Belief is a funny thing in sports. We build our beliefs based on when teams and players over or under-perform our expectations, which ends up being how we frame whether a season or game was a success or failure. If we expect greatness, over-performing gets harder and harder, and you end up with the scrutiny the Golden State Warriors can often find themselves under, where it becomes impossible for them to over-perform, and ends up with one of the most entertaining offenses we’ve ever seen often being discarded as ‘boring’, simply because it’s greatness that we knew was coming.
What about the other end of the spectrum though? What if a team was expected to be mediocre, and was suddenly good? Would we then adjust our expectations based on that performance, or would we, because the make-up of the team was still similar to the group that we originally expected mediocrity from, simply adjust, and say that they were good because they overperformed, not because our expectations were too low. What if, as that team’s supporting cast changed, and the personnel changed, and the systems changed, the core remained the same, and they remained good? In fact, they got better when you expected them to regress, found a way to succeed, to re-write their own identity while still winning games. One would think that at some point you’d have to adjust your expectations, you’d have to say that they were better than you’d thought and re-examine your own biases that built those past narratives.
Now, when it comes to the Toronto Raptors, maybe that previous paragraph isn’t completely fair. There has been some recognition given, in that DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are headed to their fourth All-Star game each, and both are beginning to be recognized as some of the best in the game. DeRozan’s improvements this year have been hard to ignore, and despite the attempts of some to call him ‘boring’, he simply isn’t. His newfound decisiveness has brought an excitement to his game that makes him a much more entertaining player as well as a more effective one. For Lowry’s part, a slow start to the season brought about the idea that he was slowing down, an idea that he’s begun to put to rest with a return to his old form this week.
Those expectations, however, haven’t gone anywhere. Reading stories about the elite teams in the league will often bring you face to face with the idea that there are three elite teams in the NBA, in the Warriors, Houston Rockets, and Boston Celtics, and everyone else is simply playing catch-up. When the teams struggle, the Boston Celtics lose because they’re tired and young, and the Cleveland Cavaliers lose because they’re old and disinterested, but the Raptors get no such quarter. In fact, it’s starting to become a talking point that it’s not a talking point that the Raptors are good, which is a strange sort of underhanded compliment.
While DeRozan and Lowry will be recognized for their years on All-Star weekend, the Rising Stars game will have no representation from Toronto. OG Anunoby has had a great start to his rookie campaign, finding a role among the starting lineup for one of the best teams in the league and often guarding the opposition’s best player, while showing impressive poise on the offensive end, not forcing his game but fitting in seamlessly and providing contributions when needed. For the first time in years the Raptors have a starting lineup that ranks among the league’s best units, and Anunoby has to be considered a large part of the reason why, with the differences in net rating for every Raptor when they play with and without him staggering. Three sophomores off the Raptors bench have also been key contributors, with Jakob Poeltl seemingly having nailed down the role of backup center for the team with his impressive pick and roll offensive game and his defensive quickness, and Fred Van Vleet and Pascal Siakam being cornerstones of the bench offense. Still, none of those four will be playing in the showcase, as they weren’t quite deemed good enough.
Maybe that shouldn’t be as surprising as it was when announced, as ‘good but not good enough’ seems to always be the battle this Raptors core is fighting. Even when they succeed, the answer will always be “That was nice, but let’s see it in April.”. And sure, Toronto hasn’t been the most impressive playoff team, but they have won three playoff series in the last two seasons, something no team other than them and Cleveland in the Eastern Conference can claim. They’ve also managed to rebuild and retool on the fly, with the entire bench from two years ago, when they had the best second unit in the league, now departed and replaced by young players still learning to navigate the league.
The great thing is, whether or not those outside of the Raptors organization ever find a way to believe in this squad, they’ve made it clear this season through how they’re playing that they believe in themselves and each other. The new offense is built around that, trusting guys to find a way through their struggles and not simply having the All-Stars do everything if the other guys aren’t succeeding early, and it’s worked to make them a better team.
Belief isn’t just a funny thing though, it’s a powerful thing. It can be weaponized both through the strength of belief in a team, and through a team bonding by the belief that doesn’t exist in them. That’s something this Toronto team hasn’t quite mastered yet in previous seasons, but was seen somewhat in the comments of those four young players when asked about not making the Rising Stars game. To a man, they said that it was something they could use, to prove that it was a mistake to not have them there. The team as a whole needs to take that approach with how they are seen around the league, grab hold of the idea that they aren’t great, that they can’t be trusted to get it done, and use that as a strength.
The concept of a “nobody believes in us” team isn’t a new one, lots of teams have claimed that mantle over the years. The Raptors have a legitimacy to their claim to that title though, in that no one believed they could be this team they’ve been any of the past four years, and the doubt still remains a constant. DeMar DeRozan has made the doubt that’s surrounded him a central part of his growth in his career, often calling attention to where he’s ranked among NBA players and seeming to find inspiration to improve his game from that. He’s become the focal point of the team this year, more than any year previous, and maybe they can become the embodiment of that side of his personality when we get to April and the time for how good this Raptors team is to be judged arrives.