I’ve been blogging about the Toronto Raptors since some time during the 2007-08 NBA season. Sitting here late on Monday night, a few months removed from the best regular season in franchise history and an unbelievable but heartbreaking playoff series, and days after the conclusion of a league-best 7-1 preseason slate, everything feels kind of unfamiliar.
It’s a strange unfamiliarity, because it’s bred in part by the familiarity of this particular Raptors team. I can’t recall entering a season with so few questions, nor can I recall entering with so narrow a band of expectations for the season. The Raptors are going to be good at worst, perhaps very good at best, and their win range probably sits from 44 to maybe 52 (I have them down for 47, but it appears I’m on the pessimistic end). This is a playoff team, but it is not a contender for the conference title. The team’s seven best players are returning, the coach is back, and nobody is really expected to take more than an incremental step forward. They are better on paper, perhaps appreciably so, but regression from an “everything breaks right” 2013-14 has to be baked into expectations.
These are not complaints. It’s been a relatively boring preseason devoid of narrative or competition or uncertainty. That’s safely more likeable than the opposite. The franchise’s history is a tumultuous and abortive one. Save for the 1999-2002 stretch of three – count ’em – consecutive playoff appearances, there’s been precious little in the way of sustained success. By returning a strong core for this year and largely for next year, the Raptors are clearly valuing sustainability and continuity, something the franchise has lacked quite literally forever.
How you feel about that probably depends on what you hope to get from the basketball team you cheer for. There are some who think through the lens of championship or bust, and to them this offseason may have been disappointing. The team upgraded from a playoff team to a favorite to make the second round, but the ceiling is not sufficiently high, and there’s no clear path to a big leap forward, beyond some cap flexibility that everyone else seems to have as well.
If you’re more like me, you’re looking for an enjoyable and entertaining product with a more realistic view. I can not imagine what it would be like for a team I cheer for to win a championship. I root for Toronto teams and the Jacksonville Jaguars (don’t ask). The only championships in my lifetime were the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993, but I was six and seven and at that time hockey consumed my entire life. I have no idea what a championship would feel like. Maybe because I lack that knowledge, or maybe because the teams I cheer for have been so abjectly terrible for so long now, or maybe because there’s something flawed in how I experience the world, I don’t have eyes on a title. At least not right now. I’m perfectly content to root for a team that I know will be merely good and entertaining, with a strong chance of mild playoff success.
That’s a boring outlook, of course. It’s kind of where the Raptors are at, and I think in part that’s why a good section of the fan base has become so enamored with Bruno Caboclo. Caboclo warrants attention, and any team’s fans would be curious about the league’s youngest player, one who didn’t know any active NBA players other than Kobe Bryant, and one who is very much a puppy with enormous paws, ready to clumsily run around the house crashing into stuff for a few minutes at a time. He’s interesting without team context, but within the context of a team where everything’s the same (sorry, Drake), that gets magnified.
Okay, saying everything is the same is incorrect. The starting lineup is the same but probably better, individual by individual. Kyle Lowry may never match his 2013-14 breakout again but remains very, very good, and was awesome in the preseason. I have complete faith that DeMar DeRozan will continue to make marginal improvements as a creator and a defender (and please, please as a shooter). Terrence Ross is more skilled, but I have no idea if he’s going to be a better basketball player. Jonas Valanciunas looks a tiny bit better in every single aspect of his game, and that may make a big difference in summation. Amir Johnson and Greivis Vasquez are Amir Johnson and Greivis Vasquez. Maybe Patrick Patterson has a little more to show, maybe he’s just a solid floor-spacing backup four.
There are also differences. John Salmons played 1,281 minutes for the Raptors last season. 1,281. That’s over 21 hours. I googled “what could you do in 21 hours” and here was the fourth link returned:
I don’t know if this is the internet’s way of trying to remind me that I’m projecting the Raptors for one fewer win this year and John Salmons played 1,281 minutes last season, shake it off Blake, shake it off, shake shake shake shake shake shake okay it’s 3 a.m. sorry.
It can’t be overstated how big an upgrade a literal salmon would have been over John Salmons last season. Replacing his minutes with additional run for Ross and the addition of James Johnson is huge. As much as I don’t like adding a combustible element to a team so reliant on an indefinable chemistry, Johnson is a strong defender and fills a major need with his ability to guard larger forwards. He can also guard one through four, which allows him to be deployed with nearly any lineup iteration. You know, assuming they don’t give him the ball, because he sometimes think he’s a Kobe-Nash hybrid.
Some of Salmons’ minutes will also be replaced by Lou Williams…kind of. With Williams around and so few minutes available at the one and two, we may see DeRozan at the three with more frequency. Williams is a definite upgrade as the team’s ninth man, even if the fit isn’t immediately clear. The offence looked pretty stagnant with him on the floor in the preseason, and that’s hardly a surprise. One of the reasons fans seem to gravitate toward Mr. Fourth Quarter is that he played like you play a video game, which is really fun and an effective way to score but is kind of a fascist and ineffective way to run an entire offense. I really like Williams, but I do think the preseason may have overstated his role some. Then again, haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate.
Williams and Johnson represent tangible upgrades to the roster. As mentioned off the top, the team is better. Why the lower win prediction then? Everything went right last year. The chemistry was perfect, nobody got hurt beyond nicks and scrapes, and the East was pretty bad overall. The team played at a 54-win pace after the Rudy Gay trade, but again, that was the best case scenario, mostly. I’m not sure the offence is still that good, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it falls slightly out of the top-10. The defense is very real though. This paragraph took a long time to write because I can’t stop watching that Y2J GIF. It’s the greatest.
What else is their to say about this season? It starts on Wednesday. That’s fucking awesome. I’ve never been this excited for a sports season to start before, I don’t think. Up until last season, I was mostly an all-sports person, and wrote equally as often about baseball and basketball, with some hockey and other stuff mixed in. For the past 14 months, my job has been the NBA, 40 hours a week. I loved it before. I breathe it now. This season is going to be so much fun, and the Raptors being a quality team is a big part of that. I’m hoping that’s the case for a lot of people, because late last season and into the playoffs was really fun around town. For the first time, I had random people talking Raptors with me and getting excited about the team. It’d be really great to carry that momentum into the regular season – with so much continuity and a decent schedule to start, the Raptors should be able to hit the ground running and do just that.
I’m really excited. You probably should be too. If me rambling for 1,200 words without any sense of direction, theme, or point didn’t get you fired up, maybe this will:
Also, here’s an ear worm for the rest of your day. Don’t act like you don’t love it.
The season’s here. Praise Shamgod.