So here we are, Part II of the Raptors bloggers roundtable, with our quartet of experts weighing in on a few midseason topics of interest -- Scott Carefoot at Raptorblog, J.E. Skeets, Ryan McNeill at Hoopsaddict and Adam Francis, Jeff Chapman and Dave Randell at RaptorsHQ. You can check out Part I here. On we roll ...
JABS: Scott, you mentioned Sam Mitchell. J.E., I don’t remember you blogging on Sam. What do you think of him?
J.E. SKEETS: Regardless of whether you love or hate Sam's coaching ability – and it's definitely closer to “hate” from this camp – one thing I can't deny the guy is his insane passion and love for the game of basketball. I mean, maybe it's just me, but there's something instantly likable about a coach who you know is only seven or eight injured players away from suiting up and subbing himself in. That, and I've always dug those coaches who pace up and down the sidelines so much that they look like they're waiting to hear news from Dr. Huxtable about their first-born child.
|Mitchell: Maturing as a coach.|
With that said, some of Sam's “coaching decisions” have left a lot to be desired. I still haven't figure out his often cryptic substitution patterns (“Matthew, CV or Mo Pete? My heart says Joey, but thy Rose smells sweet”); it took way too long for him to give the youth movement their much needed minutes; and I absolutely can't stand it when he forgets we have some really good tall black guy named Craig Bosh or something or other on our team.
RYAN: The maturation of the Raps rookies had received a lot of ink in the press but it seems like fans aren’t noticing the maturation of Sam Mitchell. Last season was his first time as a head coach at any level and the season had ups and downs because of his inexperience. This season we're seeing a more mellow Sam that’s moved into his role as a teacher rather than a strict disciplinarian. Also, it sounds like Sam and Bosh have formed a strong relationship that could pay huge dividends when Bosh is a free agent a couple years from now.
RAPTORS HQ: Early in the season, there were few things more maddening than watching Mitchell coach a ball game. Calling for Bonner to post up on back-to-back possessions. Leaving Jalen Rose in to see how many offensive “push-off” fouls he could collect. Substitution patterns that evoked memories of Red Green, rather than Red Auerbach. Despite this, we can’t help but notice that the Raptors’ steady improvement has coincided with better coaching from Sam. Witness the zone defences, something rarely seen in recent Raptors history (you’d think a defensive “genius” like O’Neill would have figured out how to use the zone), befuddling Indiana and Atlanta. Check out the defensive strategies employed to shut down Houston. Peep the personnel decisions (Darrick Martin vs. Atlanta, starting Bonner vs. Houston). And without his halftime wakeup call against Primoz and the NBDLers, the Raps would have lost their third in a row. (Although I'm sure Mitchell's halftime speech was very polite and eloquent.) Let’s not forget that Mitchell is an extremely intense and passionate individual who isn’t afraid to light into his players. While that didn’t work for some players (see Alston, Rafer), it seems to fit with this younger group.
|Keady: Brought in because Sam's over his head?|
SCOTT: I like Sam Mitchell “the person” but I doubt I'll ever be sold on Sam Mitchell “the coach”. I think the players like playing for him and he's probably a decent motivator, but I don't think he's an NBA-level coach in terms of his play-calling abilities. However the Raptors organization wants to spin it, I think they brought in Gene Keady because Sam is in over his head when it comes to coaching defence.
Although this team has improved on that side of the ball since Keady joined his staff, it seems like Sam doesn't adjust strategies based on the team he's facing - which is why the Bulls were able to rain treys on the Raps with the greatest of ease. It should have been clear that the Raptors couldn't lay back in a zone against a team with so many deadly outside shooters, and yet that's exactly what they did. It's never a good feeling when something like that seems obvious to you as a fan but the coach apparently can't see it.
JABS: The defence has been better, at least some nights, but you know, for a while there it couldn’t get any worse, which perhaps could have been expected given the number of youngsters on the roster. What about some of these younger players that are supposedly the building blocks? What of the three rookies – Villanueva, Graham and especially Calderon, who represents a long overdue nod to Europe by this organization? Briefly, how do you rate each of these players, and with regards especially to you guys at Raptors HQ, whose Euro reports I really like, how and when does Roko Ukic become part of the rebuilding?
|STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR|
|Villanueva: Knocks on him same as ever.|
RAPTORS HQ: Before 2 of the 3 of us here at RaptorsHQ were die-hard Raptors fans we were huge NCAA fans. I think that's therefore always been reflected in our site and the NBA Draft (which we plan on attending this summer) is our favourite time of the year. I'd say by the time draft time rolls around we've seen 75-80 per cent of the prospects play a good deal and we make it a point to give potential draftees as good an evaluation as you can without working them out in your own apartments!
That being said, none of us were thrilled originally with the Villanueva selection. We remembered his lack of defence (Calhoun used to pull him for defensive purposes near the end of close games) and had our hearts set on Danny Granger. However after the draft was over we could understand Babcock's thought process and were generally quite happy with the picks he made.
Roko's had a rough go so far this season with injury concerns but I think he'll be a good NBA player. I watched him a lot in the summer's Euro tourney and in the final games he really stood out. He's got NBA offensive skills but needs to bulk up and improve his defence. Our other overseas project Uros Slokar still just doesn't get the playing time he needs. At some point Babcock may have to at least get him to the D-League a la Pape Sow. The encouraging thing about this situation as a whole, however, is that as you pointed out, the Raptors finally appear to be doing their Euro homework. (Makes you wonder if the current scouting staff would have ever allowed the drafting of Radojevic!)
And as for our three current rookies, all three have done a nice job, Calderon in particular. It's not easy to run an NBA offence that features so much one-on-one after running a Euro one so built on team play. Villanueva's offence is light years ahead of most rookies and he’s a good offensive rebounder but he needs a few years of defensive seasoning and must work on finishing strong around the rim.
|STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR|
|Graham: Adjusting to new role, says Raptors HQ.|
Of the three, Joey Graham's been the most disappointing, I think. After watching him so much in college I really envisioned a more rugged and athletic player who would need to work on his jump shot. So far it's been the reverse as his jump shot has actually been quite good and he hasn't shown that athletic and rugged playing style. Our theory is that he's learning to play more of a 2-3 role in the league whereas he was much more of a 3-4 in college.
RYAN: This summer I received an email from a reader in Spain who raved about how Jose Calderon would be the team's starting point guard by the All-Star break. At the time I chuckled over the idea of an undrafted rookie starting but watching Calderon play this year I believe the kid has the potential to have a long and successful future in the League. If Mike James had played at the same level as he did last season I think Calderon would be starting right now. Plus, the chemistry between Bosh and Calderon has been simply amazing. I don’t want go to and stick my foot in my mouth like when Charlie Villanueva compared himself and Bosh to Tim Duncan and David Robinson, but, I can’t help but think that Calderon and Bosh have a Stockton-Malone vibe going on.
(Tomorrow: Part III, wrapping it up with the dull and the danceable.)