With a day off before Toronto's final match prior to the NBA's All-Star break, Franchise looks at just what the potential of this year's club could be...
Yesterday, while doing some unpacking thanks to a recent move, I got a chance to tune into the Fan 590 to listen to Jack Armstrong and Eric Smith talk some sports.
Besides the usual spread of topics, from hockey to baseball, a question was posed to the listeners;
With the recent success of the Toronto Raptors, the big-name acquisitions by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the new ownership and management structures with the Blue Jays and Argos, are you as a Toronto sports fan, feeling better about the direction of the city's sports teams?
The answers were mostly of the "yay" variety, however I admittedly found the question itself slightly comical.
I mean, wasn't such a question jumping the gun JUST a bit?
The Leafs are still out of the playoffs, the Jays are mired in what appears to be another long rebuild, who knows (or as one caller put it, "who cares") about the Argos, and for all the recent success of the Raptors, there's still nearly half a season to go, a big question concerning getting out of the first round of the playoffs, and of course, the ever-present shadow of the Chris Bosh situation.
No, I'm not sure I'm quite ready to wave the T-Dot flag high and proud just yet...
But what about the Dinos? I mean, can this club continue to suprise and maybe hit the 50 win plateau? And can they win a playoff round in the process?
The assumption, even when Toronto started to roll last month, was always that the team would peak at 5 in terms of playoff seeding, and probably still bow out in the first round. In fact, until listening to Jack and Eric yesterday, I hadn't even given the other options much thought. Especially since, while this recent swing is nice record-wise, it's not like the Raps are in the Western Conference and have just finished a string of wins over Utah, Portland, Houston, New Orleans etc. The schedule has turned in their favour and while so far they've won most of the ones they should have won, perhaps the true tests of this club's caliber lie at month's end.
However, let's take things one step further.
Prior to the season I had guesstimated a 42 win year, thinking that once the schedule evened out we'd see a good, but not great club; one that usually beat up on lessor foes, but struggled against the big dogs. However with 28 wins, the club is actually on pace for about 45 victories already, and that forecasted win total could jump even higher considering upcoming matches against Philly, New Jersey and Washington.
As mentioned, the schedule toughens up again towards the end of the month, but it's fairly balanced from here on out. So if Toronto won three of their next five (quite plausible considering the aforementioned schedule), and then ONLY went .500 the rest of the way (the remaining 26 games), that would still give them a 44 win season. Add on the fact that Toronto plays more home games than away games the rest of the way, hopefully some good health, and at face value, it would seem that 50 wins isn't out of the question for this team.
Of course winning 50 games means little if the team again can't get out of the first round.
So what about this facet? Does the team have what it takes to make the next step?
I'm not sure as of yet, but I think the two in some ways go hand-in-hand; an ever-improving Raptors' club that can hit that 50 win mark, should also be well on the right path to winning a playoff series. As demonstrated above, Toronto can't just beat up on cream-puff teams to get that "fitty," they'll have to vanquish some solid foes, similar to what they'll face in the first-round of the playoffs.
And to do that, I think there are two main areas that need to improve post All-Star break:
1) Wing play.
This is the most obvious one for fans in all likelyhood (along with improved defence, which we'll get to in a minute) and a quick look at the stats lends even more weight. Currently, Toronto's average PER from the 2 and 3 spot is about 13. The average for opponents? Almost 17.
For this team to take the next step, that simply has to improve, and it starts with The Ottoman himself. Hedo has the the third highest "wins produced" score on the Raptors right now, but he's sagging behind his Orlando averages in this respect. And while others like Sonny Weems, Marco Belinelli and DeMar DeRozan are producing a positive "wins produced" scores, they're not positive by much, and Antoine Wright is dragging things down with a solid -2.1 projected wins produced.
Of course, Antoine has been much better of late and Hedo has shown some signs of life too. If these two get on track and display some consistent traits at both ends, and DeMar DeRozan starts to live up to his draft billing, then suddenly we're talking about a team well on the way to 50.
And let's talk Mr. DeRozan for a second. No one's really focussing on this too much because of his highlight reel dunks and All-Star weekend inclusion, but he really isn't producing enough to be a starter at this point. He's on the court 40% of the game, yet is a team worst -82 in terms of net points, is an offensive liability, and has one of the lowest "win percentage" scores of the entire team. For those who thought that DeMar should be a shoo-in for the rookie game, statistically, it doesn't look to be the case. He's producing only 0.5 wins currently whereas Jonas Jerebko, who many thought robbed DD of his spot, is more than doubling that at 2.6, second-best on the Pistons. Put it this way, Portland's Donte Cunningham has been almost as productive as DeMar by these measures.
Yes, it's been better of late. No, it's still not exactly "lock-down." We've all seen the stats so perhaps no need to harp too much, but suffice to say that even if the Raps could get into the middle of the pack in terms of defensive efficiency, this club would be that much more deadly.
Raptors' assistant coach Micah Nori was on the Fan590 yesterday talking about the team's defensive schemes and what was encouraging, was the discussion involving late-game situations. Toronto has an overall plan they've put into effect for how they want to guard clubs, but it's late in games when the team needs key stops that they've really started to become effective.
Take the win over Sacramento on Sunday. I didn't think much about this at the time, but in the final quarter, the Raps did an excellent job of getting the ball out of Tyreke Evans' hands and forcing other players to take key shots. Evans as a result finished with a measly 11 points and really wasn't a factor in the second-half of the game.
If Toronto can extend this late-game mentality to matches overall, and tighten up the transition D, this would bode well in not only hitting that 50 plateau, but also advancing past the first round of the playoffs.
And that's really what this is all about right?
If the team wins 50 and gets swept in the playoffs, it's pretty hard to think about that franchise-best win total. The goal here should be to continue to build towards a complete and healthy squad for playoff time, one that not only plays in the extra season, but gets one step beyond.
And forget the Argos and Jays, if the latter should occur, then and only then, will I be able to answer the question posed by Jack and Eric with a resounding yes.