This season has been disappointing when it comes to comparing the hype going in to this season and the actual results we're seeing right now. Raps will be missing playoffs when the franchise representatives were basically giving guarantees of playoffs.
The horrible start to the season has made this goal all but impossible. Since the Rudy Gay trade happened, for a little while a brief shimmer of hope created some excitement in Raptorland, as fans in the arena seemed to go nuts and the boards on the internet were flooded with optimism. But all of that died off very quickly after a couple of losses. Now the boards seem to be as empty as ever this season. It looks like many have abandoned ship and all hopes for this team, crying out all sorts of things about BC, Dwayne Casey, Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry, DeRozan and the "stiff noodle". I'll admit I was one of them, but I took some time to think things through and saw the light. Bear with me.
Early Struggles And The End Of Bargnani
Raptors started off the season very, very bad and with a record of 4-19 all seemed completely lost and most of the fans were ready the blow this team appart. Then Bargnani, who was having his worst season yet, got injured and the Raptors started playing .500 ball. This is where it became obvious to all, that Bargnani, the "stiff noodle", isn't worth half the money he's being paid. It's a tragedy. Raptors are pretty much stuck with him. Nobody in their right mind will trade for him as long as there is more than one season left on his contract. He's only tradeable as an expiring deal, which won't happen before the 2014/2015 season. Amnesty is the other option. Maybe there is some crackpot GM that will take him in the offseason though, but good luck with that.
The Rudy Gay Trade - Hopes Found And Hopes Lost
Then happened the Rudy Gay trade. It seemed that people were devided on this. Some thought it was a great deal, others were unhappy. Some believed he was the star that we needed and others felt he's ineffecient and overpaid.
For a short while it looked to everybody like this was working out, as the Raptors started putting together some win streaks and even ESPN and fans of other teams started to talk about how Raptors just became relevant and a good team. For a short while Raptorland got even excited about the possibility of Raptors making the playoffs THIS year, as Bucks started losing lots of games, while the Raptors were surging. Me too, I had hopes. But then we started losing again and the hopes for a playoff berth died off quickly.
Fans Overreacting - There Really Are Things To Be Optimistic About
What followed was fans got frustrated very quickly. Everybody pointing out how Rudy Gay was inefficient and shooting under 40%, how DeRozan has no outside shot and can't finish at the rim, that we need a starting PF and questioning if Kyle Lowry is the answer at the point guard.
I was and I am very frustrated too, but I took some distance from discussions and opinions and had a good look at this team and the situation it is in, how it compares to similar situations of other teams in seasons past. And I saw the light.
I think this team is on the right track and all that it needs now is time and only some minor changes when it comes to the personnel. What people seemingly fail to realize is that we have had drastic development with our roster and rotations over the season. Bargs is out, Ed Davis is out, Rudy Gay is in, we have 2 rookies developing and one of them being starter. This can't bring you a record of over .500, which is what we're at basically since Bargnani went down.
I think Lowry, DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson, JV as starters and Ross as 6th man - this group will work out fine. Other parts I consider as inconsequential and can be moved, replaced over the offseason.
All this "core group" really needs is time. Next season with full training camp, the pre-season and the individual improvement of players during the off-season will make a huge difference. Simply trading for good players and expecting immediate results is not realistic. Good exemples are New York with Melo, the Lakers with Howard and even the Heat in their first year to some extent. It always takes time to make things work out.
On Positions And Individual Players
There are too many fans that seemingly expect all-stars at each and every position. Rudy gay is labeled inefficient, DeRozan can't shoot threes and finsih at the rim, draw fouls, Lowry is inconsistent and too small, can't pass, JV is too weak, Amir is 3rd big but not a starter and Ross is useless... those are the remarks made by frustrated fans.
I agree that all of these players need to improve, but let's be realistic at the same time. We won't be able to trade our roster for a combination of the best players from Heat, OKC and Lakers. So let's have a look at what we have and how things might work out next year.
C - Jonas Valanciunas
JV is coming along nicely in my opinion. He has improved a lot on the defensive end over the season. In his first 2-3 months he was missing out on a lot of rotations and leaving the rim unprotected. Over the last couple of months though for a rookie I have little complaints about his D. Sure he does miss out on rotations here and there, but he has improved by leaps and bounds and he just looks solid, very professional. On the offensive end he works hard setting screens and rolling to the basket, working the offensive glass, but he needs more strenght to come through on this end. He gets pushed around rather easily when he tries to post up or when he tries to make a move, but he'll get stronger in time and experince will help him a lot too. One thing that completely disappeared: talks about foul issues. No need to make changes here. JV will be very good to elite in a couple of years.
