Are the 2012-13 Toronto Raptors a playoff team?
Let's be honest, that's the only question worth asking heading into this season. With training camp only two weeks away, you're going to hear all sorts of lip service paid to internal growth, to the defensive culture and to great additions brought in this summer. However, the Raptors are past the point where any of that stuff 'really' matters. They've played that game. They played it for Chris Bosh's last two seasons in Toronto and then they played it again for the two seasons since he's left. They've talked around the playoffs, they've made excuses for not making it there, but at the end of the day the 'real season' has to be seen as more than just a pipe dream.
And so we route back around to the original question: Are these Toronto Raptors a playoff team?
In their favour is one very important stat: Last season, every team in the top-13 in defensive efficiency went to the playoffs except one: Toronto. Historically, defensive efficiency is a great measure for teams to use in order to determine who is going to make it to the playoffs in April. It's not the only measure (clearly), but great defense is usually the mark of a consistent ball club and over the course of the long NBA season, good, consistent play is a great way to ensure your place in the postseason.
The problem for Toronto - at least last season - was that their offense was so bad it completely negated their gains at the defensive end of the floor. It wasn't just scoring offense, either. It was passing. It was movement. It was getting to the free throw line. It was creating easy baskets with steals and blocked shots (despite their strong defense, they didn't create many turnovers). That's why when the club went shopping this summer it wasn't for pure scorers; it was for guys that facilitate offense.
Guys like Kyle Lowry, who can score, sure, but can also pass, get to the free throw line and create turnovers. Guys like Landry Fields, who move without the ball, create offense for others and get out into the open court. Guys like Jonas Valanciunas, who know how to set screens and roll to the basket. They needed players who could score, but more than that they needed players who could help other people score. Plus, they needed to do it with guys that wouldn't hurt their defensive standing because as important as an improved offense is, defense is going to remain their key to the postseason.
Looking up and down the roster this may be the best construction job that Bryan Colangelo and his team have done in fielding a roster in Toronto since Colangelo arrived in 2006. They have balance, they have role definition and they have financial flexibility. They also have the right coach to lead this particular group of players, and a core that is young enough that if they click this season, they can expect even better years thereafter.
However, for all that management has done this summer to construct a playoff-ready roster, they are gun shy about committing to the playoffs as a serious, end-of-season goal. Yes, management has been burned in the past promising the playoffs and not delivering, but no one is saying that they need to promise the playoffs to anyone. They just need to acknowledge that they are the desired endgame to this season. They need to acknowledge that if they fail to make the playoffs, then the season was a failure. They need to make it known that if the club doesn't make it to the playoffs, then on some level everyone failed, and they need to do that to start growing the hunger that that kind of pressure instills.
Over the last couple of years, the organization has taken their foot so far off of the gas pedal that they are having trouble finding it again. There needs to be internal tension applied to everyone associated with the Raptors to start kicking this franchise into gear. No more being satisfied with slow and steady growth - growth now needs to yield something more tangible, something for fans to get really excited about. The standards need to be higher so that there is no way for a player, coach or general manager to hide from the ultimate goal of making the postseason. Everyone needs to start holding themselves to a higher standard because becoming a good team is hard, and the first step towards becoming a good team is demanding of everyone that they commit to doing what is necessary to become a good team.
This Raptors squad is ready to start looking towards the playoffs. Whether they are good enough to make it there or not will be determined by how they play together over the course of the season's 82 games. Regardless, that's the yardstick the club needs to start measuring itself by. They need to become singularly focused on becoming postseason staples, becoming a team that everyone expects to make it every season, and that starts with the organization demanding that level of performance from themselves. Will it be easy? No. If it was easy then the club wouldn't find themselves in the sorry state that they're in seventeen years into their existence. Until they start expecting more from themselves, though, they're going to be the same also-ran that they've always been. This team can be a playoff team, but it starts with them taking on that responsibility and all of the demands that come with it.