On the list of missions accomplished in the first half of the Toronto Raptors' schedule, getting Jose Calderon to play up his trade value must surely be at the top.
Yet when general manager Bryan Colangelo and head coach Dwane Casey and his staff do their blue-skying for next season, and figure out the point-guard ‘what-ares’ in the upcoming draft, the trade ‘might-be's’ and free-agent possibilities, they may well reach an obvious conclusion: the Raptors might be best-served keeping Calderon.
“We’re trying to hold on to him and keep him, but he has played his way into a very high status as a point guard,” Casey said Wednesday, before the Raptors beat the Detroit Pistons 103-93 to hit the halfway point of the NBA’s condensed 66-game regular-season schedule with a .303 winning percentage (10-23.) “A lot of teams have been calling and wanting him.”
Casey’s task was straightforward heading into this season. He was to teach defence to a whole team of unbelievers, make sure that DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis continued to develop, figure out what he had in odds and ends such as Amir Johnson, James Johnson and Jerryd Bayless, see if Andrea Bargnani has any backbone to his game – and make sure Calderon played up his trade value.
Unstated, yet very much hoped for, was that they be just bad enough to hit the mother-lode in the draft lottery.
Yet something happened over the course of the Raptors' seven-game homestand, during which they went 2-5. Calderon went off, averaging 16.7 points, 11.1 assists and just under 35 minutes, including setting career highs in points (30) and field goals (13) in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. Wednesday, he had 15 assists for the second time on the homestand, to go along with six points. He is, as Casey noted, one of the Raptors' best shooters but he has also had more ups than downs defensively. “Last year was just a parade of paint points starting with him and then the big guy,” Casey said.
Not so in 2011-12. Yes, Casey has managed culture change. It was noticeable as early as the first home game, a bruising 90-85 loss to the Indiana Pacers, when Roy Hibbert called the Raptors a different team. Bargnani was an early season revelation until a strained calf caused him to miss 20 of the past 22 games; DeRozan has been inconsistent but Wednesday's gem is a nice memory to carry into the second half: 23 points including 9-for-15 from the field and a growing balance between his jump shots and attacking the rim. Davis is still a work in progress but with another off-season of added bulk can at least be a usable sixth man. James Johnson is carving out a role for himself and Aaron Gray may be in the process of doing so, too.
Gray was one of six Raptors in double-digit points Wednesday and hauled down 12 rebounds. He went to the line six times in a two-minute span in the fourth quarter, hitting just two but adding a layup as the Raptors saw an 18-point lead whittled to nine. Gray was serenaded with chants of ‘M-V-P.’
“It is what it is,” he said later, shrugging. “It was exciting. We need to put some things together for the second half.”
Casey’s team had a four-day break to mull over a 98-91 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats that still stuck in Casey’s craw heading into this contest against a team – the Pistons – that is also trying to enact culture change after a season that saw the club slip into rebellion. Casey worked on late-game execution, and while he wasn’t entirely happy at least there was no meltdown. He did like the fact that his team appeared to regain its defensive focus. “We took about three steps back against Charlotte,” Casey said. “We exhaled.”
Which brings us to the 30-year-old Calderon, who has one year and $10,561,985 (U.S.) remaining on his contract. There are Raptors fans who would have taken the Pistons' Brandon Knight fifth overall in the draft instead of the big Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas. But Knight – who had 16 points in a game in which Casey went to the whip in a first-half huddle, tearing into his big players for letting the Pistons' quick guards have free run – went eighth and isn’t exactly a pure point guard, and the fact is that this draft is deep in every area but the point.
So if the Raptors do end up in the lottery any point guard they’d take would be a horrible reach. Trade for a point guard? With what? Calderon – another point guard? Free agency doesn’t offer a great deal either. Deron Williams isn’t coming here. Beyond that? There isn’t much.
Calderon’s bought what Casey is selling. And perhaps Wednesday, Casey was doing some selling of his own – to his boss. “That is why we need Jose,” said Casey. “That’s the argument for him. He gives us stability. You need that leadership.” Calderon has gone from being an inhibitor to a facilitator. What once seemed so clear-cut is no longer the case. Full credit to Jose Calderon.
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