Fan Duel Toronto Raptors

Opportunity Ahead – Manner of Raptors Playoff Exit a Sign of Progress

The head is clear, the heart is at peace, thus we can reflect.

This was a successful season in every respect. Results, player development, salary cap flexibility, improvement of the franchise’s image, fan support, and reputation. If you had told me at the start of the season that the Raptors would win the Atlantic, finish third, and lose to the most expensive team in the league in seven games, I would’ve taken it. This season has seen the franchise do a complete 180 in every respect. Though many of the players are the same, the trajectory of the team is vastly different than what it was 12 months ago. How this franchise has resuscitated itself over the course of a year is remarkable.

It’s critical that we acknowledge all the great things we’ve done this season. The naysayers will always point to a weak conference as the reason for our success, but the playoffs demonstrated that that wasn’t the case. Credit needs to be given to the coaching staff for creating the requisite environment which allowed the exceptional chemistry to flourish, and the players for executing the plan night in and night out, surprising many on the way and converting non-believers as they went on about their business. A special recognition needs to be afforded to the medical team as well, for keeping the group healthy throughout the strenuous season. The Raptors did not suffer any major injury this year and that is not by fluke, it is due to good conditioning, well-drawn practices, and a medical team that knows how to handle the athletes it is responsible for.

With the Game 7 loss fresh in our minds it’s sometimes difficult to look past the disappointment and acknowledge the larger progress this franchise has made. Terrence Ross turned it around this year, and become a very reliable three-point shooter, which was one of the chief concerns heading into last summer. DeMar DeRozan became a dependable scorer and showed that he has levels to go before he reaches his ceiling, something which was a concern when last season ended. Jonas Valanciunas progressed enough that there is little debate regarding his draft positioning, and is widely considered of the best young centers in the league.

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Ross and Valanciunas have carved their status as legitimate NBA players who are likely to have long, fruitful NBA careers, which wasn’t necessarily clear at the outset of the season. Ross, who appeared out of depth in his rookie season, graduated into a specialty starter of the 3-and-D variety. You would have to be a pessimist to think that there isn’t much more to his game. If he improves at the same rate he did this season for the next two years, the Raptors would have the SG/SF slot secured for years. At the very least, he’s already a valuable trade asset. Valanciunas has fought through inconsistent playing time to showcase an excellent offensive engine that only requires the lubricant of time to function at full capacity. Defensively, his rebounding has improved where you can picture him being a consistent double-double threat for years. His positional defense and awareness still has room for improvement, which is an opportunity more than an issue given his work rate and personality.

The Rudy Gay trade, which has been written about ad nauseum, saw the Raptors reap a whole bench in return. From Greivis Vasquez’s steady hand, Patrick Patterson’s versatility, John Salmons’ veteran, albeit inconsistent, presence, to Chuck Hayes situational value, it’s been quite the surprise. Retaining Vasquez and Patterson without overpaying them will speak to Masai Ujiri’s ability to deal with his free agents, which as you might recall, is an issue for the franchise.

I would be writing a dishonest article if I didn’t acknowledge that this year’s success has been an accident, a very welcome accident, but an accident. Masai Ujiri was fully intending to tank when he pulled the trigger on the Rudy Gay trade, and instead found himself with a team which had instant cohesion, much to the credit of the coaching staff. Ujiri had already done well in off-loading Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay for good value, either in talent or cap space, and the ensuing success was the cherry on top. How this success has changed the landscape of the Raptors is quite significant. Instead of drafting in the lottery and entering another rebuilding cause, the Raptors have a strong base to work with and, it can be argued, require modifications instead of an overhaul.

Dwane Casey and his coaching staff have managed to pivot midseason and transform a group of strangers into a team which had one of the best records in the NBA in the new year, while being near the top of every relevant team statistical category. His performance this year as head coach cannot be understated. Without him preaching defense and solidarity at the top, this team would not have been the melting pot it was, and likely to have remained a mixed salad. No matter what happened in the playoffs – and he was outdone by Jason Kidd there – his regular season performance is key to the new shape of the Raptors franchise.

He did not have a good playoff run, with the Nets winning the first game of the series much like the last, through Joe Johnson. The Raptors defense had been poor in the final few weeks of the regular season, conceding well over a 100 points. The hope was that the bleeding would stop in time for the playoffs and Casey would identify the amendments needing to be made and instill them in time for the post-season. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen and the Raptors rotations out of Joe Johnson double-teams were poor to the extreme. Bigs closing out wings, two players covering the man in the corner leaving the middle open, and a variety of such missteps assured that the Nets would be able to score whenever they needed. The same defense that was the backbone of the Raptors resurgence was missing the entire series, and what made this more bizarre was that it had happened under Casey, a tactician whose calling card is supposed to be team defense.

