Here's where the inevitable moaning gets cued: "The Raptors have to stop winning because they're killing their draft chances!" The Raptors reel off their longest winning streak in two years (April 4-15, 2007 gave them a six-game run) and people are going to start clamoring for more losses. It's the sad, misinformed logic of those who forget the point of playing professional sports is to actually compile wins, regardless of the time of year. Did the Raptors just drop two spots in the lottery? Yup, they sure did; they dropped from seventh to ninth. According to ESPN draft guru Chad Ford and his Big Board of draft-eligible players, that means the club slips from Willie Warren of Oklahoma to Jordan Hill of Arizona. You know what? Who cares?
I don't mean that facetiously, either. This upcoming draft is among the weakest in recent memory. Outside of Blake Griffin, it's hard to peg any in the upcoming rookie class as a 'sure thing'. It's going to be a draft where success is determined by fit and development, not by landing the next Amare or Roy. The Raptors have a light schedule to end the season and there is a good chance that they'll eclipse New Jersey and maybe even Milwaukee or Indiana before the season is out, especially if they keep playing the way they have been of late. Some will be aghast at the possibility, seeing it as further insult to a season full of injury, but it's hard to get on board with that faulty theory.
First of all, as I mentioned in my weekend post, this streak validates months of talk from interim head coach Jay Triano as to his philosophies as the head of this team. He's had a very firm idea of how this team should execute on offence and defence and it's taken a good long while for the troops to get up to speed - but now that they're healthy and developing some measure of on-court chemistry, Triano is being vindicated...somewhat. Sure, five wins don't erase a season's worth of losses, don't get me wrong, but barring some truly unexpected maneuvering in the coming weeks, Triano is going to be the head coach of the Raptors next year and some evidence of his competence is more valuable right now than the difference between the seventh pick over a ninth or tenth pick in June.
Bryan Colangelo is greasing the wheels big time for Triano's future, choosing to publicly ignore his faults while endlessly praising his successes as a clear sign of where his intentions lie with regards to the chair currently occupied by Jay. In a season with so few successes to praise, that can mean only one thing, and starting the conversation now is meant to alleviate some of the shock value down the road when a 21-36 head coach gets his contract extended. Like it or lump it, the GM needs these wins to help him see Triano's methodology in action when things are going right (as opposed to just his explanation thereof), he needs his current and future players to understand that Triano has some level of competency on the job and he needs the fan base to understand, even if it's reluctantly, why he's taking the route he's taking. Five wins may not mean a ton, but after such a dismal season it's gotta stand for something.
Wednesday's game against Orlando, too, showcased more than just the competency of the head coach. Blowing out the Clippers or Bucks or Pacers is sort of meaningless as an end-of-season exercise, but halting Orlando's six-game winning streak on their home floor while they're fighting for playoff positioning is noteworthy. It's noteworthy because Toronto stuck to their principles when things were going easy AND when things were going rough. Typically this has been a team that will do all the right things when they appear to work but as soon as the slightest bit of resistance is applied all sense of form goes out the window. Against Orlando, though, they didn't panic when they missed shots and they didn't hang their heads when Orlando hit theirs. The Magic incessantly threatened to gain control of the game down the stretch but the Raptors showed a heretofore-unseen refusal to bend to the better team. They gritted it out, made the shots they needed to make, got the stops they needed to get and grabbed the boards they need to grab. It was a demonstration of how far the level of trust and cohesion this roster has developed in the last few weeks and it was proof that there are some (not all, but some) elements of this roster that are worth carrying over into next season.
Winning is still the ultimate in importance when it comes to professional sports, especially when NBA teams are historically fated to karmic loses when they attempt to tank in advance of the lottery (Boston in 1997, Minnesota in 2007, Miami in 2008). The Raptors don't have much of a shot at Griffin no matter where they finish in two weeks, so no matter what their draft prospects involve having to sort through the rash of 'others' like James Harden, Tyreke Evans or Gerald Henderson. Whoever the team ends up with in June is not going to be what turns around the prospects for this club next season, even if he were the seventh overall pick.
However, demonstrating a level of commitment and cohesion has a carryover effect that might have a strong influence next fall. As much as some may want a massive overhaul of this roster, that isn't in the cards for this club. Even if Chris Bosh is moved in the summer, Bargnani and Calderon are locks to return, and it says here the same can be said of Pops (restricted status), Marion (available cash/infatuated GM), Kapono (untradeable contract) and Ukic (valuable cheap asset). That's six of the Raptors current nine-man rotation, and that doesn't even account for the possibility that Bosh actually returns next season. The more that these players can coalesce now, when the games are 'meaningless', the easier it will be for the new players to slide into a functional unit next fall.
Now, none of this should sound like more importance is being heaped on a late-season surge than is due. The fact of the matter is that the Raptors should have always been able to beat teams like Indiana and Chicago, and beating the Magic had as much to do with their negligence as it did with Toronto's execution. Still, a losing season has to be mined for useful information lest it simply spiral into one of many losing seasons down the road, like those that ravaged the Raptors from 2002 through 2006. This winning streak, though, runs in stark contrast to the 9-16 finish for the club a year ago; a skid that, it could be said, bled into the start of this season, and allowed an indifference to losses to turn into an expectation of losses. Some teams simply believe they are going to win every game they play, and that confidence can sometimes tip the scales in a nail-bitter once or twice in a season. Conversely, teams that believe that they are going to lose generally find a way to do so before the night is out. This team has actually managed to start believing that winning is in the cards for them late in this season, and any potential carry-over of that effect is worth far more than two or three spots in a weak draft. No doubt some will (vigorously) disagree, of course, though we won't get a sense of who's right until next season. We shall see...