Raptors will thrive under raised expectations
Toronto looking to build on division-title season
The Toronto Raptors tip off their 20th NBA season on Wednesday night with a home game against Atlanta.
To say the team’s two-decade history has been up-and-down would be a significant understatement. At the moment, however, the Raps again sit at one of the high points in franchise history. Last season’s surprising 48-win Atlantic Division title has set the stage for another cycle of higher expectations.
Don’t forget we’ve been here before. In 2001, following the deepest playoff run in team history and the re-signing of key players, terms like “NBA Finals” were bandied about liberally. Yet intangibles like the loss of Charles Oakley hurt more than estimated and, more importantly, the injuries to Vince Carter began piling up.
After an unexpected Atlantic title in 2007, a power shift in the division coupled with some player losses and a bad trade in 2008 dispatched Toronto back to also-ran status.
Is there anything that makes this edition of Raptors success different?
Lowry looks to stay hot
When an NBA player has a breakout season in a contract year — as Kyle Lowry did in 2013-14 — it's basically due diligence to take the visions of dollar signs into consideration. But while nobody has a crystal ball, it makes sense to take Lowry at his word that he’s learned and grown a lot in his nine-year career.
“A cool basketball player is a garbage basketball player,” the Raps point guard told Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams in a tremendous piece last month.
Lowry's backcourt mate DeMar DeRozan has built a reputation for improving some aspect of his game each year he’s been in the league. This summer it was working on a pull-up jumper and his handles. Time will tell, but his past performance indicates success.
Centre Jonas Valanciunas and small forward Terrence Ross will be expected to take another step. The frontcourt remains one of the toughest in the East, bolstered by the addition of James Johnson, but the Raptors’ real depth may be on the wings. Finding the right rotation with combo guards like Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams will be a challenge for coach Dwane Casey, but there’s another factor at play here.
Last season the Raptors were, in a word, lucky, in the sense that they avoided extended periods of missed games due to injury. Conventional wisdom in the NBA indicates that doesn’t last forever, so depth at the end of the day is, on paper at least, a good thing. The two-point-guard lineup of Lowry and Vasquez was particularly efficient last season, and it benefited Valanciunas and Amir Johnson specifically through pick-and-rolls.
Things would have to be particularly dire to see more than garbage-time action from first-round pick Bruno Caboclo this season, but he tantalized enough in pre-season action that any floor time he gets will set Twitter off.
There are always questions as to whether chemistry — a bigger intangible in basketball than any other major sport — can be carried forward. There will be questions as to whether the Raptors can stay buckled down on Casey’s sacred defensive intensity.
While the conference witnessed a power shift with LeBron James's move from Miami to Cleveland, the Atlantic Division didn’t. And, aside from depth, if you can take anything from this Toronto squad compared to the previous all-too-brief success stories, it's that this team is better coached.
Stay healthy, Toronto.
Prediction: 50-32, 1st in Atlantic Division, 3rd in Eastern Conference
Nash's impact felt on Canadian hoops
In 1992, point guards from Victoria, B.C., didn’t get NCAA scholarships. Nash's high school coach sent VHS tapes (the height of video technology at the time) to dozens of U.S. schools before Santa Clara — and only Santa Clara — bit.
Four years of spectacular play got him selected 15th in the 1996 NBA draft, a major accomplishment for a Canadian at the time. For this, he was welcomed to Phoenix with boos from Suns fans. Two forgettable seasons later, he was traded to Dallas.
But you could make the case that the turning point of his career came in leading Canada to a memorable sixth-place finish at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Going into the following NBA season, the Mavericks had him behind Howard Eisley on their depth chart. That didn’t last long.
The rest is history. The thing is, stories like that really don’t happen in the NBA. The only debate left today is over who supplied more of the impetus for the rise of Canadian basketball — Nash or Carter?
In an excellent 2013 article by Eric Koreen in the National Post, Toronto-based NBA agent Mike George offered that Carter meant more to the current generation of black Greater Toronto Area players. While that's undoubtedly true to some degree, there is no denying Nash’s impact.
It’s also worth noting how much Nash has done for the national team. He's been integral in rehabilitating the damaged image of Canada Basketball, and getting that generation of Toronto-born first-round NBA talent interested in the national program. Nash is perhaps the only man who could have done that.