On July 1, 2011 the NBA locked out its players. For five months, Raptor fans had very little to look forward to (save for Jonas Valančiūnas and the continuous hype, but more on that later) beyond understanding that Dwane Casey would stress accountability, culture change and defense whenever the season would begin. As the calendar dates moved each month, fans understood that there would be no training camp, no September to work out the kinks. No camp to examine the condition of the young players that comprise this core (Demar, Davis, Amir, Andrea etc.). No time to establish the parameters of accountability. If there was a season, there was going to be an abbreviated training camp. If any teaching was going to be done, it was going to be done while the season progressed. However, as October turned into November and news of yet another break down in talks between the NBAPA and the NBA arose, the feeling that this season would be lost became predominant. Then, on November 26 news broke that the NBA and NBAPA agreed to a deal. On December 8 the season was officially saved.
Beginning immediately was the rush to start the season by Christmas. Just over two weeks to assemble a roster, begin a training camp, play a couple of preseason games and eventually start the season in Cleveland against the rebuilding Cavaliers. Quickly signed were Aaron Gray, Rasual Butler, Jamaal Magloire and Anthony Carter. Worry about integration later and back to back to back games later. The concern was getting this team ready for a shortened (and in hindsight insane) 66 game season.
As the season progressed several things became clear to Raptors fans and observers (but not universally agreed upon):
- Dwane Casey was a good hire by Bryan Colangelo (but did not share his same sense of personal style)
- The team began to play defence with a determination not seen since the Kevin O’Neill days
- Andrea Bargnani improved his pick and roll defence
- DeMar DeRozan was no ready to take the full reigns of the offence and be a number one option
- We were stressed continuously (and much to the administration’s credit) that this year was a building year and that they would be a poor team
- Jonas Valančiūnas would not suit up for the abbreviated season but would arrive for the beginning of the 2012-13 season and possibly make an impact.
- That this past season, IF the Raptors were healthy would make the playoffs possibly as an 8th seed
- Jamaal Magloire guaranteed the playoffs for the 2012-2013 season and unofficially announced his candidacy as a future community relations employee/spokesperson for the Toronto Raptors
- The Raptors had an impressive divisional record (7-8) and had more wins on the road than they had during a full 82 game schedule
- They finally won in Utah - and Phoenix (let’s not understate this; this was a big win in a tough building against a playoff calibre, Western Conference opponent. One could argue that one win highlighted a lot of the optimism surrounding this team).
By all accounts, from media outlets, fan reports and even from points of view from members of this very forum, this season was an unmitigated success (click here for Bryan Colangelo’s and Casey’s view). From a pessimistic July to an optimistic April 2012, Raptor fans could not and cannot wait for the rebuilding process to end, to add the necessary pieces and to begin the push towards the playoffs. For all intents and purposes, it was understood that the building was complete and the foundation was set based off the promising results of the past season.
However how successful was this season? Was this simply a mirage in a desert filled broken bodies and underachieving teams who could not cope with a shortened season? Are we essentially looking at fool’s gold? To answer these questions, you need to examine the data and the oddity of the shortened season.
First is to place this team and its competitors in perspective. This past season Toronto played and won 3 out of 4 games against Cleveland; won 2 of 4 games against Washington; caught a slumping Boston and Philadelphia team and won a meaningless game at the end of the season in an embarrassing display by the New Jersey Nets of “not caring, let’s just end this” ?itis. The list of players who missed time this season to injury is staggering and reads almost as a who?s who of NBA players: Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams, Chauncey Billups to name just a few. Now, not all of them played against the Raptors, however, to provide some context to how ridiculous this season was, one must incorporate and mention the injuries and overall fatigue caused by schedule. Of course the Raptors weren’t immune to injuries as they missed Jose Calderon, Jerryd Bayless and Andrea Bargnani for large stretches of the season. However, you have to wonder, if the players weren’t thrust into such a ludicrous schedule would teams have been more healthy, thereby providing increased competition? Was this team fortunate in catching some teams at their season low points?
Now truthfully, a lot of this is difficult to determine. I’d argue that it’s almost as difficult as analyzing and providing statistics for ‘intangibles’ however, when analyzing the overall success of the team, placing the team in the context of its success (or failure) is necessary.
Another aspect to analyze is the continuous rhetoric that this team would improve from a longer training camp, from increased work with the coaching staff and that specific young players namely Ed Davis, would benefit most from this. However, does the same not ring true for the other NBA franchises? Do we not think that Derrick Williams, Kyrie Irving, Enes Kanter and Brandon Knight (to name a few) would not benefit from the same type of training camp seasoning? That Lawrence Frank would not benefit from implementing and handling a full training camp? All 30 NBA teams would benefit from this, yet we’ve been continuously told that this team in particular would benefit the most from it. Why? What advantage do we enjoy over the other 29 teams?
Lastly, we must examine Jonas Valančiūnas. In all honesty, very little is known about him. Many players have dominated their age group but struggle in their transition to the professional level. Yet, we have been repeatedly and tirelessly reminded about how important a piece he is and the role he can play next season. The truth is, very few rookies (and this is especially true for front court players) have impactful first seasons, unless they’re playing for a bad team. Think about it for a second. Kyrie Irving played on a poor Cleveland team and had an impressive season. John Wall and Kevin Durant both played a critical role on poor teams. The odds are sadly, not in his favour. This is not to say that Jonas will have a poor year or be a bad player. Instead it’s to provide caution to the impact Jonas will have on this team. IF this team is a playoff contender, then it cannot rely on the talents of a young man, learning a difficult position, learning the nuances of the NBA and getting accustomed to living and working in a new environment. This team will require that its existing core improves while Jonas is ushered in slowly, building confidence for the future, rather than immediate potential results. Yet all season we have been sold and marketed on Valančiūnas which has, rightly or wrongly, distorted this fan base’s expectation of his impact on next season’s team.
And we’re still ignoring the fact that DeRozan struggled this past season (regardless of what the coaching staff had mentioned at the end of the season), Ed Davis showed negligible improvement, Amir Johnson struggled for large parts of the season, Jerryd Bayless did very little to confirm his future as a Raptor, that Andrea Bargnani still showed flashes of his poor habits and that Jose Calderon played above his value during the past season and enjoyed one of his best seasons since 2009.
Does another rookie put us over the top or closer to it? Does Andre Iguodala push the Raptors as a playoff team (what must leave then in a trade from the promising core? the same question needs to be asked if Rudy Gay is a target and even Kyle Lowry)? Do any of the big free agents sign here? Was the improvement real, tangible improvement or was it the case of a team taking advantage a shortened schedule.
Where do we emerge from here? Am I simply being a pessimist? A realist? Or something else entirely? Once we examine the data, place the season in context and this team in context we need to truly ask ourselves, is this a playoff team that is a simply roster tweak away or did we see something in this team that the city and its fan base so desperately want to see. Do we want to see a winning team so badly that we’re willing to over look that sometimes anaemic offence? The fact that this team dropped games to statistically the worst team in the history of the NBA? Or, that while Andrea Bargnani missed games for the Raptors, other teams which made the playoffs also had their own slew of injury problems which hampered their own success during this past season. That when we examine the record, the Raptors still finished 12 games behind a youthful and improving Philadelphia 76ers, a team that upset the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. That possibly, just maybe, we’re looking at fool’s gold?
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