Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle praised the Raptors‘ new defensive mentality under Dwane Casey after their matchup in Dallas on Friday night. Then he added this: “For my money, I think they’ll be in the hunt for the playoffs in the East.”

First things first, it THIS wasn’t your immediate reaction to that comment, then you disappoint me.

But seriously, while Carlisle’s comments could come off as stand-up material when looking at the Raptors roster, he actually has a point. Teams lacking legit stars have squeaked into the playoffs in the East playing hard-nosed defence before (think 2009-2010 Milwaukee Bucks), and in a helter skelter 66-game season, I don’t think you can say anything is impossible when it comes to teams that could finish between eighth and 15th in their respective conference.

The East has seven concrete playoff teams: Heat, Bulls, Knicks, Celtics, Hawks, Pacers and Magic. After that, I predicted the 76ers would qualify with the eighth seed, but looking at the rosters and taking the unpredictability of a shortened season into consideration, I wouldn’t be shocked to see any one of the other seven teams in the conference challenge for that last playoff spot.

I’m not expecting teams like the Raptors, Cavs, or Bobcats to be anywhere near playoff contention, but I’ve watched the NBA and pro sports in general long enough to know that there’s always one or two teams, every year, that massively over-achieve.

With their new defensive, tough it out style, could the Raptors be that team this season? And if they are, would you be okay with it?

After all, the word “playoffs” seems to be offensive to most Raptors fans right now, as Raptors Nation is filled with fans who have embraced the “Tank Nation” mentality ahead of a loaded 2012 draft class. I’ve talked to a lot of Raptors supporters who’ve admitted they go into games hoping for close losses.

I get it. I’m as much a proponent of building through the draft as anyone, and I’m fully aware that the best thing that could happen to this franchise is likely landing a high pick in 2012. But I still can’t head down to the ACC or turn on my tv with the hope that I’m going to watch the team I root for lose.

Do I think that developing the young players, improving on the defensive end and becoming a team that brings a consistent effort are all more important than wins and losses this season? Absolutely, but I also realize it’s possible that while all those things are happening, the team might overachieve and win “too many” games.

To say that you hope this team simply won’t compete for a playoff spot is too general of a comment. There are different factors to consider. The worst case scenario would be that the young players don’t develop, and the Raptors still find a way to overachieve on the backs of veteran players like Jose Calderon, Anthony Carter, Rasual Butler, Aaron Gray and Jamaal Magloire. There’s little worse in pro sports than ruining your chances of landing a great draft pick by overachieving with players that aren’t in your future plans.

But what if this team wins 30-plus games because DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis assert themselves as legitimate building blocks for the future, because Andrea Bargnani finally proves that he can be an all around player and potential All Star or because Amir Johnson uses this season as a coming out party? Are you seriously telling me that those possibilities would hurt this franchise’s hope for future success, because I refuse to buy that.

The Raptors could take a big leap forward by landing a top-five pick in the 2012 Draft, and like many Raptors fans, I hope that’s what plays out. But the team could take just as big a step towards the future if some of their young pieces already in place show that they can be winners in the NBA.

With how stacked the upcoming Draft is, you can get a very good player in the mid first round to go along with the top-five pick (Jonas Valanciunas) the Raptors already have on his way for next season. You add those two pieces to a young team with cap space that’s already shown they can win, and you still have a team with a very bright future ahead.

So yes, continue to think about the Draft lottery and its many possibilities, because that’s likely where the Raptors are heading and should be heading this season. But don’t totally dismiss the possibility that the young Raps can still win basketball games right now without throwing a wrench into the team’s future plans.

Dwane Casey has this team playing a brand of basketball that deserves to be cheered for and supported. Just roll with the punches, enjoy the season and let the pieces fall into place.