Pound the Rock is the mantra of the Toronto Raptors this season, and just in case the players happen to forget it a 600-kilogram slab of granite has been installed just inside their locker room at the Air Canada Centre.
The Raptors have been instructed to touch it, with the appropriate reverence of course, each time they enter and exit.
The idea is to infuse in the young team the idea that no matter how difficult the task at hand, keep chipping away and the barrier will eventually crumble.
There will undoubtedly be times this season when the frustrating play of the Raptors will cause rookie coach Dwane Casey to want to drive his head into the same rock.
The Raptors embark on a new NBA season Monday night in Cleveland against the Cavaliers, a truncated 66-game session crammed into four months thanks to the lockout that almost negated the entire year.
With a still-not-ready-for-prime-time team anchored by a core of three or four promising players in their early to mid-20s, the new soft-spoken leader knows that the losses will ultimately begin to pile up.
The difficulty then, Casey acknowledges, will be to keep the players believing that the new system being put in place, one that stresses defensive play above all else, is the road to playoff salvation.
“Any time you lose it’s hard to reinforce what you teach,” Casey said. “But it’s up to us as coaches to keep it fresh, to keep guys believing, keep teaching.
“Believe me, there’s something at the end of the rainbow if we stay with the program, if we keep with the program and not lose focus.”
The team is basically the same unit that fumbled its way to a 22-60 finish last season and missed the playoffs for the third consecutive year
Jay Triano was jettisoned as coach and Casey, who discovered his pot of gold last season as an assistant with the NBA-champion Dallas Mavericks, was brought on board to help turn a corner.
“The key for everything is to establish this foundation, letting the young guys play and learn from the experiences,” Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo said in an interview. “There’s going to be some hard knocks along the way.”
Colangelo is convinced that the young crew, headed up by the likes of flashy forward DeMar DeRozan, the team’s No. 1 pick (ninth overall) in the 2009 draft, and Ed Davis, the 13th overall pick from 2010, are excellent building blocks.
Both DeRozan and Davis are 21.
Jerryd Bayless, 23, who should push the 30-year-old Jose Calderon for starting point guard minutes, is also considered part of the new breed.
Then there’s the mercurial Andrea Bargnani, the seven-foot centre with the sweet long-distance stroke who is entering his sixth NBA season and is only 26.
Bargnani led the team in scoring last year with 21.4 points but his aversion to rebounding (5.2) continues to mystify.
Colangelo, who hasn’t held much back in his insistence that Bargnani has to show more defensive intensity, agreed this is a big year for Italian, the No. 1 overall pick in 2006.
“If his averages were 22 and eight I don’t think anybody would criticize him,” Colangelo said. “But they’re 22 and six and that’s a problem for a guy that’s seven feet tall who needs to rebound the ball better on what has been historically a poor rebounding team.”
Normally a quick-fix kind of guy, Colangelo has resolved to take the patient approach toward resurrecting the Toronto lineup.
If he continues to pinch pennies, Colangelo could have upwards of $20-million (U.S.) in salary cap flexibility heading into next season.
Colangelo is also aware that Jonas Valanciunas, the 6-foot-11 Lithuanian who was Toronto’s first pick in the 2011 draft, will not join the team until next season.
And an expected low finish in the standing for the Raptors this year will mean another coveted high selection in the 2012 draft.
So Colangelo believes the cavalry is coming to the rescue, it’s just taking a round-about way.
“As much as I’m a little anxious about what’s to come I’m also very pleased with where we are right now,” Colangelo said.
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