Archive for the ‘James Johnson’ Category

Recently, a loyal reader and commenter, Tim W, posted a comment after one of our “Six Personal Thoughts on the Game” posts.

Tim basically asked why, given the Raptors’ history, fans get so excited any time this franchise shows a positive sign or two.

Tim has a point, and speaking to Raptors fans or reading twitter timelines, you can quickly see that he is by no means alone in his thoughts and was voicing an opinion that a number of Raptors fans have.

We all know the history: 16 seasons, only five playoff trips, only one series victory and 11 total playoff wins, just four winning seasons. Not to mention, a list of stars who have fled for greener pastures the minute things went south in Toronto. Quite frankly, you could make the case the Raptors are on a crash-course with a “Clippers North” label, if they haven’t already attained that moniker.

A high school history teacher often reminded me that the best eye into the future is a look into the past, and if that is indeed the case, basketball fans in the Big Smoke, and in Canada in general, are in for a long and cruel existence.

My problem with this way of thinking though, is that it doesn’t allow for the basic premise of what sports is about: hope and promise.

I don’t believe in blind optimism and homerism, but I’m just as opposed to blind pessimism. What I’m into is realism, and this is the realistic picture facing the Raptors right now:

- They have a potential franchise centre, who’s just 19-years-old, playing overseas. There is no way to judge Jonas Valanciunas on an NBA level until he plays a game in the Association, but what annoys me are pessimists who cast off his domination as bogus, simply because he isn’t playing in North America. Fans get giddy and throw out ridiculous comparisons to all time greats for teenagers who put up slanted numbers against fellow teenagers in the NCAA, but when a teenager dominates grown men the way Valanciunas does, we’re supposed to ignore it because he did it on another continent? Sorry, I’m not buying that. No one can guarantee Valanciunas will succeed in the NBA, but if there is stock in NCAA performances, then there is stock in JV’s professional performance. And that performance indicates the Raptors drafted a stud at a position that is in major demand in an NBA devoid of many truly dominating fives.

- They should have a top-ten pick in one of the best draft classes in years. Even if you want this year’s edition of the Raptors to over-achieve, you have to admit, things are bad right now record-wise (4-10), and are about to get a whole lot worse. Of the Raptors next nine games, only one (a road game against the Nets) can be counted as “winnable,” and that’s against a team that has already beaten the Raptors in Toronto this season. The other eight games are against the Celtics (twice), Blazers, Clippers, Suns, Jazz, Nuggets and Hawks. There is a good chance that in a couple of weeks, we’ll be talking about a team that has just four-to-six wins in 23 games. With how young the team’s core is and how demoralizing a start like that would be, not even a late improvement and surge would be able to save the Raptors from great lottery position. Is it a little messed up that I’m talking about a stretch of one or two wins in a three-week span as a positive? Yes. Welcome to Toronto. I can hear those ping pong balls already.

- They may actually have a young-ish All Star on their roster. For years I wrote about Andrea Bargnani’s potential, and how incredibly infuriating it was to watch him waste it. Call it a coming-of-age, call it the “Casey Effect,” call it whatever the hell you want. But what we saw from Andrea Bargnani through the first few weeks of the season was All Star caliber play. Does an impressive 11-game stretch undo a frustrating five years? Of course not, but Bargnani has finally proven what a lot of us already knew. There is All Star potential in that seven-foot frame. He’ll make an average of $11 million over the next three seasons after this one. That’s nothing if Andrea can play the way we now know he can. And he’s still just 26. There is no reason (aside from unexpected injuries) that he can’t stay around this level of play, or even elevate it, for the next five years. Now only if the Raptors had a good rebounding, defence-first centre on the way…oh, wait.

