A Good Time For Optimism

Appreciating the current run without driving a stake through all the hopes we had for the future.

This is a guest post from Alex Wong. Alex is better known as @steven_lebron on Twitter and is publishing a book which you can pre-order now (the details are here). If you own a Michael Dickerson Vancouver Grizzlies jersey, please contact him. 

This Raptors season was suppose to play out one of two ways:

In the first scenario, after trading the former first overall pick turned burden named Andrea Bargnani in the summer, the Raptors would say all the right things heading into the regular season (see: Masai Ujiri at the team’s town hall meeting) about being competitive and giving the roster a fair shake, and then watch as the new general manager methodically tear down the roster piece-by-piece in order to begin a comprehensive and lengthy rebuild.

In the second scenario, the team would turn out to be just good enough that it would compete and end up being stuck in the dreaded middle, putting the franchise in a position of being somewhat successful in the short-term with no future to build towards.

When the Raptors traded Rudy Gay in early December, it was supposed to be the start of the first scenario. Just days later, Kyle Lowry seemed close to being the next to go, and probably would have if James Dolan had not stepped in and killed a potential trade. Instead, a team that was 6-12 at the time of the Gay trade has put together several weeks of inspired basketball and now find themselves in scenario two, where they are now obviously too good to be among the league’s worst, and, well, are they in the dreaded land of mediocrity with scant hopes of upward mobility?

Just a few weeks ago, I felt the same resignation that they had found themselves winning when they weren’t suppose to again. But then, strange things started to happen. The team went to Dallas and Oklahoma City and came out winners. The more I watched, the more encouraged I was. This was a team that was starting to develop an identity, players slotted into the roles and minutes that were appropriate given the talent level and need for development. A five-man squad on the court that played with poise late in games on the road, and shared the ball on the offensive end not out of necessity but an actual desire to play a brand of basketball that was both effective and fun to watch.

And to think, just a month ago, this was a team that had 10 assists in a double overtime game and on another night blew a 27-point second half lead on the road.

And then came an inspired home win on New Years Day over the Indiana Pacers, backed by a sold-out home crowd, almost confirming the city’s renewed interest in the team. In a league where playoff games are ‘appointment television’ and regular season games were ‘do I have an appointment’ television, and for a match-up that just last year was dubbed “A Fate Worst Than Death” by Grantland, plans were moved around to make sure I didn’t miss Raptors-Wizards on a Friday night. We won handily by double digits. The third quarter was one of the most delightful moments derived from following the Raptors in recent years.

It’s not just the general excitement of the city, which speaks more to the lack of accomplishments of the franchise as a whole, and how we’ve only achieved a modicum of success since the peak years with Vince Carter, which is now over a decade ago. I mean, it may be easiest to put it like this: this is a team with two banners in the rafters; one for a division title we won in 2007, and another that celebrates our inaugural season in the NBA. So in the big picture sense for the franchise, these last few weeks ranks up there. I know, slim pickings.

Of course, the more current success this team attains, the further it removes itself from tanking itself into the top of the draft. Which is a sore subject, but one that must be discussed because it is a real thing. And perhaps this is just a fan who is desperate for a team that matters in this city speaking, but I think we can be more open-minded about this team, and appreciate its present run without driving a stake through all the hopes we had for the future, much of that attached to the upcoming draft.

Tanking is rebuilding, but rebuilding isn’t tanking. The method of accumulating high draft picks and making the correct choices has worked in the past, but it is one of several methods of going about returning a team to contender status. It is also a method that does not necessarily guarantee that you can get from point A (a terrible team) to point B (a really good team that can picture themselves having a meaningful banner in the rafters).

The tanking or else mentality has swept through the league, and perhaps especially to this team’s fanbase, given that we just saw our outgoing general manager flame out and set the franchise back with a series of win-now-at-all-cost moves; with none of them panning out.

But our current general manager has come as advertised. Ujiri has moved Bargnani and Gay for both assets and flexibility, and already has the team in a better position going forward than before he arrived. Given the expectation of how difficult it would be to a) move those two players and b) extract any kind of valuable return, both trades were home runs and well ahead of anyone’s schedule.

As the current team continues to develop, players like Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are legitimate assets. Some of them have raised their value in the current trade market, others have now worked themselves into a previously-non-existent conversation of “well, we could move forward with him.” The draft cupboard is full, and depending on the direction Masai Ujiri chooses to go, there is cap space available going forward.

All of this, players, the cap, picks, all follow the more important buzzword aside from tanking: accumulation of assets. Sure, losing in the present would raise the value of a potential future asset at the next draft. But in the same vein, winning has raised the value of the assets the team currently has. To me, the current situation can become a win-win.

No, these are not the Oklahoma City Thunder in terms of top level talent, or the Houston Rockets before they acquired James Harden and Dwight Howard in terms of assets and ability to acquire a superstar via trade or free agency, but it would be wrong to say this team is sacrificing its entire future by winning now.

There are many promising signs from this core group, and whatever level of success it achieves this season is not in fact a detriment to the future, but instead a springboard to something better. A development process, a season of asset building.

At the end of the day, much of this excitement still needs to be framed against the context of the Eastern Conference this season. Despite all I’ve mentioned above, the Raptors are but a .500 team on the season, currently sitting at 17-17. But if you’ve watched this team play lately, and recognize that they’ve had the third hardest strength of schedule in the East so far, or if you believe these, this team as currently constructed is going to the playoffs, and probably as a top-four seed.

And sure, all of this might go away in a few weeks. There are still trade options out there from now until the deadline and we may go back to scenario one. But in a season that has been reborn with the trade of a talented player that never fit the construct of this team, a third scenario has been born: a team that is undergoing a permanent, sustainable makeover with a roster more talented than previously thought; with a general manager with a proven track record here and elsewhere of accumulating assets and playing the numbers game to his advantage.

All of this sounds great, for now and for later. None of it sounds like the Raptors I’ve known for the past few years. It’ll take some getting used to, but I’m starting to think it is a good time to be optimistic about this franchise.

This has been a guest post from Alex Wong. Alex is better known as @steven_lebron on Twitter and is publishing a book which you can pre-order now (the details are here). If you own a Michael Dickerson Vancouver Grizzlies jersey, please contact him. 

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