Raptors provide plenty of reasons to despair

The Globe and Mail

(MIKE CASSESE)

There are a number of reasons to despair if you're a Toronto Raptors fan.

Their unconventional march to the playoffs - losing five straight and going 9-19 since the all-star break yet somehow still having a chance at a playoff spot, that's one reason.

I mean, could anything be less dignified? You get the feeling if the Raptors do make the post-season they'll collectively grown and try and drink their way into oblivion to forget the pain after realizing their season will last at least one more week. There's backing into the playoffs and then there's doing everything in your power to miss the playoffs only to make them because the Pistons and the Knicks lay down faster and harder than you, while Chicago coughs up another game.

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All of which could happen. It's not over yet folks.

What else? Normally the emergence of Sonny Weems should be a cause for celebration, as in: Wow, we've got this and this and this - and this Weems kid! We pay him nothing and he could be rotation player!

Instead the reality is that he is the first player acquired by Bryan Colangelo - other than Jamario Moon, perhaps - that has played significantly above his pay grade or beyond expectations, and he was a throw-in on the Carlos Delfino deal.

And then there's Hedo Turkoglu. I was watching him pretty closely last night and he was to my eyes really energized early on; as locked in as I've ever seen him and proved before he got tired (Btw: is it not embarrassing to see an NBA player huff and puff and grab his side? When NBA players are tired or say they're tired, they don't mean out of breath and wheezing. That almost never happens. Tired for them means they're short of glycogen; they have no bounce or pop. They haven't recovered from some hard games. That's tired when you're a world-class athlete. Being out of breath? That's out of shape, end of story) that he can play stretches of inspired basketball. You don't grab 19 rebounds without playing inspired basketball. And even if at least a handful of his assists were utterly bogus (two jump to mind: An impossible twisting Jarrett Jack lay-up where Jack got the ball outside the three-point line and weaved through three guys and made a reverse and one by Bargnani where he got the ball at the top of the circle, squared his guy up, jab stepped him and then took it to the basket) he did makes some players for people and gave a hint that he may have a point that watching Bosh hold it for eight seconds on most possessions does cut into his playmaking opportunities.

But like almost anything this season, the good stuff is merely an indictment of the bad stuff.

But perhaps the Bulls offer the best reason to despair if you're a Raptors fan.

I mean, they've had a bad season. Their coach is going to get fired. Their playoff run included a nine-game losing streak. The lost in double-overtime to the Nets with playoff berth on the line. The got hammered by Milwaukee at home. They traded away their two guard (John Salmons) only to see him go off and lead the Bucks to the playoffs. They are just as likely as the Raptors to get swept by the Cavaliers; a step back from a year ago when they played one the most riveting opening round series in NBA history against the Boston Celtics.

But the Bulls have some hope for the future. Their best player, Derrick Rose, is 21 years old and improving every month. They have Joakim Noah, the kind of selfless, high energy post presence that good teams need in a more finesse oriented league. He's the ugliest shooter I've ever seen on an NBA court (or was Bo Outlaw? Hmmm) but he's got a generous dose of Dennis Rodman in him, which is to say he's got an impressive motor and a high basketball intellect and doesn't water down those attributes by taking shots and ball-handling duties away from guys who do them better. Guys like that in elite athletic packages help you win. They're incredibly rare and the Bulls have one. They have Luol Deng, who is showing signs of rounding into form after a pair of injury plagued seasons. They have a promising and cheap front-court player in Taj Gibson. And Kirk Hinrich is overpaid, yes, but if he's your third guard you've got a good guard rotation, I think.

Most importantly, the Bulls also have about $20-million to spend in free agency this summer and will have draft pick to use in the first round whether they make the playoffs or not. And you know who would fit in nicely beside Noah and alongside Rose? How about Bosh? It's a pretty good match, I'd say.

And don't forget if the Raptors make the playoffs the Miami Heat have a right to use the Raptors pick; one of the conditions of the Jermaine O'Neal trade.

Clearly there are different ways to stumble to an eighth (or ninth!) place finish.

The Raptors will get there with the growing expectation that their best player will be leaving as a free agent and trying to get their head around having Andrea Bargnani and Michael Beasley trying to defend the post. They'll get there knowing their team owes Jose Calderon and Jarrett Jack a combined $15-million a year for the next three years. They'll get there knowing that Hedo Turkoglu, lifeless at 31, has four more years left on his contract, and that Bargnani is improved, but enigmatic as ever, showing not a flicker of potential as a leader or franchise player that you'd like to think could be, based on talent. They won't have any cap space to pursue a rich class of free agents no young players that have stardom attached to them.

That's an eighth - or ninth! - place finish that doesn't get any better no matter how many times you try and dress up the picture.

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