Amir Johnson came off the bench for the first time since last March. That was the biggest story on Sunday, when the Raptors lost yet another home game. The one that’s still lurking though and the larger one overall is the decision-making of Rudy Gay. More points after this from today’s Sun:
A season-long issue plagued the Raptors in Sunday’s loss to Denver and it appears Dwane Casey’s had enough of it.
The most selfish team in the league – at least statistically-speaking – desperately needs to change its ways.
Following Sunday’s games, Toronto ranked last in the 30-team NBA in assists (a whopping 32 behind the next-worst team in that regard), assist-to-turnover ratio (even though point guard Kyle Lowry ranks 10th overall) and 25th in effective field goal percentage.
Too often, Toronto has moved the ball early in games, only to completely abandon that approach afterward.
It happened again Sunday, when the Raptors assisted on eight of the first 11 baskets in a stellar opening quarter, before picking up only two assists in each of the second and fourth quarters.
The common thread was that when the team involved Jonas Valanciunas – who had a season-high 16 shot attempts – in the first and third frames, the offence looked far more effective. It’s been a recurring theme so far.
Heading into the contest, Valanciunas had scored more than half of his points in opening quarters.
He’s often a spectator later on. At least on Sunday he was a focal point, attempting eight shots in the third.
Rudy Gay had a decent statistical performance (23 points on 10-of-23 shooting, with three assists and two turnovers, just the third time this year he’s had more helpers than turnovers), but he also ignored open teammates ahead of him at least once on the break and held the ball far too often.
Casey is looking for a change and not just from Gay.
“We had only 18 assists, they had 29. We’ve got to start trusting the pass, moving the ball and trusting it,” Casey said of the offensive lapses against Denver.
“We have got to make the next pass, next play, whatever the decision is. I’m not telling a guy to take a shot that he’s worked on or is in rhythm, but, again, is that the best shot for our team?
“Making the next pass. That’s where our problems have started on the offensive end. When we do that, we’ve shown we can play with people, but when we don’t, it gets ugly. Until we do that, we’ll feel this way (dejected). Guys have to decide how they want to play.”
Basketball is a pretty simple game. You move the ball around, get opponents scrambling, you generally will get far better opportunities to make baskets. Gay isn’t the only one eschewing team basketball, but he’s by far the worst offender on this roster. He makes life difficult for himself and he’s making his teammates less effective.
Asking Gay to initiate the offence far less frequently also could be a potential solution. He is a below average ball-handler and passer, so it’s not clear why he has been tasked with being Toronto’s primary ball-handler, particularly with Lowry playing well.
It’s led to poor numbers, both for Gay (17 games in a row shooting less than 47% from the field, tons of turnovers) and for the team and has limited the effectiveness of Valanciunas and Amir Johnson.
If Gay adapts, perhaps others will follow. Even so, if he alone starts passing far more frequently and lets Lowry start with the ball more frequently, everybody will be far better off for it.
- So, what to do. Michael Grange has an unlikely/”drastic” idea
that nevertheless, makes a ton of sense. It’s rare to see a player in the top 20 (let alone top 5) in salary who is not injured get benched. But in the final year of his contract, with his team off to a shaky start and with some late-game decision-making being second-guessed, how much does Dwane Casey have to lose at this point? He’s preaching team-first, smart basketball and his most talented player is doing everything he can to do the opposite.
As I said on Twitter: “The only thing letting Rudy Gay overlord the offence is doing for the Raptors is keeping team in high lotto race … and maybe that’s point?
“What it isn’t doing is (a) winning games (b) helping Gay’s trade value (c) helping Lowry’s trade value (d) helping Valanciunas improve.”
I wasn’t being entirely serious with the maybe that’s the point bit, but I wouldn’t put it past Masai Ujiri to see things that way. He’s a very smart man, with one goal – winning. Letting Gay play like this ultimately gets the team closer to what it desperately needs – a top 6 pick in this superdraft – while giving the appearance to season seat holders and casual fans that the team is trying to compete. It’s brilliant actually. I termed it, jokingly, an “organic tank” weeks ago. Sure, this line of thinking is a bit out there, but stranger things have been true in sports.
- If this all isn’t some cunning plan, then Masai either can keep things status quo, stall a year of Valanciunas’ development, cripple Amir Johnson’s effectiveness and hope Kyle Lowry stays healthy (either to help the team make the playoffs, or to be traded). In the end, either the Raptors probably make the playoffs, because the East is so terrible, go out quickly and are in poor shape next year, when the East is much-improved.
- Or he can move Gay for anything he can get (even that Detroit Stuckey/Villanueva platter offered earlier looks appealing now) in order to (1) suddenly have a boatload of cap space this summer, (2) allow Valanciunas to get more touches.
Moving Lowry would basically cement a high lottery finish, as there is zero evidence Dwight Buycks, D.J. Augustin or Julyan Stone can be effective enough to lead a playoff team.
Back to the game:
- Amir Johnson clearly wasn’t pleased about the demotion, even though he’s used to being the guy benched even though a far more deserving candidate keeps his starting gig (see the Andrea Bargnani experience). He’s been dealing with some personal issues all season. As I said in this space recently about Amir, sometimes life gets in the way and needs to be dealt with first, even ahead of the job you are being paid millions for. All the best to him. He’ll be his old self soon enough.
“I’ve always said it doesn’t matter if I start or come off of the bench, I’m going to give it 110%.” – Amir said.
- Denver’s bench was incredible. Thanks to the Carmelo Anthony trade and smart drafting, Ujiri was able to shrewdly build one of the deepest teams around. The additions since he left – Nate Robinson especially – have fit in nicely. Amazing to think this team is still missing its second-best player Danilo Gallinari and its top centre, JaVale McGee. Not a title contender, but a team built to do serious damage in the regular season.
- Casey didn’t like what he saw from his own bench. “Guys coming in have got to develop a toughness, a resilence of getting stops and it starts on the defensive end, that’s where our problems started in the second half. They shot it well, but (the bench) didn’t make them feel us and that was the difference,” Casey said
- Gay clearly is hearing/reading some of the bad press. On Amir Johnson:
“He’s taking strides. Everybody’s been through some rough times, I’ve been through, as you guys have probably written about and he’s just going through them now. Everybody goes through it at some point at some point in their career, this is the time for Amir to go through it. He’s going to be the same Amir that we know.”
Talked to Valanciunas afterward about getting more touches and whether it’s tough when he doesn’t get the ball often. Didn’t seem like a second-year guy in his professional answers, but rather a seasoned veteran:
“More touches? That came naturally, we were playing together, we were sharing the ball.”
(Tough when you don’t get it?) “You know, I have other things to do, rebounds, blocking shots, helping the teammates just to get open by setting screens, I can do a lot of different stuff not scoring baskets.”
- Valanciunas said the idea of him coming out of the starting lineup instead of Johnson was never broached. Added Tyler Hansbrough and Johnson are “both are good players.” and: “They are different, but they’re both good players, so I don’t have to change anything” (to start alongside Hansbrough).