Recently, a loyal reader and commenter, Tim W, posted a comment after one of our “Six Personal Thoughts on the Game” posts.
Tim basically asked why, given the Raptors’ history, fans get so excited any time this franchise shows a positive sign or two.
Tim has a point, and speaking to Raptors fans or reading twitter timelines, you can quickly see that he is by no means alone in his thoughts and was voicing an opinion that a number of Raptors fans have.
We all know the history: 16 seasons, only five playoff trips, only one series victory and 11 total playoff wins, just four winning seasons. Not to mention, a list of stars who have fled for greener pastures the minute things went south in Toronto. Quite frankly, you could make the case the Raptors are on a crash-course with a “Clippers North” label, if they haven’t already attained that moniker.
A high school history teacher often reminded me that the best eye into the future is a look into the past, and if that is indeed the case, basketball fans in the Big Smoke, and in Canada in general, are in for a long and cruel existence.
My problem with this way of thinking though, is that it doesn’t allow for the basic premise of what sports is about: hope and promise.
I don’t believe in blind optimism and homerism, but I’m just as opposed to blind pessimism. What I’m into is realism, and this is the realistic picture facing the Raptors right now:
- They have a potential franchise centre, who’s just 19-years-old, playing overseas. There is no way to judge Jonas Valanciunas on an NBA level until he plays a game in the Association, but what annoys me are pessimists who cast off his domination as bogus, simply because he isn’t playing in North America. Fans get giddy and throw out ridiculous comparisons to all time greats for teenagers who put up slanted numbers against fellow teenagers in the NCAA, but when a teenager dominates grown men the way Valanciunas does, we’re supposed to ignore it because he did it on another continent? Sorry, I’m not buying that. No one can guarantee Valanciunas will succeed in the NBA, but if there is stock in NCAA performances, then there is stock in JV’s professional performance. And that performance indicates the Raptors drafted a stud at a position that is in major demand in an NBA devoid of many truly dominating fives.
- They should have a top-ten pick in one of the best draft classes in years. Even if you want this year’s edition of the Raptors to over-achieve, you have to admit, things are bad right now record-wise (4-10), and are about to get a whole lot worse. Of the Raptors next nine games, only one (a road game against the Nets) can be counted as “winnable,” and that’s against a team that has already beaten the Raptors in Toronto this season. The other eight games are against the Celtics (twice), Blazers, Clippers, Suns, Jazz, Nuggets and Hawks. There is a good chance that in a couple of weeks, we’ll be talking about a team that has just four-to-six wins in 23 games. With how young the team’s core is and how demoralizing a start like that would be, not even a late improvement and surge would be able to save the Raptors from great lottery position. Is it a little messed up that I’m talking about a stretch of one or two wins in a three-week span as a positive? Yes. Welcome to Toronto. I can hear those ping pong balls already.
- They may actually have a young-ish All Star on their roster. For years I wrote about Andrea Bargnani’s potential, and how incredibly infuriating it was to watch him waste it. Call it a coming-of-age, call it the “Casey Effect,” call it whatever the hell you want. But what we saw from Andrea Bargnani through the first few weeks of the season was All Star caliber play. Does an impressive 11-game stretch undo a frustrating five years? Of course not, but Bargnani has finally proven what a lot of us already knew. There is All Star potential in that seven-foot frame. He’ll make an average of $11 million over the next three seasons after this one. That’s nothing if Andrea can play the way we now know he can. And he’s still just 26. There is no reason (aside from unexpected injuries) that he can’t stay around this level of play, or even elevate it, for the next five years. Now only if the Raptors had a good rebounding, defence-first centre on the way…oh, wait.
- Trade-able assets and salary cap space. Regardless of what you think about Jose Calderon and Leandro Barbosa, and regardless of how bad the former’s contract looked just a year ago, both Calderon and Barbosa can be solid trade chips for the Raptors over the next year or so. With the way Calderon has been playing lately, who knows, maybe management thinks he can still be the starting point guard when this team’s ready to compete, but I don’t think so. I say sell high on an above average point guard that currently contending teams would love to have. Same goes for Barbosa, whose frustrating out of control play shouldn’t take away from the fact that the man has proven for years that he can score off of the bench, and I’ve never seen a contender that isn’t looking for a guy like that. Barbosa is nearly an $8 million expiring contract this season. Calderon is a $10.5 million expiring contract next season. Whether Barbosa and Calderon are traded for younger pieces or draft picks or whether their expiring contracts simply become part of the $10-20 million in cap space the Raptors should have over the next couple of off-seasons, I look at those two guys as indirect positives for the future.
- The Raptors have a real NBA coach…no, seriously. With all due respect to Jay Triano’s significance for Canadian basketball and his good nature, the guy looked out of his league as an NBA head coach, and that was with a young team expected to lose a lot of games, let alone with a talented team expected to make the playoffs. Sam Mitchell was a great motivator, but didn’t seem to have a great grasp of X’s and O’s. Realistically, the Raptors haven’t had a really good head coach (Lenny Wilkens’ stroll into retirement doesn’t count) in over a decade. Dwane Casey seems to be the rare breed of coach who can both motivate (without scolding a player) and teach from an X’s and O’s standpoint. The Raptors may have taken a short-term step back on offence, but what Casey has done with Bargnani and the team’s defence can’t be praised enough. Imagine what he can do if the Raps do assemble a talented team in the near future…
- The Raptors have a plethora of young players we still don’t know enough about. This is the point that raises the most questions and the point that might be the deciding factor in what the future holds for the Raptors. Between DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis, Amir Johnson, Jerryd Bayless and James Johnson, Toronto has five players between the ages of 22 and 24 that we still aren’t sure about. Can James Johnson be a legitimate defensive stopper on a contending team, or will he flame out as a careless turnover machine? Can Jerryd Bayless become a legitimate point guard or impactful combo guard, or will he forever be lost in the middle? Can Amir Johnson become a consistent first big off of the bench, or will his propensity to get into foul trouble and inconsistency always leave us wondering about what could be? Can Ed Davis evolve into a legitimate starting big man, or will his limited offensive game hold him back his entire career? Lastly, can DeMar DeRozan capitalize on his All Star potential and athleticism on both ends of the floor, or is he simply going to be a poor ball-handler who won’t play defence but can give you 15-20 points on any given night? These five questions are key in determining both what the Raptors can be as early as next season and what they can be years down the road.
As currently constructed, the Raptors are a very poor basketball team stocked with a ton of untapped young talent that could either come together to form something special or could evolve into nothing more than a perennially under-achieving team (see Chris Bosh-led Raptors teams).
You could look at the above points, not like what you see, and decide this team isn’t worth your time. That’s an honest opinion and your right as a fan. Just as looking at the above points and thinking, “hey, this team might have something here,” is just as worthy an opinion.
But not even giving this team a chance based on the failures of previous players and teams who have come through Toronto over the last 16 years isn’t fair and doesn’t make much sense to me.
Management finally seems to have realized that the old way wasn’t working, and they have at least tried to do something about it. This is a new team with a new philosophy, a new coach and a new vibe. At least give them a chance to prove that before dismissing them in Year One.