Chisholm: Season in Review - The Bigs

Tim Chisholm
4/17/2013 1:55:46 PM
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Who had a bigger impact on Toronto's season: Andrea Bargnani or Amir Johnson?

Bargnani was supposed to have turned a corner after last season. Dwane Casey was supposed to have reached him, found his ticking heart and made it pump three-times harder than ever before. This was supposed to be the year that Bargnani put it all together and made himself an impact player on an up-and-coming team. This was supposed to be his year.

Instead Bargnani posted the worst season of his career and effectively derailed the entire Raptors season within its first six weeks. In the 21 games he played during that stretch he averaged 16.0 ppg on 39.8 per cent shooting and 4.3 rpg in 32.7 minutes per game. They went 4-17 before he was shut down with an elbow injury, after which point the club rebounded and played their best basketball of the season. It's hard to fully encompass everything that was bad about Bargnani this season into a few short paragraphs, so suffice it to say that wherever there was a place for Bargnani to be bad he'd find it, nestle in and make a home for himself there.

It cannot be understated how imperative it is for Bargnani to be excised this summer. If they want to take the next step as an organization it has to start with the annexing of Andrea Bargnani.

At the other end of the spectrum is Amir Johnson, arguably the best Raptor this season and inarguably the most effective. He excels in virtually every area that Bargnani suffers. He's a workhorse, posted career-highs nearly across the board and became the heartbeat of the team as the season wore on. He's a beast on the offensive glass, he's grown tremendously as an interior passer and his mid-range jumper has gone from a novelty to a legitimate weapon in his (and Toronto's) arsenal. He also holds the distinction of possessing the lone controversial Bryan Colangelo contract that has become easier to justify as time has worn on.

He may not have been good enough to offset how bad Bargnani was (there aren't many that were) but he earns the distinction of being the most prominent Raptor to actually exceed expectations in a rather desultory year.

The question now is whether or not the Raptors can feel secure in bringing Johnson back as the full-time starting power forward next season. He's certainly given the club a real reason to consider it. As a starter in 37 games this year Johnson averaged 12.2 ppg (on 54 per cent shooting), 9.5 rpg and 1.8 bpg, and the team scored better and defended better per 100 possessions when he was on the court. In fact, the team was an absurd +196 when he was on the court the season and -341 when he sat (according the All the data on the season points to this team being significantly better when Amir plays, so sticking him in the starting five would seem like a no-brainer considering how hard he's worked to improve his game and how badly the team needs to demonstrate an incentive for that kind of dedication.

However, Johnson's play isn't the only factor under consideration. The club must also gauge how effective a partner he'd be to Jonas Valanciunas, the former fifth-overall pick that the club has pinned so much of its future on.

Valanciunas had two very different stretches this season. His first stretch, before he broke his hand, was inauspicious, tentative and overloaded with foul trouble. His second stretch, after he returned from his broken hand, was productive, aggressive and incredibly promising. Since the All-Star break Valanciunas has averaged 10.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg and shot 58.7 per cent from the field. He's shown noteworthy dexterity around the basket on offence, especially with his sweeping hook-shot, and his teammates have grown more accustomed to looking for him on dives and post-ups. If he can anchor the team's post offence next season then it could go a long way towards helping Amir retain his starting spot because the Raptors wouldn't need to go hunting for post scoring in the offseason.

What the team could really use is a versatile big man to bring in off of the bench that can play both frontcourt positions effectively for 20-25 minutes per game. They don't really need to worry about a 'stretch four' because both Johnson and Valanciunas have decent range on their jumpers (not three-point range, but range enough to space the defence), so someone who fits the coveted personality of the club – a banger who can run the floor – would be an ideal pickup. They'll probably still have Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy around for spot minutes in case of injury, but they need someone a notch above those two to be their primary backup heading into next season.

It will be interesting to see, though, if management is as bullish on the Johnson-Valanciunas combo. Johnson, while terribly productive, is not a household name and he hasn't secured the affections of the fan base in the way that, say, Jerome Williams did a decade ago. The club could well decide that a bigger name is worth the hunt, be it Pau Gasol, Paul Millsap or whomever rings a bell with fans.

However, considering how loaded the club's ledger already is with their highly-priced wing collection, a low-cost, high-return tandem like Johnson-Valanciunas should at least be given serious consideration (and then even more consideration) before the club looks to go shopping on a more popular (read: more expensive) name.

Heck, if they want a familiar name they should just keep Andrea Bargnani – everyone in Raptor-land certainly knows it.

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