Last spring, the Toronto sports world was abuzz: the city’s beloved Blue Jays – like the Raptors, perennial also-rans – had finally broken the bank, signing and trading them for a litany of stars, superstars, and solid pieces that would, certainly, lift them from the throes of mediocrity.
Expectations were sky-high. The Jays quickly became Vegas favourites to not only reach, but win the World Series. Numerous sports commentators predicted big things. Sportsnet began a major marketing push, and early-season ticket sales were promising. The rose-coloured glasses were on in the Big Smoke.
Of course, we all know how that turned out. And, with hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to see why: every major addition the Jays made during their much hyped offseason came with question marks. In order to be the league-wide juggernaut many pundits and fans thought they could be, the Jays were going to have to have a number of key guys replicate career years.
When you’re building a team around 27 year-old studs, that might not be a bad bet. But for the Jays to do it, a lot of very unlikely things had to go right, including:
- Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey continuing his career resurgence in his late 30s, as well as becoming the first knuckleballer in decades to be dominant over multiple seasons.
- Melky Cabrera returning to MVP form after being caught using performance enhancing drugs and serving a lengthy suspension.
- Jose Reyes, Brandon Morrow, and Josh Johnson dodging the injury bug that has plagued all of them over their relatively short careers.
Now, I’m sure Jays fans don’t need me to tell them that none of these things even came close to happening last season, and I’m also sure that they’re already sick of me rehashing an extremely disappointing year, so let me get to my point: based on their own history, nearly every key Jays player could have been reasonably expected to perform worse than they did in the previous season (or than their “best” season, anyway). To be as good as they thought they could be, the Jays were looking on long odds for most of their key players.
At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering what all this baseball talk has to do with the Raptors (quite reasonably, given that we’re 350 words into a Raptors blog post). So here it is – and it’s why I’m optimistic for this upcoming season, and ignoring the talk of potentially blowing the team up and tanking for the time being. Let’s take that Jays mantra from the last paragraph, flip it, and reverse it:
When it comes to the Raptors, nearly every key player can be reasonably expected to improve their play over last season.
Save for Amir Johnson, who may have reached his pinnacle last year, and Steve Novak, who is a specialist and nothing more, the Raptor rotation individually has nowhere to go but up (or – worst-case – stay put):
- Jonas Valanciunas: entering his second year, poised for a breakout season.
- Terrence Ross: second season in the league as well, which will hopefully mean better decisions on offence/better defence in general.
- Quincy Acy AKA Quincy A-Three: ditto.
- DeMar DeRozan: still improving, showing shades of better shot selection in preseason.
- Kyle Lowry: noticeably slimmed-down, contract year, second season running the system (first with unquestioned starting-job security).
- Rudy Gay: vision correction (you never know!)
- Tyler Hansbrough/D.J. Augustin/Landry Fields: submitted the worst seasons of each of their careers last year.
Take a look through that list again. For every player listed, the likeliest worst case scenario in terms of individual production is what we saw last year, barring catastrophic injury (I wouldn’t classify any of those players as “injury prone,” but Lowry is the likeliest candidate, given his history) or shocking regression. Sure, some of the players listed are less likely to significantly improve than others (hi, Rudy!), but the point still stands that as a whole, the entire Raptor rotation is likely to outperform the 2012/2013 versions of themselves, and that it’s extremely unlikely that anyone will perform worse – either because they’re still improving (Jonas, T-Ross), what they bring on a year-in, year-out basis has been more or less established (DeMar, Rudy, Amir) or because it’s impossible (Augustin, Fields).
The point can even be extended through many of last year’s major storylines: the impossibly difficult schedule out of the gates, the point guard confusion, and the Bargnani controversy in its entirety were all scenarios where the Raptors were up at the craps table and rolled snake eyes. There’s nowhere to go but up with this group.
It’s why Masai chose the “wait and see” approach to this roster: we’ve seen the lowest end of the spectrum for what the Raps could accomplish this year, and it was last season. The bottom has been identified, and the only thing to wonder about now is how much higher this group can go – unlike the aforementioned Jays, where the opposite situation took place: we could all figure out their ceiling, and the question was how close they’d come to reaching it.
We’re not asking for the world here. We don’t need Jonas to become an All-Star in year 2, or for Lowry of DeMar to reach their full potential, or for D.J. Augustin to replicate his 2010 season, in order to improve noticeably. If the entire group even averages out to a slight improvement individually, the rewards will be significant, collectively. And, for the first time in a while, that seems like the most likely outcome for the Raptor roster (or at least the players who will/should get the vast bulk of the minutes).
Put quite simply, I’m excited to follow a roster where improvement across the board is – without much of a stretch in any singular case – expected. I’d much rather know a team’s floor than their ceiling at the start of the season. I’d much rather have a young core than an aging one. And I’d much rather have Masai Ujiri pulling the strings than Bryan Colangelo.
So, let’s just take a minute before the season starts and we’re inundated with trade rumours, tanking vs contending debates, and questions about Rudy Gay’s shot selection, and appreciate that, at least when it comes to what this team can accomplish, everything will go better than expected in Raptorland. As Classified so eloquently puts it: things are looking up.
Now, please excuse me while I go knock on all the wood.