly clear: add a couple of players through transactions and the draft. But for myself, as a fan, I was not hearing many names that made me feel like the puzzle would be closer to being solved. It was more like the feeling of satisfaction, shallow and fleeting, of getting one side of a Rubik’s cube a solid color. I really wanted the loss of the Garbajosa-effect to be addressed, and failing that, then I figured they might as well blow the Rubik’s pieces up and start gluing them back together as they were meant to be. I wanted a veteran presence who knew what it takes to win, could play physical, remain mentally tough and allow for real gains to be made with an improved defense. And Jermaine O’Neal represents just about the perfect player to fill that resume. In acquiring O’Neal, Colangelo veered away from what looked to be his primary concern - the 20 point scorer - and instead pulled the trigger on the guy who would provide the Garbajosa-effect, while bringing increased leadership and furthering the potential of the offensive threats that already exist here. Had the focus of JO’s addition been all about offense, then I would have continued to feel like the team was a little bit lost. But everything that has been said so far points to that Garbajosa-effect. It’s all about the defense first. It’s all about sacrificing numbers. It’s all about the little things, sustaining the attack as a team no matter who’s on the floor, keeping everyone accountable, and making opposing teams pay for any letdowns. Actually, it sounds like the Garbo-effect on crack.
Here’s a question that doesn’t get asked. Would this have happened if we had a D’Antoni at Colangelo’s side? Or would we instead be looking at a smart-though-soft player like Diaw? Or a strong-but-hard-headed guy like Maggette? Or who knows what - Quentin Richardson? I think it’s safe to say the team would have looked very different. The next step would be to ponder what Bosh might bring in a blockbuster deal to fully complete the makeover. This team would have been like a Junebug in late July; its days numbered; the stink always imminent. And maybe quickly enough a different approach could have worked just fine, although it’s not like the formula in Phoenix proved to be timeless and golden. I personally loved the team from two seasons ago, and I’m happy to think that the knowledge of that team, which Sam Mitchell aptly proved that he possessed, allowed for the current team to move forward this season upon what was built then. And now you have Mitchell, along with three solid players like Bosh, O’Neal, and Ocho Loco, all staring down the defining moments of their careers, and looking to bring the rest of the team along with them. Bosh has a chance to prove his abilities defensively, Calderon gets to show his mettle as a starter for a full season, and O’Neal will savor the opportunity to demonstrate that his career is far from over. Everyone else just gets to feed off of that and work to get better. I couldn’t ask for anymore. It’s no guarantee for success, but it’s a hell of a start and a good adrenaline rush for anyone feeling like a Junebug in late July. David Stern - make this summer end already!