The Raptors wrapped up the regular season last night with a win over the Charlotte Hornets, giving them a franchise record 49 wins. The team was 13-2 to start the year, and stood at 24-7 after back-to-back road wins at the Clippers and Nuggets. At the All Star break, they were 36-17.
All of this, and the team's unremarkable play since January, makes the fact the team fell short of getting to 50 wins somewhat disappointing. In a way, the fast start out the gate created an additional layer of expectations that was never realistic for this team. After almost two seasons with this core group, we know where the deficiencies are, and realize this team has a particular ceiling. All of which is really nothing new, it's just the early start created optimism that perhaps there was something more here.
But at the end of the season, this is a team that is below average on the defensive end and sometimes rely too heavily on isolation offense in late game situations. But this was one of the best offenses in the league, Kyle Lowry (when healthy) was awesome, DeMar DeRozan has been playing perhaps the best basketball of his career lately (since March 1st: 24.3 pts, 5.3 rebs, 4.2 asts, 44.9/41.7/87.7 shooting), and Lou Williams has become one of the most exciting (and frustrating, if you gotta hear both sides) players in the league.
The development of Jonas Valanciunas is still an encouraging sign, although it's unclear whether he will ever become a focal point in the offense, at least with this iteration of the roster. Meanwhile, Terrence Ross is somewhere between an enigma and a complete disappointment, although the optimistic side of me -- of which is a huge part of me, sometimes -- thinks the jury is still out.
Put it all together, and while getting from point A (preseason expectations) to point B (the end of the regular season) included some detours into bloated expectations, the Raptors are about where I think most of them expected to be. They just played an entire season where the division title (and as a result, a playoff spot) was clinched two months into the year, and spend the rest of the schedule without giving us much to talk or write about except their flaws, which were all fair to point out.
I guess when you follow sports for awhile, it feels like every season should have its own narrative, or a grand conclusion, but I don't really have one for this Raptors season, except we found out they seemed to be in that strange spot where they're better than the below average teams, but not good enough to challenge the contenders. I wanted to use the term pretender, but it sounds harsh, especially since we know Masai Ujiri will be making some changes to this roster in the summer, perhaps a lot of changes.
I could keep going but for me, an excerpt from Zach Lowe's column earlier this week about Steph Curry and the Warriors vaulting into contender status summed up the Raptors for me:
The leap from "good" to "contender" is one most teams never manage; it’s the final test that destroys them — the NBA’s version of picking the Holy Grail from a pile of chalices.
That's where the Raptors are at, in a place where they need to get from good to contender. How we'll get there is probably something best reserved for after the playoffs.
The postseason will start on the weekend. I can't wait for the crazy home crowds, for Lou Williams to maybe bury a 35-footer with 20 seconds left on the shot clock in a tied game, for the Raptors to try and win a seven game series for the first time in franchise history. Their flaws might doom them over a seven game series, or their individual brilliance, and a breakout game here or there from a Ross or Valanciunas might propel them. For now, I say we let go of the big picture issues for a few weeks, and see how far this playoff run takes us.