The Toronto Raptors have existed for 19 years. Throughout their entire history they have made the playoffs five times, advanced to the second round once, and have only won a single division crown. This year’s team looks to be one of the few good teams in franchise history. They are offering promise not only for this season, but for future seasons as well. Unfortunately the past always has a way of recurring, so of course the surface characteristics of this year’s team resembles one particular Raptors squad of the past. Beware because this may cause nervous angst; for that team is the Bryan Colangelo constructed 2006-2007 division champion Raptors.
In 2006-2007, the Raptors started out 2-9. Although they went 45-26 after that rough start, their schedule seemed to have played more of a factor in their turn around. That version of the team went 9-20 against teams over .500. They ranked 11th offensively and 16th defensively, which are modest numbers at best. Looking at their schedule, their winning steaks that brought them back into the mix were comprised of beating up on weak teams like that years Boston Celtics (24-58) and rare victories over formidable ball clubs.
After that 47 win campaign, the Raptors have made the playoffs just one more time, never to finish a season with a winning record since that divison championship. They’ve gone through a rebuild that cost Colangelo and two coaches their jobs. Their season turned out to be nothing more than a flash in the pan.
This year’s team sits at 39-30, which is currently good for the third seed in the Eastern Conference and first in the Atlantic Division. They have a golden opportunity to reach and surpass the same milestones as some of the best Raptors teams of all time.There’s an oddly familiar sense of promise around the team this season with their recent play and success.
The similarities to this year’s team are numerous. The Eastern conferences both have been weak, with the bottom playoff seeds being either at or below .500. Both teams struggled out of the gate only to rebound during the middle of the season, and both teams hired a well revered G.M. to clean up previous regime’s mistakes. From Chris Bosh’s and Demar DeRozan’s contract extensions and scoring roles, to the improvement in the careers of Sam Mitchell and Dwane Casey presents multiple points of comparison that you may cause fear at the thought of another team success mirage. Where the two teams diverge though is how they turned around there perspective regular seasons.
The obvious turning point for this year’s Raptors has been the subtraction of Rudy Gay and the addition of the King Quartet. The quartet was formed by legitimate backup point guard Greivis Vasquez, versatile forward Patrick Patterson, and veterans John Salmons and Chuck Hayes. Since the arrival of the King Quartet the Raptors are 32-17. Over that stretch, Toronto’s offense has since scored 102.4 points per game while there defense has allowed only 97 points per game. The post-Gay Raptors would rank 12th on offense and 4th on defense in current team statistics. The Gay trade has given the Raptors solid depth, a veteran presence and a coherent defensive unit.
The trade gave the Raptors a clearly defined set of roles, something that’s been missing from the team for some time now. They have a bench stocked with competent players. Kyle Lowry has proved himself to be the clear leader of this team both on and off the court. The Raptors’ backcourt has benefited from the additional spacing. DeRozan has blossomed into an all-star, while Terrence Ross has has the chance to showcase both his present skills and his future potential. They’re a completely different group from the team that started out 6-12 earlier in the year. With second year players in the starting line-up like Ross and Valanciunas, the Raptors are still a very young team. Their current success and potential for future growth should cause a lot of worry for teams around the league. What’s more exciting is their success hasn’t been limited to winning against the bottom dwellers of the NBA.
The 2013-2014 Raptors have fared much better against stronger competition. Although they’re currently 16-21 against teams at or above .500, they’re 14-12 against these teams since the transaction. This includes a sweep of the Dallas Mavericks, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first loss at home, and a victory against the number one seeded Indiana Pacers. They’ve taken advantage of the schedule when they’ve needed too, but they’ve also proven that they are on the same ground against some of the league’s top teams.
As the Raptors loom closer to the playoffs, some of their potential matchups look challenging. The Chicago Bulls have playoff experience and are probably the grittiest team in the league. The Bobcats aren’t that far away from the sixth seed, and they’ve owned the Raptors in recent match-ups. Then of course there’s the Brooklyn Nets. They’re experienced, and getting things together at the right time.
The name and location may have changed, but they’re still the same Nets that disposed of the Raptors in the first round of the 2006-2007 playoffs. If the Raptors were to face the Nets in the first round this year, besting them in the seven game series would be a big moment in Raptors history. It wouldn’t just mean another second round appearance; It would mean vengeance, and it would signify that the Raptors are and will be a legitimate threat in the league. It would be just one more thing that separates this team from the team that was nothing more than a one season wonder.
Yet even if the Raptors do make it past the first round, they still must prove to the world that they’re a championship contending team. Will they prove it this season? Probably not. However, this new look Raptors team has proven they can win at a solid clip, both against weaker competition and the heavyweights of the league. Soon there’ll be a day when we can refer to the Toronto Raptors as a winning team, where we won’t be talking about division titles and second round playoff appearances as an anomaly; it’ll be what’s expected.