The Raptors never put a complete offensive game together – they averaged more turnovers than in the regular season, and if there is a stat which speaks to how team-ball was transformed into isolation basketball, one needs to look no further than the damning assist statistic. In the regular season the Raptors averaged 22 assists, in the post-season only 15.5. DeMar DeRozan, playing in his first post-season, ended up shooting only 38% and had 16 turnovers for his 19 assists. It was the sort of performance you feared from DeRozan: jump-shot heavy offense which was always contested. Perhaps the wisest course of action to take is to chalk this up to a learning experience. Before the post-season started he made a comment about how the playoffs were no different and that it wasn’t “rocket science”. After this experience he’s correct in thinking that it’s not rocket science, but it’s also not the same as the regular season. DeRozan experienced first-hand the powers of planning – when a team has the chance to plan for you, they can make your life miserable, which is much different than the regular season when games come and go without coaches putting more than a video-tape session or two prior on the day of.  DeRozan, considered by many to be a sponge, has to walk away from this experience a better and smarter player.  Personally, I root for him harder than any other player because I so desperately want him to succeed, and when he doesn’t I tend to over scrutinize.   It’s better to see this series as the means to an end, not the end.

The disappointment stems from the Raptors failing to execute their plan, one of negating or, at the very least, reducing Joe Johnson’s effectiveness and exerting their own agenda on the proceedings through their supposed advantage through Valanciunas and Johnson. The Raptors, until the last few minutes of Game 7, never quite adjusted to the Nets and continued to play the Nets’ game. It wasn’t until late in Game 7 where the Raptors played small ball and went with one big to great results. It wasn’t until the early stages of Game 7 that the Raptors seriously looked to exploit Paul Pierce through Amir Johnson for the first time in the series. It was too late, though, Johnson picked up quick fouls, appeared knackered, and was soon out of the game.

As Raptors fans look back on this series, they have to feel that they should have won it, that they had the tools to win it, far more than perhaps against Philadelphia way back when, or against New Jersey, and certainly against Orlando. The Raptors were the better team and failed to show it when it counted. The truth, of course, is that this was never in the plan. There were no delusions of grandeur at the outset of the campaign and all this is simply bonus. However, the pain of missed opportunity is unable to cover up the low expectations that one might’ve had at the start of the season.

The Raptors have learnt a tremendous amount about their current roster this year which will benefit them in the off-season. A GM always needs time to take stock of his assets, and everyone from 1-15 has undergone a thorough evaluation, which should make Ujiri’s summertime decisions more informed. It remains to be seen whether he chooses to invest more time into the current core and hope their improvement is sufficient for further playoff progression, or believes that changes to the nucleus are needed to take the Raptors to the next level. There’s plenty of debate on which direction to go, who to flip and who to keep, and that will make for an interesting off-season. There’s comfort to be taken in that the Raptors have 1) cap flexibility, 2) talent signed to long-term deals, 3) free-agents that have proven to be good fits, 4) a franchise that has improved its image this season, 5) a fan base willing to support a well-run team, 6) ownership that has stated (not done anything yet, mind you) that they are freely willing to enter the luxury tax to compete, 7) stock of draft picks. With those seven foundational elements at hand, Ujiri has options in the market no matter how he angles.

If this was a season about anyone, it was about the fans. It’s easy to point to Maple Leaf Square as the symbol of enthusiasm for Raptors basketball, yet we all know that it goes much deeper. We’ve been here for years, and all the seasons of pain and losing is what makes this year that much sweeter. It’s only a playoff appearance and a hard-fought series, yet to see this club back on its feet and heading in the right direction has given the loyal supporter a reason to smile. Usually when the season ended it was a relief, the time to throw the cadaver out after it had been rotting for some time. This year, we can’t wait for the summer to start, for the chips to fall on the roster and the coaching staff, we can’t wait for next season to commence – that alone is progress in my mind’s eye.

It would have been sweet to face Miami but if that series had ended in a sweep at the hands of Chris Bosh, it would’ve been worse than going out right now. Am I trying to find a silver lining? Yes, though I don’t need to since this season has given us lots to cheer about as it is. Unless you win the championship every playoff team goes through this feeling, ours just came a little earlier than we felt like it should have. In the end, I can say without a doubt, that I’m proud of his team.