The Toronto Raptors season does not start tonight. Despite a bizarre group-think that began spreading across Raptor-land last night, the start of a prolonged west coast road trip does not somehow mark a tipping-point on the season. It does not act as a referendum on the actual quality of this season’s Raptors nor is it poised to reveal all the dark little secrets hiding deep within Toronto’s rotation.
It’s a road trip. Simmer down.
The Raptors are playing their best basketball in franchise history. They carry an unprecedented .786 winning percentage on a 22-6 record, good for a tie for second in the NBA. They own the second-best point differential in the league at +8.7 and are currently riding a six-game winning streak. They have played 42% of their games without DeMar DeRozan, their second-best player and lone All-Star, and have gone 9-3 without him. All of this has happened. All of this counts. None of this serves as an preamble to a six-game road trip. Nothing starts tonight except for a break from the city of Toronto while it helps host the World Juniors.
Besides, what are we really supposed to learn on this trip? If they drop games to Golden State and Portland, does that somehow tell us something about this club? Golden State is blitzing through the league, having lost only three games, and Portland sports the same record as the Raptors. Lose either of those games and the Raptors join a very large pool of teams (including title contenders like the Clippers and Spurs) that have dropped a contest to one of those clubs.
And what about the fictional narratives about the significance of playing teams like the sub-.500 Denver Nuggets or middle-of-the-pack Suns? In order to pad the impression of the importance of this trip are we really supposed to inflate the value of those two games? Those are exactly the teams that Toronto has been feasting on so far this season. Even if they drop one of them it hardly acts as some sort of cataclysmic event that foretells of heretofore unseen troubles.
Believe me, I get that sportswriting is about creating narratives out of tangentially related occurrences. The job is to derive big picture meanings out of potentially isolated events, or to cobble together trends out of disparately related statistics. Sometimes those narratives pan out and sometimes they don’t. That’s the job. I get that.
However, this is not your grandpa’s Raptors. This is not a hastily assembled roster just treading water. They don’t need to survive a west coast road trip in order to validate their worth. Yes, in previous seasons that is exactly what this trip would have served to do. As those teams struggled to understand if what they had was worth continuing along with they could use long trips like these to assess how best to move forward as an organization. That’s not this team, though. Even if they dropped every game on this trip they’d still be ten games over .500. This trip isn’t a bellwether event, it’s a road trip against some good teams and some bad teams that is farther away from home than usual.
Besides, if you really want to get into it, no game that this team plays without DeMar DeRozan can be said to be indicative of anything. However you want to look at or evaluate the construction of this roster, you cannot do so in a big picture way without DeRozan at or near the centre of the appraisal. Large swaths of what this team is designed to do is predicated on DeRozan’s presence and performance. If this team is being designed for postseason play, and it is, then there is very little of substance that can be drawn from games where DeRozan doesn’t play.
Yes, it’s great when Lou Williams or Terrence Ross can excel when they are given more shots and a greater role in the offence, but the looks that they are getting and the usage rates that they are seeing are totally different than the way that things are when DeRozan is with the team. Yes, it’s great to know that Landry Fields still has some meaningful basketball in him, but when DeRozan is healthy Fields doesn’t play, so what big picture relevance does his emergence have?
Look, all of this stuff matters on a micro scale. You want to win as many games as possible during the regular season and you construct a roster to make that possible, even if injuries hit your best players. Maybe at some point in the season or postseason the experience Ross or Williams got during DeRozan’s absence will be drawn on in a particular game, even if we are never able to draw a straight line of causation between now and then.
More importantly, it’s huge that the team kept themselves afloat while DeRozan has been hurt, and it’s encouraging to see that the parts assembled can play better when pressed into bigger roles, but that doesn’t have huge macro significance. When DeRozan was healthy this team was playing well, it wasn’t begging for an opportunity to come together in his absence. This isn’t 2006, when the Raptors ‘discovered’ themselves while Chris Bosh’s was injured. The Raptors knew who they were when DeRozan went down, and they’ll know who they are when he returns.
By that same token, they’re still a really good team regardless of what happens on this road trip. They’ll play as hard as they can without their second-best player and the chips will fall where they fall. If they continue to win, bully for them, another impressive feat for a team already near the top of the NBA. If they lose some games, well, then that means that a team without it’s lone All-Star may not be armed well enough to best other top clubs. Is that really revelatory?
What these next few weeks represents is a string of games in a season full of strings of games. Every one of those strings tells you something about the club and this string is not wildly more telling than the ones that have occurred to this point. This whole ‘real test’ stuff is nonsense. Yes, reality is real, and yes the club does have to be ready for adversity when it hits. That is not unique to the next six games. You want a six-game run full of adversity? How about the February 6-through-27 run of the L.A. Clippers, San Antonio, Washington, Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, Dallas and Golden State, a run that should have DeRozan back from injury. Why shouldn’t the real season start then? Adversity hits when adversity hits, sometimes its against the best team in the league and sometimes it’s against the Lakers at home on a Sunday. You can’t predict adversity, you just deal with it when it comes.
Narratives work differently when a team is good. The significance of particular instances and games and stretches of games changes when a team goes from measuring themselves in a micro way (like they do when they are bad and are searching for glimmers of hope) to a macro way (like teams do when they are good and keep the big picture in mind over little losses or gains).
Tonight Toronto plays Chicago. After Christmas they play the Clippers. They are games 29 and 30 on an 82-game regular season schedule. Nothing starts tonight. The real season, the test or whatever does not start tonight. The team is too good to be defined by such a small string of games. That’s part of the benefit of being good.
I guess people just aren’t used to that around here.