In one of their latest ‘Insider” reports, ESPN.com ranked the Raptors’ current rebuilding job as third-most promising in the NBA, behind the Wizards and Chris Paul-less Hornets, if you can believe it.
I don’t agree much with these unofficial rankings. For one, a team like the Timberwolves, who actually have some solid young pieces in place, aren’t even on the list of five.
However, it is interesting to see how so many people are so divided on how much promise the Raptors do or don’t have. Some see them as a good young team on the rise, others see them as a team without any bonafide future stars, still years away from relevancy. For the record, here’s exactly what was written in the ESPN.com story by Tom Haberstroh:
“Two words: Jonas Valanciunas. Remember the name, because the center could be the best thing to come out of the 2011 draft — except he won’t make his debut until 2012-13. In Euroleague action last season, he averaged 7.6 points and 5.4 rebounds in 14.9 minutes per game on 71 percent shooting. As an 18-year-old. Translated to 40 minutes per game? 20 points and 15 rebounds. It’s not a stretch to say that the Raptors’ 5th overall pick, who crushed it in the FIBA Under-19 tournament, is a star in the making.
And it might be best that he doesn’t come over just yet. Without him, the Raptors can play out this season and have a shot at another future star in a loaded 2012 draft. The Raptors could have the worst record next season in the NBA, but with Valanciunas in tow and a defensive guru like Dwane Casey at the helm, the Raps could also make the biggest jump in 2012-13. Especially if they land a go-to scorer on the wing. Also, contrary to popular belief, Toronto is not an undesirable destination for free agents. This is a franchise on the rise, though they’re not ready to launch. Yet.”
Let’s go through what was written here.
- It seems a lot of the hope for the Raptors’ future falls squarely on Jonas Valanciunas’ shoulders, which is fine if you think the world of Jonas, as the writer clearly does. Valanciunas’ numbers as an 18-year-old were impressive, as was his dominating performance in the FIBA Under-19 tournament, but listing his numbers per 40 minutes just seems ridiculous. Usually numbers are best averaged per 36 minutes (starter’s minutes). At that rate, Valanciunas averages 18 and 13, which is still remarkable for a guy who was in the first year of adulthood. I do think Jonas is the best prospect Toronto has, and with a potential stud in Ed Davis and a couple of guys in Bargnani and Amir Johnson who will either figure things out or will provide decent trade value, the Raptors may have their front court in place for the next few years.
- Dwane Casey’s defensive brilliance is mentioned. Believe me, I understand and embrace the importance that having a defensive guru take over has in the changing of the franchise’s culture, and I fully expect Casey to do a solid job and be here for a long time. But, until Casey proves he can get it done, it might be a bit premature to point to his hiring as one of the reasons the Raptors have one of the brightest futures in the NBA.
- The argument becomes a lot more believable when the writer admits that the Raptors could very well have the worst record in the Association this season. Of course, like all Raptors fans, he points to that poor record and the subsequent lottery pick as another building block in the rebuild. This is the most important point of the article, and in reality, is the most important part of the rebuild. Right now, I can see a young core of Jonas Valanciunas, Ed Davis, DeMar DeRozan and some complimentary pieces eventually evolving into a playoff basketball team, maybe even a consistently good team. But there is no way I ever see that team as a future championship contender.
Throw in a high pick in the loaded 2012 Draft, and suddenly things look much brighter. Give me a young core of Valanciunas, Davis, DeRozan and a guy like, say, Harrison Barnes, and now maybe we can start throwing around comparisons like “Thunder-East.” Obviously, a lot of this is dependent on the luck of balls bouncing your way in the lottery, so nothing should be assumed until after the lottery or even after the draft, no matter how many losses the Raptors finish with this season. Plus, with our luck here in Toronto, if the Raptors are going to over-achieve, they’ll do it this season and throw a wrench into all of our plans.
- One thing I do strongly agree with in the article is that the Raptors might be poised to have the “biggest jump in 2012-2013.” Barring any crazy deals involving draft picks, the Hornets look like the only team with a chance at two high picks in 2012. But if the Raps finish where they’re supposed to this season, and are adequately “rewarded” in the lottery, they will almost be in the same boat as New Orleans. The Hornets could add two lottery picks to their roster next season, both of whom will be new to pro basketball. Other cellar-dwellers will add one potential young stud to their respective lineups.
The Raptors are on track to add a high 2012 lottery pick, as well as a 20-year-old potential franchise centre who has been honing his skills as a pro in Europe. Add those two pieces to what you hope is a more developed young team with improvements from guys like DeRozan and Davis, as well as the familiarity of a whole season under Casey’s defensive philosophy, and the approximately $10-20 million in cap space the Raps might have, and you see how the case for most improved team in 2012-2013 can be made. If the Raptors get a top-five pick in 2012, they might just be a playoff team in 2013.
- Lastly, on the point about Toronto as a free agent destination. Who knows how much the writer really knows or how connected he is, but I think he’s right. The assumption that players look at Toronto as an NBA Siberia is likely greatly exaggerated. You always hear NBA players raving about Toronto, you just don’t necessarily see them signing contracts to come live and play here. I think players see T.O. as a great destination and a world class city, just not a serious free agent destination because of the franchise’s lack of any serious success.
If the young players on board can get people talking about the Raptors and about Toronto, and players around the league start to see this team as the writer of the ESPN article sees them, as “a franchise on the rise,” and of course, if the money is there, then the fourth biggest market in the NBA will be a player in free agency. Remember Hakeem Olajuwon agreeing to a sign-and-trade so he could come here? It’s because he legitimately thought the Raptors, with Vince Carter in his prime, could be a championship contender. That was only a Hall of Famer and one of the best centres of all time choosing Toronto.
Continue to build the right way, and these myths of an unattractive market will disappear.
As I pointed out many times, while the writer brings up some good points of comfort for Raptors fans, it’s also important to remember that so much of this team’s potential relies on luck. If the team doesn’t get one of this year’s top picks, if Valanciunas or one of the other young pieces regresses, then suddenly, the Raptors could go from franchise on the rise to franchise on the ropes.
Having said that, as presently constructed, the Raptors should pile up the losses this season and have a good chance to get one of those top picks. They’ll bring in Valanciunas next season, along with that pick, and hopefully a boat load of cap space. They also already have a couple of decent, if not promising, young pieces in place.
This rebuild isn’t anywhere close to complete, but it’s also not as far or as dire as some will have you believe. And that’s not me being an optimist, it’s simply looking at the situation realistically. The problem in frustrated, hunger-starved Toronto right now is that it feels like fans aren’t allowed to see the bright side of anything, for fear of ridicule.
Looking at things realistically is seen as blind optimism in a world full of pessimists.
So here’s to Tom Haberstroh, who for one day at least, is letting Raptors fans see the first glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.