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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.

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One of the constant themes through a frustrating 12-game start to the season so far has been the lack of respect the Raptors have received from the officials. The numbers alone are indicative, as the Raps sit 13th in the NBA with 23.8 free throw attempts per game, allow the third-most free throws against at 27.8 and sit fourth from the bottom with a -4 free throws attempted differential.

But those numbers alone don’t tell the whole story.

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The firing of Mike Brown in Laker Land today got me thinking about the premature panicking coming from Raptors fans right now, or at least from a lot of the Raps fans on my twitter timeline.

Obviously in Toronto, Dwane Casey’s job isn’t on the line, and a 1-4 start for a team expected to finish either just in or just out of the playoffs is a lot different than a 1-4 start for a team with championship or bust expectations, but from what I can gather, panic is slowly creeping in here.

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With the NBA trade deadline now just 10 days away and some big names reportedly on the market, you can expect quite the bevy of rumours and “reports” between now and the 15th. Given that the Raptors are supposed to be in full rebuilding mode or just “building” mode, as Bryan Colangelo would say, you would expect that any rumours involving Canada’s lone NBA team would reveal them as heavy sellers at the deadline.

It’s quite surprising then, and might I add perplexing, that the Raptors are reportedly one of the teams interested in trading for Trail Blazers guard and NBA journeyman Jamal Crawford, according to Hoops World. While the former NBA Sixth Man of the Year does have a very fair, if not valuable, contract at just $5 million this season and still averages nearly 15 points per game in Portland, Crawford will be 32 later this month, and the same report states that the Blazers are “concerned” Crawford will not exercise his $5 million player option for next season and will instead opt for free agency.

If the Raptors were planning on trading Leandro Barbosa before next Thursday’s deadline or anticipate losing him one way or another at the end of this season and Crawford was locked in at $5 million next season, I’d support this rumour. But given that Crawford is expected to go the free agent route and that his age doesn’t really fit with Toronto’s current rebuild, I would be against such a move. Plus, if the Raptors traded for Crawford, what would they have to give up to bring him in?

If they’re going to trade for and then sign Jamal Crawford, I’d much rather they just hold on to Barbosa. Hopefully this rumour is nothing more than a team, agent or player rep adding unwarranted teams to a list to drive up their client’s price, and nothing more than that.

It’s hard to believe, considering the Raptors’ not so successful past, that this is the first time in franchise history without a Raptor in one of the All Star weekend events. Unless, of course, you count Andrea Bargnani’s appearance in Kobe Bryant and Sprite’s latest promotion.

But with the lockout-shortened season, the All Star break actually marks the official halfway point of the 2011-2012 campaign for Toronto. So let’s examine where this team is after 33 of 66 games have been played and how things have changed since December.

The record and expectations: Not many people predicted the Raptors to win more than 20 games this season, so you’d have to say that from a win/loss perspective, 10 wins at the halfway mark is either right on par with our expectations, or perhaps even a little ahead of them. Based on my game-by-game predictions, I expected the Raptors to be 9-24 at this point.

The compete level: While none of us expected many wins, we all hoped that the appointment of Dwane Casey as head coach and his subsequent “pound the rock” mentality would result in a more consistent and inspiring effort from the Raptors. After 33 games, the Raps have an average point differential of -5.1, which isn’t that bad considering the team is 13 games below .500. Throw in a road win at MSG, a home win over the Celtics and a couple of great performances against the Lakers and Spurs, and even a 40-point loss in Boston and a loss to the lowly Bobcats can’t hide the fact that for the most part, the compete level we were all hoping for has been there.

The defence: Complain all you want about the inconsistent and at times painful to watch offence. At the end of the day, I’ll take it over the historically bad defence we’ve seen over the last couple of seasons. I am a firm believer in the theory that you can build a solid foundation on defence and find your offence along the way rather than trying to outscore everyone and never establishing a defensive mentality during the early stages of your rebuild. The numbers don’t lie. Opponents points per game are down from 105.4 last season to 94.3 this season. Opponents field goal percentage has dropped from 48.2 in 2010-2011 to 43.4 in 2011-2012. Most importantly, after back-to-back seasons of a 30th-ranked defensive efficiency stuck at 110.2 and 110, (dis)respectively, Casey has the Raptors holding down the 17th-ranked defensive efficiency at 101.1.

I was realistically asking for a jump from dead last to bottom five or bottom 10 at best. Considering where the Raptors were defensively with a similar roster last season, being a middle of the pack defensive team is a testament to Dwane Casey’s wizardry. How good will this team be when Casey has a more talented and more defensively competent roster?

The development: This will be and should be the most debated portion of the first half of the season. On one hand, you can look at guys like DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis and Amir Johnson and say that each of them has either stagnated or regressed from last season, but certainly hasn’t progressed. On the other hand, you can look at Andrea Bargnani’s 13-game All Star caliber sample, James Johnson’s emergence or even Linas Kleiza’s performance since returning to action and say that there have been signs of internal development. As frustrating as it might be, we’ll have to sit on the fence right now and wait until late April to determine just how this season of development has fared.

The draft: The way things are currently shaping up, the Raptors would be in line for the league’s fifth-worst record, and look to be in a hot “race” for one of the last seven or eight spots overall. Based on what I’ve seen from the NCAA so far, I think the Raptors would be crazy to pass up Anthony Davis if they were to win the lottery, despite the log-jam at power forward. Outside of Davis, I believe drafting Harrison Barnes, or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist if Davis and Barnes are off the board, can give the Raptors’ future fortunes a massive boost. That’s not to diminish the potential of guys like Thomas Robinson, Andre Drummond and Jared Sullinger or to diminish how players like Bradley Beal and Jeremy Lamb could help Toronto, but as of right now, I believe Davis, Barnes and Kidd-Gilchrist could be integral pieces of a legitimate contending core a few years down the road.

The future: The future of this franchise has not and will not be decided by a 33-game sample in a lockout-shortened season, but I do find it interesting just how quickly the future “core” has changed in the minds of many fans. From what I could gather, a lot of Raptors fans were expecting to come out of this season looking at a core of DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis, Jonas Valanciuns and the 2012 lottery pick, with Andrea Bargnani either being good trade bait or an amnesty candidate at worst. Just a few months later, I think a lot of those same fans are now anticipating a three-man core of Bargnani, Valanciunas and the aforementioned pick, with a guy like DeRozan now being looked at as merely a supporting cast member. Who knows how things will change between now and the end of the season (for the record, I’m expecting a big second half from DeMar and more consistency from Ed) or even between the end of the regular season and draft night, but I can tell you that watching the young players jockey for positioning in the “core” will be what I’m most looking forward to in the second half of the season, including seeing whether Andrea can pick up where he left off in January.