- Trade-able assets and salary cap space. Regardless of what you think about Jose Calderon and Leandro Barbosa, and regardless of how bad the former’s contract looked just a year ago, both Calderon and Barbosa can be solid trade chips for the Raptors over the next year or so. With the way Calderon has been playing lately, who knows, maybe management thinks he can still be the starting point guard when this team’s ready to compete, but I don’t think so. I say sell high on an above average point guard that currently contending teams would love to have. Same goes for Barbosa, whose frustrating out of control play shouldn’t take away from the fact that the man has proven for years that he can score off of the bench, and I’ve never seen a contender that isn’t looking for a guy like that. Barbosa is nearly an $8 million expiring contract this season. Calderon is a $10.5 million expiring contract next season. Whether Barbosa and Calderon are traded for younger pieces or draft picks or whether their expiring contracts simply become part of the $10-20 million in cap space the Raptors should have over the next couple of off-seasons, I look at those two guys as indirect positives for the future.

- The Raptors have a real NBA coach…no, seriously. With all due respect to Jay Triano’s significance for Canadian basketball and his good nature, the guy looked out of his league as an NBA head coach, and that was with a young team expected to lose a lot of games, let alone with a talented team expected to make the playoffs. Sam Mitchell was a great motivator, but didn’t seem to have a great grasp of X’s and O’s. Realistically, the Raptors haven’t had a really good head coach (Lenny Wilkens’ stroll into retirement doesn’t count) in over a decade. Dwane Casey seems to be the rare breed of coach who can both motivate (without scolding a player) and teach from an X’s and O’s standpoint. The Raptors may have taken a short-term step back on offence, but what Casey has done with Bargnani and the team’s defence can’t be praised enough. Imagine what he can do if the Raps do assemble a talented team in the near future…

- The Raptors have a plethora of young players we still don’t know enough about. This is the point that raises the most questions and the point that might be the deciding factor in what the future holds for the Raptors. Between DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis, Amir Johnson, Jerryd Bayless and James Johnson, Toronto has five players between the ages of 22 and 24 that we still aren’t sure about. Can James Johnson be a legitimate defensive stopper on a contending team, or will he flame out as a careless turnover machine? Can Jerryd Bayless become a legitimate point guard or impactful combo guard, or will he forever be lost in the middle? Can Amir Johnson become a consistent first big off of the bench, or will his propensity to get into foul trouble and inconsistency always leave us wondering about what could be? Can Ed Davis evolve into a legitimate starting big man, or will his limited offensive game hold him back his entire career? Lastly, can DeMar DeRozan capitalize on his All Star potential and athleticism on both ends of the floor, or is he simply going to be a poor ball-handler who won’t play defence but can give you 15-20 points on any given night? These five questions are key in determining both what the Raptors can be as early as next season and what they can be years down the road.

As currently constructed, the Raptors are a very poor basketball team stocked with a ton of untapped young talent that could either come together to form something special or could evolve into nothing more than a perennially under-achieving team (see Chris Bosh-led Raptors teams).

You could look at the above points, not like what you see, and decide this team isn’t worth your time. That’s an honest opinion and your right as a fan. Just as looking at the above points and thinking, “hey, this team might have something here,” is just as worthy an opinion.

But not even giving this team a chance based on the failures of previous players and teams who have come through Toronto over the last 16 years isn’t fair and doesn’t make much sense to me.

Management finally seems to have realized that the old way wasn’t working, and they have at least tried to do something about it. This is a new team with a new philosophy, a new coach and a new vibe. At least give them a chance to prove that before dismissing them in Year One.

If I wanted to write this post in five words or less, I’d simply answer my own question in the title with: Really, really, really bad.

I don’t like to dump on guys when they’re in a minor slump that’s lasted just a few games, but what Rasual Butler is going through right now can’t just be classified as a simple slump. His performance has become a punch-line.

The worst part is that we should have seen it coming.

When the Raptors signed Butler to a one-year deal, most of us saw it as another veteran signing to help mentor the young guys and provide spot minutes when need be.

Even though not much was expected of Butler from a minutes standpoint, a lot of Raptors fans still pointed that out that he was the type of player who could light it up from three-point range now and then and could play some solid defence.

So while many were thrown off, few were angry when Dwane Casey surprised us by starting Butler on opening night.

From a defensive perspective, Butler hasn’t been all that bad. In fact, he’s probably been about average, if not better. The problem is, when you are as bad offensively as Butler has been through 11 games, you should be a noticeable defensive presence to stay on the floor, similar to the type of player James Johnson is.

