The Toronto Raptors played their best basketball of the season down the stretch, providing a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been.
But Thursday as the NBA season was about to get really interesting, the Raptors were done and departed, their Air Canada Centre lockers empty — and that said everything about their season. Once again, it wasn't good enough. Different year, same story.
The Raptors (34-48) won seven of their last eight games, but finished four games back of a playoff position, missing the post-season for the fifth consecutive year.
Now the biggest question heading into another off-season of uncertainty— for a team mired in mediocrity — is the future of president and GM Bryan Colangelo and coach Dwane Casey.
Colangelo doesn't have a deal for next season, with the club holding an option on what would be his eighth year. The Raptors made the playoffs in Colangelo's first two, winning their first Atlantic Division title in his rookie campaign.
Casey has one year left on his contract. And while the coach acknowledged change is part of the NBA, he said he supports keeping Colangelo in Toronto.
"I want Bryan back. Bryan hired me here. I don't want to go into another year with a new general manager," Casey said Wednesday, before the Raptors tipped off against the Boston Celtics in their season-finale. "We know each other and I know he knows what we're looking for, what we're trying to do.
"He's done a good job of taking big steps, getting big assets and pieces of a core together. I'd like to finish it out and I'd like to do it with Bryan."
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. already cleaned house with two of its other teams this season, firing Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke and totally revamping the Toronto FC front office.
'Rebuilding' days are over
Both Colangelo and Casey are scheduled to meet with the media on Monday to rehash the season that got off to a horrible 4-19 start.
After a couple of seasons of preaching patience with the rebuilding Raptors, there was a quiet sense of optimism surrounding this team at the start of the 2012-13 campaign. But their season went off the rails early, the Raptors digging themselves a hole so deep they needed a spectacular turnaround to salvage the season. Their so-so 30-29 finish wasn't enough.
DeMar DeRozan, whose improved play in the past few weeks was one of the bright spots on a dreary season, said he planned to parlay his disappointment into motivation this off-season.
"It means everything. Everything," DeRozan said on what a playoff appearance would represent. "This is what I trained in the summer for. This exact reason, to play in the playoffs. That doesn't do nothing but fuel me personally and fuel other players on this team. I look up to a guy like Rudy (Gay), played in the playoffs, knows how intense it is. I just want to experience that.
"I think that'll bring out the most in a lot of players on this team. I think we'll definitely be something to reckon with."
But it will be another year before they find out.
Other than front office decisions, the off-season will be a relatively quiet one compared to last season's dealing that brought Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields to Toronto. The team lacks the financial flexibility to make any big moves, and has no draft pick unless it beats the draft lottery odds and winds up in the top three.
The players said they look forward to some stability in the starting lineup.
"That's huge for us," Lowry said. "With the guys that are coming back — me, DeMar, Rudy, JV (Jonas Valanciunas), Amir (Johnson) — that lineup, we've played together. . . what, about two months and it's been pretty good.
"I think coming back and knowing how to play, knowing the situation with JV getting a little bit better, with DeMar getting a lot better, and Amir being consistent like he was and Rudy becoming more of the star he could possibly be, and myself being healthy and aggressive and being myself, I think we've got a good, solid starting five."
Lowry's season was a disappointment as the point guard who was supposed to bring a "bulldog" mentality to the team nursed a groin injury in training camp, then tore a triceps muscle in December, losing his starter's job to Jose Calderon. Lowry played his best basketball of the season in the last couple of weeks.
"Too many ups and downs for me," was how Lowry summed up the season. "Injuries set me back a lot, just a lot of things in general, very disappointed for myself because I know I'm a much better player than what I've shown this year."
The one big bright spot on this dreary season won the development of Valanciunas, the rookie who the Raptors originally left in Europe for an extra year of maturing before bringing him to Toronto. The 20-year-old got off to a rough start, sitting out training camp with a calf injury. Other teams took it to him, capitalizing on the big rookie's inexperience, but the end of the season the 6-11 centre was holding his own against the best in the league.
Valanciunas will spend some time in Toronto working with Raptors coaches before returning home to Lithuania for national team duty.