In sports, winning is everything. It's the only true yardstick worth using to evaluate players, coaches and teams. The whole point of playing a season's worth of games in any sport is to determine who wins and who loses. That's it. Everything else is just narrative.
For years and years the Toronto Raptors have been a narrative team. They've been a team that is defined by story lines and not by wins and losses. Like Vince Carter leaving, or Bryan Colangelo arriving, or 'Ball' or pizza-gate or [fill in your favorite story here]. All of a sudden, though, down the stretch of an otherwise forgettable season the team is actually posting wins. Against good teams. And while some are trying to turn this into a narrative about how the Raptors are foolishly torpedoing their draft pick, that's foolishness because winning is all that matters in professional sports.
When Colangelo hired Dwane Casey last year all of the talk was about changing the culture of a perpetual loser. People forget this fact because Colangelo's teams have lost so much in Toronto, but only twice in eleven years as GM did his Phoenix Suns not make it to the NBA Playoffs, so we're talking about a man not used to losing. In his worst year in Phoenix his team won 29 games, and already his Raptors have twice fallen below that mark (last year and this year). When he hired Casey, his first coaching hire for the team that came outside of the organization's ranks, he wanted more than anything to rid the club of the stink of losing that had effectively defined them for all but five of their then-sixteen seasons. Casey, coming off of an NBA championship as an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks, was tasked with instituting that change, and that faith has already begun to bear fruit.
It's been written about ad nauseum about how the Raptors under Casey have gone from being a two-time last place finisher in defensive efficiency to the middle-of-the-pack with effectively the same personnel as Jay Triano had last year. People talk about how the Raptors are a top-eight club in terms of opposing field goal percentage or top-six in opposing three-point field goal percentage or top-ten in rebounding differential. This club works hard to put themselves in a position to win games by asserting themselves defensively against opposing teams, and as a result they've been in a position to win a lot more than they were last year, even if they don't have the talent yet to put them over the edge.
Last year the club owned a minus-6.3 point-differential over opposing clubs. That basically means that they got blown out a lot. They were a team that collected some wins because of a torrid shooting night, but lost a lot more because they let their opposition have a torrid shooting night against them. Seventeen times they lost by 15 or more points. That's nearly 30 per cent of their losses. Total, unequivocal blowouts. They made little-to-no effort to put themselves in a position to win and they were routinely embarrassed because of it.
Now compare that to this season. The team's point-differential has been nearly halved to minus-3.2, and while they've lost ten times by fifteen or more, six of those losses game came before February 1 when the team was still adjusting to Casey's style and expectations. Since March 7 the Raptors have beaten seven playoff-bound teams, holding five of them to below 90 points. This team has become tremendously good at putting themselves in a position to win nearly every night, and that is a marked contrast to where they were a year ago and exactly where Colangelo had hoped they would be when he brought Casey aboard ten months ago.
But what of that draft pick? Screw the wins, what about the narrative? What about the Raptors finishing the season with the fourth-worst record and having a shot at Bradley Beal or, pending lottery luck, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist? Now they've dropped to the sixth worst record and may have to settle for Harrison Barnes or, pending lottery luck, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The outrage!
Here's the truth: The only thing more valuable to a losing team than high picks is a winning culture. Seriously. Look at all of the talent that Golden State and Sacramento has acquired in recent years because of the draft, how has that helped their success this season? These are teams that routinely look to the lottery and the draft to haul their moribund franchises out of the muck, only to see their indifference to wins make it harder and harder to get their team to care about wins as the years go by. You need a culture that prioritizes winning above all else in order to (...wait for it...) win at the NBA level. You can't flip a switch that says we'll lose for now but we'll agree to win later. Yes, talent is vitally important in the NBA, but talent without a winning environment is just wasted talent. The Raptors should know, they've lost multiple All-Stars to that losing vacuum. They've decided to put winning first and everyone should be getting on board with that decision.
When Jonas Valanciunas, this year's draft pick, a new free agent and anyone the team gets from a trade walks into training camp in October they are going to have to meet a very specific set of expectations to get minutes under Casey. They are going to have to compete, to play defence with everything they have, or they can expect not to play. Casey has spent this entire season laying that foundation, and yes, the result of that effort has been more wins in these last six weeks than most draft-watchers would have wanted. When you demand that players do the things that makes teams win, winning is usually what follows. Learn to embrace this.
Winning is all that matters in professional sports and the Raptors are taking it seriously for the first time in a long time. It's time to leave the narrative stuff behind and remember that winning is the reason these teams exist in the first place.