For all the hand-wringing we do about the Raptors' future and the grand unknowns it holds, we've been forced to acknowledge that things have been pretty good over the last few years. Sure, there have been setbacks in Toronto -- that Wizards sweep still sticks in my craw -- but we've watched this team go from "who cares?" to "damn good" over a three year period. It's been fun.
The Utah Jazz have be on a similar arc over the past three years. Like the Raptors, they've gone from bad (25 wins in 2012-13, the first year of Toronto's rise) to where they sit now at 18-12, a team ready to kick ass in the West. They've done this by bringing along a cadre of young, talented players -- guys like Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert and Rodney Hood. (Note: Dante Exum is out.) They've figured out ways to make it work even has the injury bug has struck. This year, they made the move to sign veterans -- Joe Johnson (eek), Boris Diaw and George Hill (also, eek; fortunately for the Raptors, Hill is out tonight with an injury) -- to make that final push. They are ready to be good.
Here's the difference that's most striking between the Raptors and Jazz. Both teams are stocked with young players, a core that has had to grow and mature to reach success. But in those three years, as players like Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross (and, sure, DeMar DeRozan too) have figured out who they are, the Raptors have made the playoffs every time. Having a confident Kyle Lowry helps with that, but this is still a team squeezing major utility out of the relatively out-of-nowhere Lucas Nogueira; they've maximized the skills of the twice-traded Patrick Patterson; they've got Pascal Siakam ready to run wild in the wings. For all the trumpeting done at the behest of Jazz as an up-and-coming team, this would be the first year that they've sniffed the post-season (assuming they stay the course). God love'em for it, but the counterpoint Raptors are already there.
How rare is it then for a team like Toronto to be both competing at the highest levels in the league while also developing even more young players? This is a special time.
Anyway, read Dan Grant's preview over here and then settle in for game one of what promises to be an interesting six-game road trip.