Somewhere along the line, North American sports culture decided regular seasons were a meaningless ordeal, overlong prologues to the all-important short stories that are condensed post-season tournaments.
For sixth months of the year, teams are meticulously power ranked and picked apart. Relationships are fractured over MVP debates and cities declare war over what the accurate definition of the word “rookie” really is. What happens in the regular season is everything. Until it’s nothing.
Once the calendar creeps into mid-April, the growth, regression, surprises and disappointments of the regular season are tossed aside like the Woody to the playoffs’ Buzz Lightyear. Post-season success becomes all that matters to most onlookers. Teams that undershoot expectations during the year earn the benefit of the doubt on the grounds of roster talent or past pedigree — hi, Oklahoma City and Washington. Teams that cruised in the regular season — particularly those with past playoff baggage — become beholden to achieving playoff success, lest they have the success of the prior six months forever discredited. (I think you know what team we’re talking about here)..
Look, of course the playoffs should be weighted more heavily compared to the regular season. Post-season circumstances are extreme and pressure-stuffed; weaknesses that went unexposed in the regular season lead off opponent’s film sessions come April. Emerging from the two-month meat grinder to win a conference or claim a title is an unimpeachable achievement. Crushing the spirit of an entire conference for nearly a decade’s worth of springs is the stuff of all-timers. Playoff success has always and will always be more valued than regular season dominance. Set a wins record all you want — no one’s going to give a shit if you get the title ripped from your hands two months after win no. 73.
Maybe that’s really stupid, though. Maybe we should quit sleeping on regular seasons. Take it away, Pablo Torre.
Imagine a college course for which the final exam was worth 100 per cent of the grade. Sure, it’s an acute test of your retention and understanding of the material. But to put so much stock in a one-off test belies the learning journey that preceded it.
That brings us to this year’s Raptors. It was a record-breaking, transformative season in Toronto. For six months these Raptors proved with little doubt that they were different. Before this season, the Raptors sprinkled in threes with near league-low volume. This year, they unleashed a deluge — third in the league in attempted triples behind Brooklyn and Houston. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry learned how to trust others again — or maybe more accurately, for the first time. The benched mobbed it’s way to a Hawksy multi-man award pitch. With the exception of 11th and 12th men Norman Powell and Lucas Nogueira, every young Raptor popped, unlocking a ceiling that no fans or observers anticipated back in early October
Aside from a mini-swoon in late March and early April, the Raptors provided nightly bursts of joy for 82 games, all made more special by the fact that the season wasn’t supposed to unfold as it eventually did.
Before the start of this season, a group of Raptors HQ staffers took part in a grand annual tradition — our preseason round table.
Let’s take a look at what our dearly departed purveyor of cartoon hogs, Harsh Dave, had to say when asked what his definition of success in 2017-18 would be.
“Win a round, cross the 50 win plateau, show some semblance of growth. Honestly, the team result for the Raptors shouldn’t be all that surprising this year. We know what they are. Success for me is unproven individual parts on this team showing they can keep this train chugging along.”
No “title or bust,” proclamations, no desire for a rise to the top of the conference or a historically good NET Rating. All Harsh was looking for from this season was some good old fashioned relevance and modest post-season success.
He wasn’t alone in his relaxed expectations. This is a website by Raptors fans, for Raptors fans, so naturally the tone leans slightly more optimistic than more mainstream outlets, particularly when it comes to pre-season wish-casting. Our staffers weren’t thinking along the lines of Vegas oddsmakers, who had the Raptors pegged for something like 48 win this year. But no one — not even the most optimistic among us — was anticipating a 59-win season that would see a successful stylistic overhaul and ascension into the national spotlight (seriously, different members of the Raptors got the Woj, Lee Jenkins and Zach Lowe treatment this year — the “no one’s paying attention to us” narrative is done).
Here’s Daniel Hackett, one of the most reason-and-logic adhering dudes on the site, predicting how the season would play out later on in the round table post.
“55 wins, first in the East (see? Crazy). The Raptors bench will remain strong with the presence of their all-stars being more important than the role players there, the starters will be way better with a real starting PF and quality SF, the competition in the East is far worse, and with the Cavaliers probably taking it easy and Boston not being nearly as good as predicted, the door is wide open for the Raptors.”
Hackett’s projection felt like an absolute best case vision for the season. When Masai Ujiri locked in Lowry and Serge Ibaka for three years last summer, he hit a refresh button on the team’s window. Three key veterans and DeMarre Carroll leaving, to be replaced by guys still collecting rookie contract peanuts, suggested that 2017-18 was going to be more about developing the two thirds of the roster on rookie deals, with an eye on ratcheting up for another all-in campaign next year in what could potentially be a post-LeBron Eastern Conference.
The young guys being good as fuck expedited the process, of course, and now the goalposts have moved. Cleveland still has LeBron, but their defense is historically shaky for a perceived contender, and next year’s East promises to be a ghoulish hellscape patrolled by a should-be healthy Celtics team and the ahead-of-schedule Sixers. This very well could be the best chance the Raptors get to squeeze through the East. Not all, but some fans have adopted a Kobe-esque “finals or failure” approach to evaluating the playoff run that starts in just a few hours’ time. Succeed, and the Raptors will admonish themselves of their past playoff inconsistencies. Receive the full LeBron treatment again, or, heavens forbid, lose to a Wizards team on the brink of a core meltdown, and Toronto will find itself in a familiar position — nose-first in the butt of jokes, their regular season accomplishments forever to be shat on.
Everyone is free to be a fan the way they please. If you’re one of the people basing your assessment of this season on what happens in the coming weeks, do you.
But I’d implore anyone riddled with playoff fright to take a second, before the playoffs tip off, to appreciate the hell out of what the Raptors provided this year. If this were a class for which the exam was worth the standard 30 or 40 per cent, the Raptors would already have a passing grade for the semester. They succeeded for an entire year in altering the way they play, in addressing their most playoff-prone weak spots. Kyle Lowry was kept fresh and DeMar DeRozan reached a higher plane of play making. No amount of haywire playoff games will reverse the renovation done to Pascal Siakam’s ceiling this season; Toronto could lose in five to Cleveland, but Siakam’s off-the-bounce chops and Olympic hurdler athletic profile will remain next year — along with most of the roster around him.
With 59 wins and a full season’s worth of good feelings, the Raptors have already justified the decision to run back this remixed version of the team. Even if the unfortunate playoff bracket conspires against the Raptors enough to keep them from reaching late May or early June, there will be reason for optimism heading into 2018-19. Assuming no one endures a Norm-like regression, the youthful back end of the roster should be better a year from now. With the exception of Fred VanVleet — who’s played himself into “so good the Raptors have to keep him at all costs” territory — the gaggle of youths will still be on their rookie deals with eons of team control ahead of them. Barring a pants-shitting akin to the Great Soiling of Spring 2015, Toronto’s front office should be comfortable enough with the group it has to go forth with it into next year with confidence that it can once again be an East power.
After all of the change and thrills and encouraging evidence the Raptors’ regular season produced, there’s little reason to believe the Raptors will catastrophically fail their unfairly-weighted final exam this time around. In the event that they do, consider and revel in this year’s unprecedented journey of growth before washing your hands with this era of Raptors basketball.