In his short tenure as a Raptor, Butler’s best shooting performance was a three-of-seven display in a loss against the Nets. He’s gone “0-for” three times and has made only one shot six times so far. That’s right, Rasual Butler has either missed every shot he’s taken or has made only one in nine out of 11 games this season. And that’s coming from a guy who has started every game and is averaging close to 20 minutes.

In total, Butler is shooting an embarrassing 23 per cent (14-of-61) from the floor and is a laughable nine-of-41 (21.9 per cent) from three-point range.

So naturally, most people are pointing out that Butler, a normally decent shooter, is just having an off-year. But that’s not the case. The fact is that Rasual Butler has rarely ever been a good shooter.

Butler, 32, is currently in his 10th NBA season, and yet he’s only cracked 40 per cent from the field four times and hasn’t shot better than 43.3 per cent since the 2003-2004 season. He’s a career 39.9 per cent shooter who hits just under 36 per cent of his three-point attempts.

In short, he’s a very inefficient offensive player who misses way too many shots to make his average three-point stroke or average defence worth trotting out on the floor.

Rasual Butler seems like a good guy, seems to like Toronto and seems to have some overall good qualities, which would explain why Dwane Casey reportedly loves having him here and how he’s stuck around the NBA for a decade. I’m sure that given the chance, he can fill the role that most Raptors fans assumed would be placed on him, and that’s the simple one of mentoring the Raptors’ young and inexperienced talent.

But with Linas Kleiza getting back on the floor, James Johnson continuing to provide a defensive spark off of the bench and Gary Forbes yet to be given a real chance to show his worth, the only good reason to keep starting Rasual Butler and giving him 20 minutes per game is to increase the team’s chances of landing the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, as Scott has recently pointed out.

***

In unrelated Raptors small forward news, here’s Sonny Weems getting the game-winning dunk for Zalgiris Kaunas against BC Khimki and sending the commentators into a state of euphoria:

Sonny’s actually having a pretty good season in Lithuania, but let’s remember that he had become Jamario Moon II in Toronto. Translation: He was a guy who earned minutes by working his tail off and playing defence, then forget what got him here and became an unfocused chucker.

***

Lastly, Andrea Bargnani’s status will reportedly be made clear some time on Friday, so I’m sure we’ll be talking then.

Game No. 9: Raptors 97, Timberwolves 87

The Raptors bounced back from a couple of miserable performances this past weekend by simply outworking the T-Wolves for a hard-fought W.

Here are my thoughts on the game:

1- The Battle of Spanish Point Guards. At first I thought it was just us fans, and mostly Raptors fans, that were hyping this game up as a matchup between Ricky Rubio and Jose Calderon, but lo and behold, I take my seat at the Air Canada Centre, and what’s the first thing they play on the jumbo-tron before the starting lineups? A video montage of Rubio and Calderon highlights, complete with Spanish subtitles and very authentic Spanish music. For a few seconds, I felt like I had been transported to Spain and was getting ready to watch a bull fight.

There wasn’t much of a one-on-one battle once the dust finally settled. Calderon finished with a solid 14 points and six assists in 41 minutes, while young Ricky finished with a more than respectable 10 points and six dimes in 30 minutes. Watching him play in Euro competitions and international tournaments, I was never really sold on Rubio, but watching his first couple of weeks in the NBA and seeing him live, I’m definitely a believer now. The guy can flat out play, and he looks like a star in the making.

2- Maybe it’s five-and-a-half years too late, maybe it’s not going to last, but wow, Andrea Bargnani, now this is the guy Bryan Colangelo drafted No. 1 overall for a reason. You might see his 11-for-25 shooting or see his nine rebounds and think it’s not much for a seven-footer, but if you actually watched this game, I don’t see how you weren’t impressed with “Il Mago.” He was working his tail off on the defensive end, contesting as many shots as he could get to, was going up in crowds and coming down with the ball, and on offence, was un-guardable for parts of the game. I’m not saying two weeks of solid play should erase years of maddening performances, but I can’t find anything wrong with what Bargnani is doing right now. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, regardless of this team’s record, Andrea Bargnani is playing like an All Star right now.

