Leading up to the start of the 2014-15 season, we'll be asking 20 questions about the team. Some of them more serious than others. All of them hopefully interesting or at least enough to spark a meaningful discussion. After hours of brainstorming, we came up with a perfect name for these articles, we're calling them 20Q's.
The Toronto Raptors start their 20th season with a home heavy schedule and end it with a slew of road games. In an ideal universe, this would be reversed. Still, the Raptors have positioned themselves to succeed and seem determined to exceed the 48-win, first round loss, of last year.
An 82-game NBA season, like any of its individual units, can be appraised in smaller increments. In fact, it probably should be; looking at the full schedule all at once can be, in a word, overwhelming.
A good start to the season is crucial. During the Raptors' last three losing campaigns, the squad started with records of 8-12, 6-14 and 4-16. And this was actually seen as an improvement; many of us still remember the astounding 1-15 start of 2005-06. Even last year, as the now famous narrative goes, the Raptors sat at 7-13 after the first quarter of the season before the momentum of the post-Rudy Gay era swept them onward to success.
Fortunately for the 2014-15 Raptors, besides being owners of a surfeit of optimism this year, the team should benefit from a home heavy schedule for the season's first 20 games. This is highlighted by a 7-game home stand that sees them face off against some of the conference's doormats (Philadelphia, Orlando, Milwaukee) and a couple of eastern rivals (Washington, Chicago). The Raps had a strong home record of 26-15 (good for 13th in the league) last season while boasting the league's 10th best attendance, a fan base coach Dwane Casey referred to as the team's "16th man."
But then there's that old adage: winning teams win on the road. While a good start helps get the season off on the right foot, road trips await.
The first significant road test for the Raptors will come post-Christmas and into the new year. The team will set off on a six game road trip that takes them through the stronghold in Chicago and then on a western odyssey that features games against the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland, Golden State and Phoenix. A friendly run of six home games immediately afterwards will be their reward.
The Raptors surprisingly good road record (22-19) placed them at ninth best in the league last year - for a tie with the Miami Heat, the NBA's then-defending champions. Four years ago the team was looking at a 6-35 (!) road result which has seen a steady improvement since (10-23 in '11-'12, 13-28 in '12-'13).
Last season in late December, a rejuvenated Raptors squad grabbed consecutive road wins in Dallas - a city they hadn't won in since 1999 - and Oklahoma City - a team that hadn't dropped a home game all season to that point. They ended up getting annihilated by San Antonio in the following game, but it was still a memorable and encouraging way to end the first half of the season.
To begin the second half, a time when many teams are limping towards a much needed All-Star break vacation, the Raptors will enjoy the comforts of an early February run of five home games. (Relatively speaking, of course; it'll feature games against powerful Clippers, Spurs, Wizards and Nets teams.)
Right after the All-Star break however, the team runs through its third and final sequence of four games in five nights - for the first time, all road games - that will see them take on Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans and Dallas. The Raptors had one lone 4-in-5 sequence last season during which the team went 1-3. They play a total of 19 back-to-back pairs (up from 18 last season) this year, as well. Though it should be noted that the Raptors actually finished with a respectable 21-15 record in those games overall in 2013-14.
In the Raptors favour, as Ed Kupfer notes (summarized here on Deadspin), is a schedule that sees them play many of their opponents, both at home and on the road, with the advantage of more rest days. In fact, according to Kupfer's chart, the Raptors are in the top third of the league in terms of number of games versus opponents playing on no rest days. While more rest for the Raptors doesn't necessarily equal more wins, and tired opponents don't always make for easy victories, it does suggest an easing of the burden during a long season. The Raptors managed a meagre 10-8 record on zero rest days last year, compared with a more robust 38-26 split - over an obviously larger sample size - on at least one day's rest.
Now we come to the final stretch of the season, the one marked by probable tense showdowns with conference rivals (including Charlotte twice, Brooklyn and Miami) that should have a noteworthy effect on the Raptors postseason position. And like the fourth quarter of a close game, sometimes anything can happen.
The Raptors will move into March and April with a mix of all the aforementioned game types. They'll have a brief three game home stand, and a late four game road trip. They'll also have four back-to-back games, and the usual slew of contests played on some rest.
To the benefit of the Raptors' playoff seeding, they'll arguably be fixed atop the Atlantic Division by this point of the year. With Brooklyn's reworking of its personnel, the Knicks ongoing adventures in chemistry, and the Sixers and Celtics entrenched firmly in rebuild mode, a minimum standing of fourth in the East seems inevitable for the Raptors by the season's final quarter.
The one ugly element that could derail the season: injuries, as always. Last year the Raptors were extremely lucky on the injury front, with only Patrick Patterson missing considerable time (12 games) late in the year. The starting lineup of Lowry-DeRozan-Ross-Johnson-Valanciunas missed a total of 13 games all season. It feels unlikely that that particular feat will happen again. Fans should feel grateful for the deeper bench the franchise has assembled this year.
With the Vegas line set at 49.5 wins, a confident selection of the over would give the Raptors their first 50-win season in franchise history. I have this version of the Raptors going 52-30, which should be good enough for a solid third place in the conference and a possible first round matchup against a re-jigged Miami team or a fired up Charlotte roster.
The Raptors' enhanced roster and schedule projections suggest the 50-win plateau is within the realm of possibility. But preseason optimism only gets a team so far. The Raptors still have to go out and play 82 games.