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The RAP Game: Revisiting the past, Analyzing the present, Pondering the future

Toronto

Pull up a chair.. I’m buying.

With the preseason now in the rearview mirror, and the final stress-free weekend before the regular season starts upon us, the time is ripe to have a calm, big-picture conversation. I mean, 159 days and counting has been a sufficient amount of time to get over last season’s disappointing ending, right?

Well, if you’re still looking to vent, I’m sure it’s only a matter of days before Valanciunas dominates a first half only to be given Casey’s cold shoulder the rest of the way… Especially when his defensive limitatons weren’t necessarily going to be exposed. Or, if you prefer, an unimaginative play call with the game on the line that results in the defense keying on a DeRozan isolation is likely on deck.

What? I’m calm… And to the contrary: Even with the rich getting richer, along with the Raps’ notable offseason depatures that’s led to a relatively high percentage of doubters both from afar and in T.O.’s own backyard, I’m actually rather optimistic at what this season can ultimately become.

Which leads to a few thoughts/questions for the masses:

Some would surely say that in a world where assembled “Super Teams” continue to trump any notion of league-wide parity, coming up short is inevitable. But while that sentiment has validity, it really all depends on how you view success. Better yet, how one goes about being a fan.

With that said, what should our expectations be? Are we simply going to be scratching our collective Raptors itch for the next eight months or is a return to the Eastern Conference Finals still a realistic possibility?

While there’s no definitive answers at this point, there’s plenty of solid ground to walk on. But in that same breath, it’s conceivable to think the Raps’ footing can and will get a little shaky. Let’s start with the core:

1. The Make-Shift “Super Team”

I get it, the added reps likely wouldn’t have changed the course of history. It’s a damn shame Lowry got hurt down the stretch, though. Both the immediate and long-term prospects would have been that much farther along. Still, with the Lowry-DeRozan-Ibaka sample size essentially in its infancy stage, the chances at reaping the trio’s rewards remain relatively intact.

Out of the three, though, if there’s one that still has room to take another leap, it’s DeMar. Even with the fact that he’s been suiting up for almost a decade. And no, I’m not refering to the ever-popular demand of DeRozan finally adding a consistent 3-point shot to his bag of tricks. That’s still wishful thinking. I’m talking about his ever-improving side gig creating opportunities for others.

With Ibaka’s truth existing somewhere in between having already peaked and having upside left in the tank (his versatilty should support the latter), the focus then shifts to K-Low. Now, I’ve never doubted Lowry in the past, even when his relationship with this fan base wasn’t exactly on good terms. He’s also become one of the few exceptions where being on the wrong side of 30 hasn’t caused regression, so I won’t be starting anytime soon.

So, what else is there? His minutes? His contract? We’ll have to play the waiting game on both but the two are attached at the hip. If the Raps’ annual plan of keeping his minutes in check actually comes to fruition, it can go along way in deciding whether $100 Million over three years ultimately helps this team get over the hump or eventually hinders this organization’s future payroll.

2. Underrated/Promising Bench:

From free agency to in-house roster construction, one has to wonder where the Raps would be without the luxury of their D-League affiliate. Yes, I realize Gatorade has staked its claim, but just like “Scotiabank Arena”, I’m not in a hurry to add the name change to my vocabulary. By the way, doesn’t “G-League” actually take away of the league’s purpose? Wait, don’t answer that, I’m already giving the corporate takeover too much free advertising. Point is: The Raps have taken full advantage of every D-evelopmental aspect the 905 has provided. Hell, they may have even found their future Head Coach.

Here’s where it gets tricky, though… and we really have no choice but to remain skeptical given this team’s track record. The preseason may have kept its word, but bad habits tend to reappear when the lights go on. Nevertheless, if the “culture reset” that includes much more ball movement and quality shot attempts is here to stay, there’s no way around the need for the graduated 905ers/bench to hold up their end of the bargain.

The conundrum here is messy. Of the numerous pieces being counted on, two in particular (Bebe and Poeltl) will be involved in an interesting catch-22. A point of emphasis for many, including myself, has always been to allow JV a true chance at overcoming his faults. Most certainly over the course of a season’s first half with ample time to correct the decision if need be. Failure would only mean a team knows exactly how to value a player. At the same time, if this team wants their depth to contribute when it matters most (one of last year’s glaring flaws), the kids need reps to get there. Other than when the Raps go small, it’ll have to be at the expense of Jonas. And with the notion of Serge roaming the Five more often, the minute crunch will be that much tighter.

With the job security that comes with 50-win seasons combined with just how much excelling in the playoffs would silence any Jerry Stackhouse noise, it’s easy to see how Casey’s hands are tied. Perhaps it’s even too late to let the experiment take place?

3. “Sound like one of them good problems”:

A heated debate over a starting spot? In other words, what’s old is new again. With the usual suspect named Norman Powell vs. newcomer C.J. Miles representing this year’s edition, not to mention impressive rookie OG Anunoby likely pushing his his way into the discussion down the road, I recommend basking in the number of options at a postion that’s seemingly no longer a revloving door.

Besides, two of the three provide instant offense, two of three provide instant defense, and all of the above (by all accounts) show up to work with a business-like approach. Bottom line: While cohesiveness in a starting five undoubtedly has its perks, matchup flexibilty brings more to the table. In a landscape where “positionless basketball” works its way to the forefront, this franchise is adapting quite nicely.

Hey, Thursday night, first round’s on me.

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