3- I can’t give Bargnani all that love and not mention Amir Johnson. On Monday night, Johnson simply out-Kevin-Loved Kevin Love. Love gets by with limited natural ability but a lion’s heart and hustle. Amir showed us what it looks like when someone with more natural ability and athleticism puts in the same kind of effort Love does. Amir finished with 19 points despite taking just nine shots, grabbed 11 rebounds, and perhaps most impressive of all, finished with a plus/minus of plus-31 in just 30 minutes of action. He nearly had a double-double (eight points, eight rebounds) in the first quarter alone. Sometimes his silly decision making and inability to avoid foul trouble make watching Amir Johnson insanely frustrating, but when he puts it all together, he reminds us why so many people still have high hopes for him. In the last two games, Johnson has 31 points on 13-of-20 shooting and has grabbed 25 rebounds in 62 minutes. Now the question, as it always is with Amir, is can he do this on a consistent basis?

4- Two guys who didn’t necessarily put up eye-popping numbers but who were noticeable down the stretch were James Johnson and DeMar DeRozan. Johnson didn’t force any shots, which is often his downfall (only took three in 20 minutes) and played some excellent defence to close out the game. The most memorable defensive play of the night for me was watching Johnson come flying in to block what looked to be a sure dunk and two points from the Wolves after being way out of the play. James is at his best when he’s making an impact on the defensive side of the ball, and that’s exactly what he did in this one. Five boards and four blocks in just 20 minutes was more than enough.

As for DeMar, we all know his shot has gone AWOL in the last three games, but what bugged me about his performances against the Nets and Sixers was that he didn’t seem into the game at all, and his body language showed it. Against Minnesota, DeRozan found a way to contribute despite shooting just three-of-11, as the 22-year-old grabbed six rebounds and came up with two huge steals in the game’s final minutes.

5- I know I could not have been the only one left complaining about the officiating in this game. You know how they say that technically, the refs could call a foul on every single trip down the floor? Well either someone bet the “over” on this game, or the refs were just trying to prove the old saying to be true, because what they did in the second quarter was pathetic. The game was robbed of its flow and energy in the first half, as cheap foul after cheap foul was whistled down. In total, the team’s combined for 54 personal fouls (or 1.125 per minute) and 61 free throws. Sometimes games are just overly physical or chippy and warrant those kind of numbers. This was not one of those game.

6- Finally, a note on the sparse crowd (14 097) at the Air Canada Centre. A lot of people in seats around me were talking about how small the crowd was and how bad a sign it was that the Raptors couldn’t get a big crowd for Rubio’s Timberwolves. First of all, as exciting as Rubio and the Timberwolves are to watch on most nights, they are still far from being a legitimate draw around the NBA, so I don’t see why anyone would have expected a very large crowd for a Monday night game against Minnesota. And to be honest, as bad as just over 14,000 sounds, I’m not worried at all. This Raptors team is expected to lose close to 50 out of 66 games this season, they haven’t made the playoffs in four years and they’re still recovering from losing their franchise player less than two years ago. All things considered, I don’t see Toronto’s attendance averages as a concern.

If this team were to suddenly get competitive or eventually become a perennial contender and attendance never picked up, it would be a different story. But we all know the ACC will be consistently filled with even a decent team on the floor, so don’t worry about the current attendance figures.

Raptors Player of the Game: Amir Johnson – 30 Min, 19 Pts, 7-9 FG, 5-6 FT, 11 Reb, 3 Ast, 1 Stl, 1 Blk, 1 TO

Timberwolves Player of the Game: Kevin Love – 36 Min, 13 Pts, 3-16 FG, 2-4 3PT, 5-10 FT, 14 Reb, 1 Ast, 1 TO (I love Kevin’s hustle, and I’m aware of his numbers, but his sometimes inefficient offensive game and his lack of a defensive game keep me from thinking of him as highly as others do. He’s a phenomenal rebounder and a valuable player, but I’m not sold on him as a superstar.)