PF - Amir Johnson
He's a hard working man. Blue collar. MVP of efforts. I, like so many, was surprised by his emergence this season. Still many think he's rather a third big. I disagree. You can't have all-stars at all 5 positions. You need some hard working players in your lineup and you won't find many hard workers that are better than Amir. He's a walking double-double playing with a 110% effort every night. Sure a Pau Gasol or a Carlos Boozer could give you a couple more points on the offesnive end, but would they be better on the defensive end? Would it be worth twice the salary and the age of these players? I'm not even convinced that Millsap or a similar player would be better for us than Amir. Amir is fine at starting PF and he's likely to improve on offense over the next couple of years.
SF - Rudy Gay
Many people are disappointed with Rudy and his 39% shooting and his inability to shoot threes, his limited abilities as a play maker. But he, more than anybody else, needs time to figure out things. Keep in mind that he developed in Memphis in a very specific situation where he constantly had to play with 2 dominant bigs in the post. He has a new freedom with Raptors and gets different looks. It will take time for him to adjust and I think he will do very fine next season once he gets comfortable with it, finds his spots and gets to better know his teammates and their tendencies. I would like for him to work on his outside shot in the offseason. More mid-range than threes though.
SG - Demar DeRozan
A lot of fans say he doesn't get to the line enough. The other day during the game a stat was pulled up which showed that DeRozan is top 10 when it comes to getting to the line. Only Harden, Durant, Howard, Kobe, Westbrook, LeBron, Melo and Wade get more to the line than Demar:
Sure DeRozan needs still to improve with his shooting and dribbling, but he's still very young (23) and has improved so much over a couple of years, it's not even funny. As a rookie he basically looked like Ross, but with even worse ball handling and absolutely no shot, just an atheltic young guy. Look where he is now. I'm confident he'll improve his shooting over the summer a little bit more and if he can add a reliable three-point shot from the corner over the next couple of years, it would be great! I'm sure, with his work ethic, his mid-range game will be elite by then. I can't see a realistic way to improve this position through a trade. He's a keeper anyway.
PG - Kyle Lowry
This is probably the postion where there is most uncertainty, at least for me. Kyle is as tough as nails on D when he's in the game, but usually disappears on offense. Maybe it's him being small that hurts, but his performance at the start of the season (and some other occasions) would suggest otherwise. One thing is certain, at least for now. He's not really a pass-first point guard, but he's trying to become one. Maybe he's just trying to part ways with his old ways and learning the craft anew (advice from Billups?). Maybe it's difficult to do so with a team that suffered so many drastic changes over the season, a team that features quite a lot of developing players. Maybe when the dust settles and a new season begins he'll find his new way, maybe he won't, but the Raptors should give it a try next season.
6th man - Terrence Ross
Needs to work a lot. He's got a lot of talent. At this point nothing conclusive can really be said about him. His playing time has been inconsistent so far, so it's hard to judge a rookie on the data we have. With the season being over, I expect to see Ross playing a lot more minutes and it will help to evaluate him better. In my mind he's got a lot of potential and could be a JR Smith type of player in a couple of years - instant offense off the bench, the perfect 6th man. No need to argue about him being great or useless at the moment. We'll see in time. Time we've got with him. Trading him is not a good idea.
...can be dealt for the needs that we currently have. That would be a reliable 3rd big - Zaza Pachulia of the Hawks for example is going to be a FA this summer. A reliable 3-point shooter - Kyle Korver of the Hawks is FA this summer as is Anthony Morrow of Mavs. And a reliable PG off the bench - we might want to keep both Telfair and Lucas III.
Rotation And Coaching
Next season I would expect for our rotations to "normalize" and see at least a couple of starters remaining on the court at any time, except garbage time. This season too often we see 5 bench players playing together for extended amounts of time and rotations of 12-13 guys in one single game. I fully expect a normal and stable 8-9 man rotation with occassional adjustments when match-ups require those adjustments.
I'm frustrated with coach Casey's decisions very often, but at the same time it's up to the players to produce and the production has been very inconsistent through out the board with perhaps the only exception being Amir Johnson. A change of coaching would probably hurt more than do good. Players seem to have bought into the Casey mentality, but hiring an assistant coach who is strong on offensive schemes and tactics would go a long way.
All in all, I think we have something to be optimistoc about and a new season, a stable one, will allow this group to improve. At very least we can expect a .500 record for next year. Playoffs are at least realistic, unlike this year. But I'm pretty sure they'll be better than that.