Short-term fun vs. long-term gain

Yeah, it probably won’t last. But right now, I don’t care.

The Toronto Raptors are a fun basketball team to watch. They’re also pretty good.

The first point, obviously, is great news for all basketball fans north of the border. Regardless of whether you’re hoping for a division title or a number one draft pick, everyone likes to be entertained, and a pick-and-roll heavy offence that emphasizes ball movement and our 21-year-old center pounding the ball inside is SO much more enjoyable than watching a $19 million a year “star” hoist up a ton of contested jumpers.

The second one, though, is where you’ll find contention among fans. It’s also where you’ll catch me flip-flopping every few days. No, these Raptors aren’t title contenders. But, as currently constructed, they’re probably the co-favourites in the Atlantic along with the Celtics (seriously, who predicted that?) and a surefire playoff team in a historically weak East. Yeah, this will probably change during their upcoming Western swing, but it’s not like they have to play more Western games than the rest of the conference, and when they play the majority of their games against the East, someone has to win.

This was evident last night as the Raptors ran the injury-depleted Chicago Bulls out of their own building – a 22 point blowout in which the Raptors clearly looked like the better team against a lineup that boasted two 2012/2013 All-Stars. Talk about the fact that the Bulls are having a tough year/don’t have a point guard all you want, but this was still a statement game: on the road, the second half of a back-to-back, and against a team that probably boasted an advantage in four of the five starting spots, depending on how you feel about Boozer/Amir.

Click here for Quick Reaction/Player Grades from last night

The Raptors won last night by playing the kind of ball that fans of the team have been hoping to see for years. Gone were the hero-ball antics of Rudy Gay, Andrea Bargnani, and DeMar DeRozan (pre 2013 edition). In their stead: a pick-and-roll centered offence that featured a ton of ball movement (26 assists on 40 made field goals), a solid game plan against a Bulls defence determined to clog the paint, and different, effective looks from the bench unit (when’s the last time we got to say that?).

Some people will say that it’s far too early for me to post a gushing review of this version of the Raptors with just four games gone post-Gay trade, and they’d be very right. Some, though, would say that this is just running back the clock pre-Gay, with Greivis Vasquez playing the Jose Calderon role, and they’d be quite wrong. As MacGruber would say: the game’s changed, even if most of the players are the same.

DeMar DeRozan is the most obvious example here, though this analogy could extend to Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, and even Jonas Valanciunas. Last year, DeMar was the high-volume, low efficiency leading scorer that seemingly paced the Raps because nobody else was willing to. This year, he’s not only embraced the role, but is playing it far more effectively. His stat line last night – 15 points on 7/14 shooting, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and a block – isn’t the most showy, but when you watch the game, it’s clear that he’s embracing his role as the team’s offensive leader in ways that go beyond “I need to score the most points.” We’re seeing a newfound maturity from DeMar – a new commitment to passing, a willingness to defer when the game calls for it (as it did late in the fourth quarter last night with Vasquez and Amir Johnson running the pick and roll to perfection), and a sense to step up when the Raptors need buckets to stay in the game, or ice it. He’s been excellent early in the fourth quarter as of late, which is great to see. He’s flawed, sure, but to say he’s not improving – significantly – this season is simply ignorance at this point.

I Tweeted after the Gay trade was made that I thought it would improve the team right away, and that’s come true particularly because of two things: the new touches available to the Raptor starters, and the fact that we now have a group of bench players that are:

a) fine with their role as bench players,

b) competent bench players, and

c) all have a skill they can do above-average in the NBA, and play within themselves (a combination of columns a and b).

Whether it’s outside shooting (Patrick Patterson), perimeter defence (John Salmons) or not being Julyan Stone or Dwight Buycks (Greivis Vasquez), all of the Kings imports bring a dimension to the Raptors that they sorely needed, and its sped their ability to fit into the team’s system. All three players contributed to the victory last night in real, meaningful ways, and with Casey sticking to a 9-man lineup, that meant that every Raptor who got in the game did so – something that we haven’t seen in Raptorland on a consistent basis in a long while.

Can this be sustained over the rest of the season? Is it just a blip – a team of excited guys looking to strut their stuff while trade rumours swirl? The jury’s still out on that one, though I’d venture a guess that we’re closer to the first option than the second: game plans aren’t flukes, and the way these guys fit together makes the team’s performance far less likely to slip than if a few players had simply had massive nights. The ironic thing about Masai’s first move in what most people are assuming is an attempted “tank” is that he may have built a far more sustainable model for success than the Raptors have seen in years.

In a lot of ways, actually, it reminds me of the 2007 team – a group that wasn’t long on individual talent, but managed to ride a weak Eastern conference and selfless team play to an Atlantic division title. Long-term, it’s probably not what’s best for the franchise. I’m certainly not delusional enough to suggest that this team has the ability to contend for titles – or even develop into that team – as currently constructed. Expect plenty of articles on here and across the blogosphere in the coming weeks and months debating the merits of fleeting success vs a chance for sustainable long-term contending. I’m not even going to attempt to say what I think the right answer is – I’m riding high on a wave of emotion right now, clearly, and I feel like I change my mind every game.

For now, though, the Raptors are fun to watch, and pretty good, too. And that’s new and refreshing enough that it’s more than enough for me.

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