The one thing you always notice about Toronto -- not just the sports, but the city in general -- after being away for a while is the child-like need for acceptance. Whether it's the hipsters insisting their city belongs in a "world class" conversation or shell-shocked fans trying to locate the glimmer of hope that could make their teams relevant again on the continental scale, it's become a personally trait of the country's largest city.
When they're not locked out, the Leafs -- no matter how many holes exist in their roster -- always seem to provide their oft-delusional die-hard fans the hope that this is the year, the season when 45-plus years of championship-free hockey comes to an end. When the Blue Jays amass some -- but nowhere near enough -- pieces worthy of a contender, you immediately see Jays hats everywhere (although the marketing machine of the country's largest media empire has something to do with that).
Of course you can't knock people for having hope. It's been a tough decade for the Leafs, Jays, Raptors, TFC and perhaps even by 8-team CFL standards, the Argos, and there's a palpable sense that people want just one of them to win something. However, world-class cities don't obsess about being world-class, and realists shouldn't call playoffs when that possibility is only an extreme-best-case scenario (on the flip side, New York would never tolerate a run of sports futility like Toronto's, but I think we can all agree by now we're not New York).
And so that's where the Raptors sit going into 2012-13. A young team with some pieces, its die-hards (not as numerous as the Leafs or Jays, but significant) somewhat split on whether this is a playoff team or not. During training camp, Raps president Bryan Colangelo even offered a time-tested Toronto sports superlative:
"There's that feeling that there could be something special about this group," he said before adding the logical caveat.
"But time will tell."
The reality is however -- on paper at least -- that this is not a playoff team this year. And that may be by no fault of the Toronto roster. The significant alterations made by Brooklyn and Philadelphia in the off-season put the Raptors in a comfortable fifth and last place on the Atlantic division's depth chart.
But sure, it's the East. There are them glimmers of hope. Dwane Casey is a coach who gets the most out of his players (see Bargnani, Andrea, pre-calf injury). Prized 2011 No. 1 pick Jonas Valanciunas, in all of 13 minutes of pre-season work Wednesday
, looked hungry and was speedily effective on two pick-and-rolls, freeing up Bargnani outside. Terrence Ross looked nice in a stretch against the Pistons.
Yet there are also the questions, as there always are. It's safe to say that Kyle Lowry is a major key to the squad. When he returns from the adductor injury, how soon will the cracks begin to grow on Jose Calderon's relationship with the team? Logic has to dictate that he will be traded by the deadline -- and what comes back in return?
DeMar DeRozan's development needs to fast-track. He looked great in Wednesday's loss -- attacking the rim and getting to the line 10 times, addressing his biggest weakness from last season. Despite a bad shot at the end of the game, he was coming off a double and overall played well. But that's one pre-season game. Consistency is a big issue for him.
Wednesday night in suburban Detroit even provided another Raptor fan classic, the "we should have drafted that guy" mini-hysteria. Pistons centre Andre Drummond
scored 12 points with seven boards and two blocks in half a game of action. That alone was enough to set Raptor Twitterverse on fire.
So as much as things change, they stay the same. Positives? Yes. Post-season? Probably not. But let's wait and see. Everybody loves a winner -- or a near-.500 playoff team.
: Yahoo! Sports reported late Wednesday that the NCAA is investigating possible improper benefits given to University of Texas point guard and Toronto native Myck Kabongo by Rich Paul, an agent who also represents LeBron James -- as well as Canucks Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph. For those of you not familiar with the NCAA's dystopian rules, you are not allowed to buy a student-athlete lunch.
Final numbers from my highly unscientific poll of North American jerseys seen being worn over two weeks in Hong Kong: Kevin Durant (1), Carmelo Anthony (1), Ray Allen (Celtics, 1), Dwight Howard (Magic, 1) and oddly enough a New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski -- not to mention a Winnipeg Jets pennant on the wall of a bar.
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