The Raps are right back at it in Washington on Tuesday night before flying back to Toronto for a home date with the Kings on Wednesday. This week should be “interesting,” to say the least.

Ed Davis has been a focus of quite a few of my posts since the season started. Coming into the condensed campaign, I thought he could be the most improved player on the team and really solidify himself as a legitimate building block for the future.

After a great opening night performance in Cleveland, Davis went into the first real slump of his young career over games two through five, where he totaled just 10 points, 11 rebounds, zero blocks and seven fouls in 66 minutes combined over those four games.

When I mentioned Davis’ slump after the Raptors’ win in New York, a couple of readers disagreed on the nature of the “slump” in question. One reader commented that Davis’ struggles were a result of not getting enough minutes in general, and being forced to play with bench players like Jamaal Magloire when he finally did get some burn.

Another reader commented that Davis wasn’t getting the minutes because Dwane Casey wasn’t going to reward him just for being one of the young guys who needs to develop.

Well on Wednesday night, after the Raptors beat the Cavs and Davis looked to finally shake off his mini-slump, Dwane Casey had this to say: “We want to develop Ed Davis, but he’s got to earn it.”

Later, Casey added this: “We, as a staff, are not just going to give away minutes.”

There is a sentiment out there that “developing” young players simply means rolling a raw talent out there for 30-to-40 minutes a game, no matter how he’s playing. And Quite frankly, that sentiment is wrong.

There is a difference between letting a young player play through his struggles while he is still competing, as Casey did with Davis on Wednesday night to tangible results, and playing a young player just for the sake of playing him, even when he clearly doesn’t have any fight in him on that particular night.

Development is about teaching young players how to make the right decisions on the court consistently and how to maximize the output they get from their natural potential. The only way to do that is to force them to earn their minutes, not by giving them a free pass.

It’s one thing if guys like Ed Davis are playing well and are losing out on minutes to guys like Jamaal Magloire in a feeble attempt at a playoff run, but so far, I’ve liked how Dwane Casey has managed minutes, and I like how Ed Davis and even James Johnson have responded to some early season bench warming.

No game tonight, no Raptors news floating around, nothing much to talk about after giving you roughly 1,000 words on the home opener. So let’s take a look at some interesting numbers through two games.

I realize that we’re only one-thirty-third (or 3.03%) through the new season and that most of these numbers will mean nothing in no time at all, but part of the intriguing factor of looking at these figures is debating whether or not they are attainable over 66 games.

Let’s get to it.

- Through two regular season games, the player who has played the most minutes isn’t even a starter. James Johnson has averaged 32.5 minutes (65 total minutes), and that’s enough to lead the team. If Johnson keeps playing well off of the bench and gets starter’s minutes anyway, then there is no need to reinsert him into the starting lineup. I don’t know what stands out more to me about this stat, that Johnson leads the team or that no Raptor has played more than 65 minutes through two games. Dwane Casey has kept true to his word about keeping a tighter rotation too, as only six players have averaged 20-plus minutes (James Johnson, Bargnani, Amir Johnson, Calderon, DeRozan, Barbosa).

- A guy averaging just under 20 minutes through two games is Ed Davis. Over the course of the season, I definitely expect Ed to get that number over 20, and right now, he actually leads the team in Player Efficiency Rating, but with Bargnani playing well, Amir working his tail off and Dwane Casey wanting to give Jamaal Magloire (and eventually Aaron Gray) some burn to have a true centre on the court, Davis will not get anything easy. He’s going to have to work and play his way into more minutes, or hope that Bargnani and/or Amir hit a stumbling block.

- Back to James Johnson. If you’re wondering why he’s played the most minutes so far, you might want to take a look at his defensive numbers and then remember that he’s playing for a defensive specialist in Dwane Casey. I realize that steals and blocks don’t even come close to telling the whole story on the defensive end, but still, Johnson’s totals of eight steals and five blocks in just two games are impressive, especially for a small forward. His five turnovers continue to be the weakest link in an otherwise solid all around game, but the steals and seven assists somewhat negate those turnovers. Can he sustain those defensive numbers? Absolutely not, but if J.J. can limit his turnovers while continuing to put in the overall effort he’s shown thus far, I don’t see how anyone will steal minutes from him at the three this season.

