Toronto Raptors v Indiana Pacers

A horrific start, a ridiculous series of heartbreaking losses, a couple of encouraging winning streaks, more frustration, a blockbuster trade, a new era and an inspiring 5-2 run over the last couple of weeks. The pre-All Star break portion of the Raptors’ 2012-13 campaign has been the definition of a roller coaster season.

But this isn’t the time to recap the last four months of insanity – that’s what the hundreds of posts here since the beginning of the season have done piece by piece. No, now is not the time to look back, but rather the time to look forward to what awaits us in the unofficial second half of this most interesting season.

The Raptors enter the All-Star break on a four-game winning streak that puts them at 21-32 after 53 games and 10th place in the Eastern Conference. The obvious questions from fans will revolve around what the Raptors need to do to get back in the playoff conversation in the East, and we’ll get to that, but there are a few other things to watch for and monitor in the second half other than just the standings.

First and foremost, Bryan Colangelo and the rest of the front office will surely have some decisions to make with the trade deadline coming up on Thursday. K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune is once again reporting that “the Raptors were told the Carlos Boozer and Nate Robinson deal for Andrea Bargnani and John Lucas III was available whenever they wanted it,” just as Johnson reported last week when the potential move was first rumoured. The market for Bargnani is reportedly bare and acquiring Boozer would be a major upgrade in the short-term, but the issue would obviously be whether Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is willing to pay the luxury tax for a couple of years to floor a surefire playoff team whose ceiling is still way short of legitimate contention.

If the Raptors decide there is no worthwhile trade out there for Bargnani, would they actually consider amnestying him this summer? Andrea is one of three Raptors who are amnesty eligible, along with Linas Kleiza and Amir Johnson. Amir isn’t getting amnestied in this lifetime and Kleiza only has a player option for $4.6 million remaining. If the Lithuanian forward picks it up, I’d bet that’s where the Raps use their one-time only amnesty option, but if Kleiza elects not to pick up his option and either tests the free agent market or heads back overseas, I’d hope Toronto at least considers paying Bargnani to go away (essentially what the amnesty clause is).

Then there are smaller potential trade chips. If Alan Anderson stays hot in the couple of games between now and the deadline, would a playoff team looking for bench scoring pay a small price – say a second round pick – for the journeyman veteran? Even if a team would give up a second round pick though, in a weak draft year, would that mean enough to the Raptors to part with a player like Anderson, who the team may see as an important piece in their own playoff aspirations this season?

Jonas Valanciunas has earned his starting job back, but how will his minutes and the minutes of Terrence Ross change at all over the course of the final 29 games? Will Quincy Acy see more minutes? The answers to those questions likely all revolve around how the Raptors view their own playoff chances. If the team gets back into the race and is playing meaningful games in March while Ross isn’t doing enough to surpass other wings on the depth chart, I could actually see Terrence’s minutes going down. On the other hand, if the Raptors can’t get back into the race and are merely playing out the string weeks from now, then I imagine Ross and maybe even Acy will see the regular minutes Valanciunas has started logging again.

You’ll notice the recurring theme here – both in relation to personnel moves and rotation decisions – is whether the Raptors consider themselves “in the race” for that elusive eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. I maintain that talking about the Raptors being in any sort of legitimate race is still premature, but I can understand why the players themselves still see the eighth spot as a goal, especially with the way the Rudy Gay Era in Toronto has started.

The Raptors currently sit six games behind Milwaukee for the last playoff spot, with only Philadelphia in between the two teams (Toronto is 2 games back of Philly) and two games left against the Bucks still to come (Milwaukee won the first game of the season series after erasing a 20-point first half deficit). If we assume that 40 or 41 wins are required to steal that eighth spot – I doubt a 39-43 record would be enough this season – then that means the Raptors would have to go 19-10 or even 20-9 to get in, while likely having to win both remaining games against the Bucks along the way (both will take place in Milwaukee).

In addition, if the Sixers overtake the Bucks for eighth, the Raptors would be in trouble, as they’ve already lost the season series with Philadelphia three games to one. Then again, perhaps the most fitting end to this season of blown leads and heartbreaking losses would be if the Raptors overtake Milwaukee only to finish tied with Philadelphia for the eighth seed, with their frustrating blown lead/overtime loss in Philly serving as the deciding factor in their playoff heartbreak.

While I don’t think 19-20 wins over the final 29 games is likely, I do think the Raptors are capable of 16 or 17 wins in the final stretch, which would at least put them back in the race and would see them finish with 37 or 38 wins.

But again, a team that is six games out of a playoff spot and 11 games under .500 with less than half the season remaining has absolutely no reason to look that far ahead or to take anything for granted. I’m much more concerned with the immediate future – as in the next week – and what this team will look like on February 22. At that point, we’ll be able to better assess both the team’s chances this season, and their flexibility in being able to improve those chances in the coming years.