I want to hit the ground running. I’ve taken some time recently to think back about my previous plan to try and keep track of what all of the players for the Toronto Raptors are doing (or planning on doing in the event of this decidedly possible scenario in which the bargaining failures go nuclear and commissioner David Stern announces the cancellation of the 2011-12 NBA season). But the question, which becomes clear to me much more now as a basketball issue than, say, an existential one, is this: What would be the point?
We can frame it another way. What good would it do if the Raptors were given a mulligan? What if NBA teams were allowed to go back to the drawing board? This isn’t really something that’s been proposed as a possible scenario at all, but there are certain factors that will have to come into play if an entire season of NBA basketball were to be lost. We’d have to think about things in terms of a double cohort year. If an entire season becomes forfeit to the lockout, then even if everything in basketball land is fully back on track for the next year (the 2012-13 season) then there will be the obstacle of backlog in the way. There will be two years worth of rookies vying to make it into the league. There will be two years of accumulated free agents whose contracts are up and are looking to sign a new deal with an NBA team.
With talk of this NBA lockout often focusing on parties who will suffer the most in the event of a lost season (parties such as the aging Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers who would otherwise be gunning for immediate championships) there remains another side of the equation. The Toronto Raptors weren’t about to compete for a championship. We weren’t going to win it all this year. Or next. And realistically, the team is still searching for an identity and for a positive direction towards actually accumulating some wins. So is there something there for us in this potential ‘marketball’? Why shouldn’t a team like the Raptors be in a position to take full advantage of there being an additional influx of new and eager talent vying for a spot in the league, or of an extra year’s worth of free agents looking for a team to sign a new deal with?
But if the Raptors were really able to take a mulligan, to get dealt a new hand and try it all over again, what would it matter? I was interested at first in what the current make up of the Raptors would come to resemble as they dispersed and went off into the world for the year. With players on the roster such as Jose Calderon from Spain, Andrea Bargnani from Italy, Leandro Barbosa from Brasil, Linas Kleiza from Lithuania, we definitely boast, as we have for the past couple of seasons, one of the most international rosters the NBA has yet seen. At least one part of the reason for this though, is a sort of ‘system issue’ (to borrow vocabulary from the current lockout) that presents an ongoing problem for the Raptors in the NBA. The philosophical musings Chris Bosh shared with the media, about Toronto being so fundamentally different from every American city that you could smell how strange it was just being in the airport, were pretty foolish. But I think it was Rod Strickland who best articulated the ‘problem’ we have in getting American players to want to be and play in Toronto. Strickland was only a Raptor for a short couple of months, but it killed him not to be able catch SportsCenter every night on ESPN. (A story surfaced around the end of the already disappointing 2003-04 season about Strickland having to go and sit in his SUV every night because the TV in his car was the only possible way to get ESPN.)
It starts to become a moot point whether or not we should trade or try to re-sign superstars (see Chris Bosh and Vince Carter) if we can’t address the problem of players wanting to play here. One of the brightest points of the Raptors’ history in the NBA has been the integration of a lot of international talent. However, with the exception maybe of the 2006-07 season when we won our division, there has been relatively little success in incorporating a style of basketball suited to players who are experienced and practiced at playing international basketball (usually with an emphasis on a roster of versatile players running an overload of pick-and-roll plays while spreading shooters out across the court).
Jose Calderon, recently listed in Toronto Life‘s cover story “Who Earns What” as earning more than baseball star Jose Bautista, drew ire for having hardly contributed, in terms of sports victories for the city of Toronto, as much as he’s been paid for. Calderon has been both in and out of favour with Toronto fans, but the most fair-minded way to judge Calderon might be to consider him a piece to a puzzle whose overall picture was never fully described.
Don’t get me wrong, the answer to fixing the Raptors or figuring out what we could or should do if we could get that mulligan and get to remake the team, aren’t as simple as just scooping up any players not from the US. Hedo Turkaglu didn’t save us, that’s for sure. But if we want to be able to appropriately use the pieces we’ve got, and want to build around pieces who will want to succeed in Toronto in the long term, we should have the right kind of plan in mind. Let’s start with Jonas Valanciunas. We’ll do much better at hitting the ground running if we’ve got a good plan in place for using him, assuming of course we can get him here to Toronto.
Kyle Buckley is the Toronto Standard Sports Critic.