Thursday, January 15, 2009

State of the Raptors - January 2009

For all the excitement up north as the NBA season began this year, the wind has been taken out of the sails of many. Toronto and Canadian hoops fans are now stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the Toronto Raptors, whether to give up entirely on this team this year, or hold out hope for a dramatic turnaround. While concern and even doubt have begun to emerge in the Raptors fanbase there should actually be a good deal of optimism instead; Toronto actually has a pretty good foothold in the Eastern Conference at the moment and yes, are even geared to make a playoff run in this 2008-09 season.

The Raptors side had a rough start, that much is clear to anyone who follows this team or basketball at all. But when you look at the fact that even 27 games into the season they still had what could be regarded as the hardest schedule in the entire NBA - as based on the strength of their schedule (the cumulative winning percentage of their opponents). So it should be a little forgivable that they were not fighting for the top of their division, despite the fact that the expectations leading into the year would never allow for it.

Yes, many certainly had hoped for that scenario, the one where the Raps square off with the Boston Celtics nightly for ownership of the Atlantic crown. All things considering though sporting the toughest draw should buy a little bit of consideration (even if it had not worked out that well for Sam Mitchell). With retrospect it is time to start looking forward once more, as Toronto has proven for the most part it can take care of the lesser competition and really is not all that bad of a squad when playing at full strength.

Now with such a hard start to the season there obviously has to be a point where things swing back into Toronto's favour and this comes at the end of their season. Going by the NBA standings as of today, the Raptors would play only 3 of their final 16 games against teams that are currently playoff bound. So as long as there is even a glint of hope for the playoffs in March then this team should have little trouble securing that postseason berth.

Making the assumption that both Jose Calderon and Jermaine O'Neal return to the lineup, with the way the team has gelled recently - most specifically the way the bench has stepped up and come together while missing two key components - in theory Toronto should be fine. You can add to that the apparent awakening of Andrea Bargnani if you'd like and it may raise hopes that this team really does have a chance at gaining some form of legitimacy within the Association, and yes even in this current season.

It would not be that far fetched to believe that the Toronto Raptors, presently 3 games out of the playoffs, would secure another postseason position by year end. Which is what makes a loss such as last night against the Bulls so hard to stomach, where the Raptors - close as the score may have been - were not really in the game at all. Yes, Bargnani and Chris Bosh were in the game, but the rest of the team was lacking. It's this sort of outing that breeds negativity in fans, and it is this sort of effort that cannot be tolerated during the key stretch run to end off the season. The players need to keep their minds in check, and the fans need to accept these losses with the understanding that the playoffs are still a very real destination, that these guys are not "bums".

Bryan Colangelo has taken a lot of heat this year, the saviour GM has now become an openly questioned man - not targeted as of yet, but depending on the way this season ends itself that could easily change. But all this man has done is taken a perennial loser team to the playoffs each season he has been in office; and even this season, far below expectations, still provides a very good chance at another playoff run. The question is whether the playoffs are enough anymore, whether the team formerly lottery bound year-in year-out, after 3 years as a regular playoff team should be making a serious run at the Conference crown and League Championship.

The offseason trades certainly gave that impression of greater things to come, and that is what has so many worked up. However this season would only be the fourth straight year sans lottery selection, and that in itself is an accomplishment for this young franchise. Toronto has not yet earned the right to expect a basketball title, they are not there yet. Should the Raptors not make the playoffs it will be a disappointment but the situation is far from dire at the moment. So just as the team must stay focused on their goals, maybe that same advice can go to the fans as well.

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