Unless you’re a fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves – in which case you’ll probably spend the next few weeks praying that none of your players injure themselves doing something seemingly innocuous – the 4 weeks leading up to the start of the regular season, encompassing media day, training camp, and the pre-season games, is a time of cautious optimism. Everything about your team can appear ‘new and shiny’, even when it really isn’t.
In fact, as depressing as it may sound, for many fans this is as good as they’ll feel about their team all season. A few months of distance from basketball has softened the cynicism created by many of last year’s disappointments. The positive sound bites confidently articulated by coaches, players, and management — We’re focusing on defense. He’s lost 15 pounds and is in the best shape of his life, more agile than ever. He’s put on 15 pounds and is stronger than he’s ever been. Who the hell is John Hollinger, anyway? – have yet to clash with the harsh reality of NBA competition.
The 19th century German Field Marshall (stay with me here), and military strategist, Helmuth von Moltke famously proclaimed that, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy". Or in the words of Mike Tyson, "Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth". Yep, everything looks good on paper in early October. Everyone’s been working on their weaknesses – defense, 3-point shooting, efficiency, coaching strategy – the new additions are slotting seamlessly into their new environments, and the organization has a coherent plan of attack. As Moltke and Tyson assert, however, chaos reigns once all that theory gets applied in practice.
But early October is fun because we just don’t know with absolute certainty how good or how bad things are going to turn out -- or at least, as fans, we can enter into a temporary state of denial until reality hits in a few weeks. Maybe Kobe Bryant recovers in time for the opening game and defies the critics to lead the Lakers to the playoffs. Maybe John Wall becomes a legitimate superstar and makes the Wizards relevant again. Maybe Al Jefferson transforms the Bobcats from laughingstock to a mildly competitive team. And maybe, as it relates to the Raptors, all the time DeMar DeRozan spent working on his 3-point shot during the summer will translate into tangible on-court results.
Anything can be imagined in early October – except maybe that the Philadelphia 76ers will win more than 15 games this season. That’s a real stretch.
And even by the heady standards of most opening weeks, it’s been a particularly exciting few days for the Toronto Raptors. Prior to the usual positive proclamations regarding player physiques, skills honed over the summer, and new goals set, we had the official announcement that Toronto is going to host the 2016 All Star Game, an exciting development that will put the NBA front and centre in the city for that weekend, and will give the city a real economic boost in the process.
And then there was the news that the Raptors are entering into a rebranding process over the next couple seasons, aided by Aubrey Drake Graham, or Drizzy Drake, as he’s known to everyone but his mother. Drake will be taking on the role of Raptors Global Ambassador – and yes, like everyone else, (apparently, the organization included), I don’t exactly know what that entails. But just like his music, it sounds good.
Well, I don’t actually listen to Drake’s music, but I know that he’s cool in the sense that the people I know who are cool, think he’s cool. He seems to be passionate about the game of basketball and is well-respected among many of the players across the league – although if he’s on the Raptors payroll, attempts to talk players into coming to Toronto could leave the team open to accusations of tampering. But at the very least having a star like Drake on board in an official capacity is fun and may turn the heads of some casual fans -- especially when it provides plenty of surreal photo opportunities.
The rebranding process, which Drake is going to play a large role in, is supposed to involve the changing of the team’s colour scheme and logo. It's curious in the sense that it doesn’t address the part of the brand that a lot of fans felt was most in need of a change: the team’s name. Tim Leiweke says he was outvoted on that one. But the announcement of a change to the overall aesthetic -- a new coat of paint, so to speak -- or to put it a little more cynically, a change of style over substance, has the effect of creating some buzz, and some anticipation around the franchise in the coming months and years. And ultimately if you can create a little excitement, no matter how trivial, as an organization you’ve done your job on media day.
Of course, all this optimism created by the Drake announcement, and the rebranding project is without any real substantive meaning when it comes to on-court affairs at the present time. What matters come late October is winning basketball games. Winning basketball games will do more for a team’s reputation, and will do more to entice free-agents to come and play north of the 49th parallel, than any uber-cool rapper, or change of colour scheme.
And to many players currently on the Raptors roster, Monday's fanfare was fairly meaningless. What does Toronto getting the 2016 All Star Game, and having Drake on board, really mean to Kyle Lowry at this stage? If he doesn’t play well this season he won’t be around anyway. And a change of logo means nothing to a guy like Rudy Gay, who could be traded by February if things don’t go as planned.
The meaningful decisions and strategies in the immediate months, of course, will come from inside the offices of Masai Ujiri, Leiweke, and to lesser extent Dwane Casey. We all know that these decisions – to tank, or not to tank, who to trade and when to trade them, how many minutes to allocate a certain player – will ultimately affect the way we feel about the Raptors comes April, maybe even come late November. When the season begins October’s feel-good announcements will be buried in the back of most Raptors fans' minds.
But nevertheless, early October is a time for optimism, a time for enjoying the trivial, for temporarily suspending our disbelief – a time for re-branding announcements. So right now I’ll just sit back and imagine a less-than-kosher conference call between Drake, Rob Ford, and LeBron James.