The Toronto Raptors have, for most of their existence, been regarded as a team that simply makes up the numbers. The proud Canadian will undeniably take offence to that statement, but they have little evidence to argue against it. Apart from five playoff appearances in the last two decades, Canada's team has morphed into an almost non-existence.
Canadian basketball fans have endured so much pain over the years, it's amazing that the sport is in fact on the rise north of the border, with the number of Canadian players in the NBA at an all-time high. Looking back at the Raptors however, it is time for them to finally see the light and stop traipsing through the tunnel of darkness.
That light may now just be starting to be within sight, as Toronto's ball club owns a record that is seven games over .500 and sit admirably in the third spot in the Eastern Conference. In a regular season that has been labelled the ‘season of tank', the quality of the East has dropped significantly. Was it just three months ago that the Brooklyn Nets were being tipped to give reigning champions, the Miami Heat, a run for their money? The Jason Kidd-led Nets currently sit seventh, nearly 17 games back of LeBron James' Heat.
Despite the lack of competition, the Raptors have controlled their own destiny. Predicted by many to compete for a top five draft-pick at the start of the season, the Raps have shoved the ill-fated words down the throats of pundits across the league including. What was supposed to be a season based on ripping apart the squad and building for the future, has turned into one filled with optimism and promise. Credit goes to coach Dwane Casey, who has had his team playing at a high level despite having his job on the line from the jump.
I guess the question is not whether the Raptors will make the playoffs: that is clearly a given. It's not even how far they will go: at this point, barring a warring good match-up with the Bulls it appears they will inevitably lose to the Heat or Indiana Pacers. The question that the front office should be asking is whether "this thing is for real?" Does this team have the building blocks to become the next Pacers or Memphis Grizzlies?
What do I mean by this? Let me explain. Indiana has slowly become THE team to beat in the NBA. Yes the Heat has beaten them two straight years in the playoffs, and yes Miami has gone onto win the title both times, but the Pacers have transformed themselves into perhaps the favorites to land the title in 2014. How have they done this? By carefully piecing together a jigsaw puzzle that is the closest thing to the 2004 World Champion Detroit Pistons. Remember that team? Their success was predicated on no one player. A title won based on a star team rather than a superstar player, or players. If you ask five experts around the league who the best player was on that team, you'll likely get five different responses. Ask the same five who the best player is on the current Heat team, you'll only get one answer.
Now look at the 2014 Pacers team and you're able to see the resemblances entrenched from the bench right through to the starting five. The Pacers are a team that is built to win. The Raptors are a long way off this kind of success, but the potential is certainly there. If you analyse the current squad, there is no superstar. Demar DeRozan is of course in the limelight due to his huge leap forward this year and All-Star appearance, but it could be argued that the All-Star-level play of Kyle Lowry has as much, if not more, to do with the team's success as DeRozan's. Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, bench players like Patrick Patterson, all have played major roles in the club's recent success. The point here is that the Raptors, like the Pacers, like the 2004 Pistons, don't have a superstar player and are benefiting from the synergies of a solid all-round team. For Masai Ujiri and co, the challenge then is to keep these synergies intact, all the while adding additional productive parts, as the Pacers have done this season.
So while I'm certainly enjoying this current stretch of Raptors' play, and the likely playoff berth to come, what I, and many other Raptors' fans are eagerly anticipating, is what comes next.Le