It’s not easy being a Toronto sports fan. Most of the time it actually feels like a condition, a sickness, an inescapable purgatory. For years the fans in this city listen to the hype about their local teams and never see the results on the court, ice or field. The Maple Leafs haven’t been relevant since the 1990′s and may not even play this year (I’ll let you decide whether that’s a good or bad thing), the Jays were decimated by injuries this season and despite the hope of an extra playoff spot in the AL have fallen miserably short of their goal. The Raptors haven’t been exciting since Colangelo’s first year on the job and have struggled ever since winning the Atlantic division in 2006-07. Don’t even get me started on TFC and the Argos are a Doug Flutie and Rocket Ismail short of peaking anyone’s interest. The city hasn’t had anything to truly celebrate since Joe Carter took a Mitch Williams offering into the left field bullpen.
But this year might be different.
Don’t go expecting a parade down Yonge street just yet, but there is certainly reason for optimism as the Toronto Raptors get set to start training camp.
The team has been relatively quiet the last couple of years but seemed to turn a corner last year under new head coach Dwane Casey.
The team is preaching something it has never preached before: defence; and for the first time in years, the Raptors are seeing improvement.
Under Casey last year the Raptors ranked 12th in defensive efficiency, improved to 9th in defensive rebounding and more importantly stressed these aspects of the game when talking to the media and each other in practice.
The “culture change” resulted in overall better play. The Raptors were no longer a push over on the schedule, they quickly became a team you didn’t really wanna play. They lost many close games last year, a staggering 14 games by 5 points or less. Fans began to wonder if Dwane Casey was able to get as much production out of the roster he had, what could he do with an improved roster?
This summer Bryan Colangelo went out and changed the team’s look. This is not exactly an uncommon occurrence when you’re talking about Colangelo and the Raptors. It seems he does this sort of facelift every off-season, trying to find a perfect balance of players that are able to compete in the weaker Eastern Conference.
This summer was different though. He didn’t make a splash for the sake of making a splash. He didn’t try to build a team around a Power forward. There were no Jermaine O’neals or Hedo Turkoglu’s, he didn’t waste money on unproven players like Jason Kapono and he didn’t go overseas looking for the next Jorge Garbajosa.
Colangelo looked to his coach and signed, drafted and traded for players that fit the system and philosophy that Casey is preaching in Toronto. Casey wants to push the ball on offense and defend the ball well to take away opponents chances to score.
Enter Kyle Lowry, Landry Fields, John Lucas III, Terrence Ross and Quincy Acy. Even smaller transactions to fill out the roster focused on the defensive side of the ball with the recent acquisition on Dominic McGuire and the re-signing of veteran Alan Anderson.
Colangelo is giving his coach pieces he needs to continue building a new culture in Toronto. In Kyle Lowry the Raptors now possess one of the better defensive point guards in the league and one that is going to push the ball up the floor on the offensive side of the court. In Landry Fields the Raptors have added a “glue guy”, a player that is happy to do whatever little things need to get done in order to help the team win. He is a lockdown defender and happy to play without the ball in his hands. Given the roster around him, he is likely to have every opportunity to improve his woeful shooting stats with open looks at the basket.
The drafting of Terrence Ross (a defensive specialist and solid 3pt shooter) and Quincy Acy (Reggie-lite) show further commitment to the defensive side of the ball.
With these strong new pieces in place, Dwane Casey can now build a much stronger system for this team to compete with. Add to the fact that the additions will take a lot of pressure off of DeMar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani. They will now have others on the team to share the ball and offensive workload with and teammates who can cover for some of the weaker defenders. DeMar can focus on slashing to the rim and Bargnani can rest assured that he will have open looks with opposing defenses collapsing onto a driving Lowry. Andrea will also not have players cruising to the rim on the defensive side of the ball. Two of the best defenders on this team will be situated on the perimeter and have a knack for staying with their man. This will mean Andrea won’t always need to be helping on the defensive end (something he just isn’t good at).
With the additions of Lowry and Fields it has made the Toronto bench that much more talented by moving Calderon and Kleiza to the second unit. Both players are good enough to be starters on many teams in the league. There are some who may even argue that Kleiza should open the season as the starting SF, but either way the Toronto bench now sports a lot more talent than it did before. Amir Johnson, Ed Davis, Jose Calderon, Jonas Valanciunas, Linas Kleiza, John Lucas are a solid list of reserves for any roster.
Colangelo finally has a deep roster where everyone can focus on the things they do well and a coach on the sidelines who can keep it all organized in a system every player has bought into.
This roster still does not contain a superstar player though. There isn’t that one guy out there who can take control of a game all by himself. There is no Lebron, Durant or Kobe. This is an undeniable fact. Good thing the Raptors play in the Eastern Conference. With their level of talent they should be in the conversation come playoff time.
The Raptors will need to focus on the bottom half of the Eastern conference as the top half seems all but locked up. There are a number of teams who are pretty much guaranteed a playoff berth. Miami, Boston and Indiana are almost sure shots to make the playoffs. You have to think that Atlanta and Brooklyn will be there as well. Chicago is a big question mark without Rose and with a decimated bench. If Tom Thibodeau’s team is able to keep it together without Rose, that leaves 2 spots for NY, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington or Toronto.
Now if you’re the optimistic side of the Mini-wheat you will say that the Knicks are weaker without Lin and Fields, Philadelphia is likely to have injury issues with Bynum and Cleveland and Washington simply isn’t ready for the next step. This leaves Toronto in a pretty good position.
If you’re the pessimistic side of the mini-wheat then you’re looking at NY thinking they are a lock with stars like Amare, Carmelo and Tyson Chandler and the other three teams, with improved young rosters, are also very dangerous threats. This leaves the Raps hoping for a collapse by one or more teams or some serious injury issues somewhere.
No matter what happens the bottom tier teams in the East are not setting the world on fire and could potentially leave the door just open enough for the Raptors to sneak into the playoffs. This might not seem all that exciting when you consider they become likely first round fodder for the Miami’s and Boston’s of the Conference, but it would signify another step forward for this young team. Another move in the right direction for the franchise and a feather in the cap for a coach who seems to be getting better as time goes by.
This team has a plan in place. They have a system that works well, a deep roster with a lot of talent, a coach with vision and GM that is quick to fix problems.
No matter which way you look at it, the Raptors have a good chance of being a part of the postseason discussion this year. There is a good chance they will be playing meaningful games in the Spring. That’s reason to get excited. It’s more than Raptors fans have had the last few years.
If that doesn’t increase attendance and TV numbers, the fact that the NHL is likely to face a long work stoppage could all add up to a year where the Raptors are the centre of attention in Toronto. Something that hasn’t happened since the days of Vince Carter.
With an improved up-tempo roster, a group of players that fit very well into the system and style of play that the coach is preaching, some tradable assets (Calderon, Ed Davis) to potentially use down the road and a coaching staff with a clear vision and philosophy. This might finally be the year the Toronto Sports fan gets to experience something that has been absent for a long time.
Lord knows, this city has endured enough to deserve it.
The Zan Tabak Herald