- One thing I mentioned in my reaction to last night’s game was DeMar DeRozan’s ability to recover from slow offensive starts in both games. After very poor shooting performances to start both contests, DeRozan still found a way to total 37 points on 16-of-29 shooting, culminating with his 16-point fourth quarter on Wednesday (which included hitting five shots in a row). His mid-range game, which had already grown by leaps and bounds last season, looks even better, and he’s made two of his three attempts from behind the arc. I’d still like to see him dramatically improve his ball handling skills, but his off-season work on extending his range looks to be producing results early in the season, despite his first half performances.

- Another positive for the Raptors through two games is Amir Johnson’s rebounding. Amir has recorded double-digit rebounding performances in both games to total 23 boards in 61 minutes, which works out to over 13 rebounds per 36 minutes. While a lot of numbers you see in the first couple weeks of a new season are dramatically inflated and rarely attainable over an entire season, this is one of the numbers here that I actually think could stand for 66 games. Of course, a lot depends on Amir’s ability to stay on the floor (averaging four fouls per game right now) and his health, but if he continues to play 30 minutes per game, I could definitely see him flirting with a double-digit rebounding average.

- From good rebounding to frustrating rebounding, Andrea Bargnani, who has looked better overall, has just 10 rebounds through two games, or six less than what Dwane Casey expects of him. As I mentioned in my last post, Bargnani’s low rebounding numbers this season seem to be more a case of “butter-fingers” than a case of lacking effort. He’s chased and followed rebounds better, has gotten into better positions and isn’t getting out-muscled as much. But it doesn’t matter, because he’s letting loose balls just slip through his hands, and as we all know, a good defensive stand doesn’t end until you grab and secure the rebound. Until Bargnani proves he can do that consistently, I can’t totally buy into him as a changed player.

A positive note about Bargnani though is his seemingly improved court vision. I’ve always thought Andrea was an underrated passer for a big man, but it’s never really showed on the stat-sheets (Bargs has never averaged more than 1.8 assists per game). This season, Andrea has seven assists already for an average of 3.5 per game. Chances are, his low rebounding numbers have a better chance of standing all season than his assists do, but one thing I’ll be keeping an eye on with Bargnani now is his passing, and I didn’t think I’d say that at any point this season.

- Lastly, from a team standpoint, I wanted to talk defence and the “Casey Effect” through the first two games. The Cavaliers are just a horrible basketball team right now and the Pacers, although I like their team this season, are not exactly an offensive juggernaut, so we’ll have to take these numbers with a giant grain of salt, but the numbers really do jump out at you. Last season, the Raptors allowed opponents to shoot over 48 per cent from the field and allowed 110 points per 100 possessions. In two games this season, the new look Raps have allowed the Cavs and Pacers to shoot just 40.4 per cent and have allowed 101.1 points per 100 possessions. Toronto sustaining anything close to those numbers would obviously be a massive turnaround in both important statistical categories. They’re also a plus-six in the rebound department and have allowed 78 points in the paint (39 per game) after allowing a league worst 47.4 per game last season.

Again, I’m not declaring the defence is fixed because of two games, but only a fool can’t see that it has certainly improved. The new additions to the roster (Jamaal Magloire, Rasual Butler, Gary Forbes, Aaron Gray, Anthony Carter) haven’t played enough to put the improvement on them, with only Magloire, Butler and Forbes combining for 60 total minutes. The rest of the roster is virtually the same, so it’s not like any one player or group of players can get the credit. The difference is Dwane Casey right now. Even if you argue that the team is and will be better defensively because each player is playing better individual defence (which I can agree with right now), then you still have to ask the question, why are the same players playing so much better and harder on defence than they were just eight months ago?

Will any of these numbers be relevant months from now, weeks from now, or even three games from now? The answers are part of the fun of watching a new look team this season, and will go a long way in telling us exactly who these players are and what this team is.