New Hope For the New Year

With the Raptors closing out the 2012 calendar year with seven wins in eight games, fans are letting excitement and renewed hope creep back in, perhaps more so than you’d expect for an 11-20 squad that hasn’t beaten any real good teams in that stretch.

But considering where the Raptors were just a couple of weeks ago and where the bar was set for this season (most fans simply hoped for a team that could potentially sneak into the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed), basketball fans in Toronto may have legitimate cause for that aforementioned excitement.

With the Celtics blown out in Sacramento on Sunday evening, the Raptors head into 2013 just 3.5 games behind eighth place Boston, and while I doubt it will be Boston that Toronto is really chasing in the end (I still see the Celtics finishing higher than eighth), that’s still a feat in itself when you consider that the Raps were as many as 8.5 games back as recently as mid-December.

Another major cause for this newfound optimism among Raptors diehards is that the toughest stretch of the schedule appears to be behind them. Sure, 28 out of 51 remaining games are against teams that currently boast winning records, but 29 of those 51 games are at home, where the Raptors have looked very good against weak competition and competitive against elite competition. In addition, Toronto will only have to deal with nine back-to-backs over the final three-and-a-half months/51 games of the season after playing in nine back-to-backs through the first two months/31 games of 2012-13.

For an indication of how a lighter and more home-heavy schedule might affect things for the Raptors and teams around them in the standings, consider John Hollinger’s (formerly of ESPN, now with the Grizzlies organization) ESPN playoff odds.

Using Hollinger’s designed power rankings (based on various advanced stats), the remainder of the schedule is played out 5000 times to get a projection for each team’s final record. After Boston’s latest loss, Hollinger’s system now projects that the Raptors have the best odds at the eighth seed in the East with 37 wins and an overall 44 per cent possibility to qualify for the postseason. To put things in perspective, at their rock bottom point of the season just a few weeks ago, the projections had the Raptors under one per cent.

Of course, these projections are just that – projections – based on nothing more than numbers and simulations that literally change every day, but they do give us another indication that the Raptors have made things very interesting in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference.

At the end of the day, I still think it’s going to take 39-41 wins to get into the playoffs, and even though I originally predicted 39 wins for this Raptors team, I don’t see them winning 28+ games over the final 51 to hit that benchmark. For me, the question is can they just stay in the race and play meaningful basketball into late March and possibly even April, because believe it or not, between their own recent run and other teams above them struggling, the Raptors have somehow got themselves back “in” the race.

The bigger question might be would that be enough for fans whose patience has been tested time and time again? Would 35+ wins, just staying in the race and playing some meaningful games in April be enough to keep fans content that this thing is headed in the right direction, or would it go down as yet another wasted year in Raptors history, just one that looks slightly better than it should because of how horrible the start was? Remember, if the Raps miss out on post-season play this season, it will be the first time in woeful franchise history that the team has missed five years in a row.

Before any of those questions can actually be answered though, the calendar must be flipped, the team must keep rolling along (mush easier said than done), the matter of Andrea Bargnani must be addressed and the 51 remaining games actually played, beginning with a matchup against the Trail Blazers at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday.

For now, I’ll simply wish fellow Raptors fans a happy new year.

This might just be a fun ride after all, and Lord knows our “tortured fan” souls deserve at least that.