In what has become an annual tradition we take a look at five season-ending areas of interest (The Backcourt, The Frontcourt, The Coach, The GM and The Draft) with regards to the Toronto Raptors as they close out their lockout-shortened campaign. With the club looking to ease back into the Playoff picture next season, how this team is reshaped this summer will see a radical shift away from youth acquisition and towards luring veterans to Toronto. For now, though, let's look at who the team already has and how they factor into the club's not-so-distant future.
If the Raptors had a breakout star this season, it was their head coach Dwane Casey. His ability to transform a pitiful defensive roster into a credible one this season has been well reported and editorialized about. His ability to take a group of losers and get them to fight every night has been proven statistically as well as observationally. Despite inheriting basically the exact same roster as Jay Triano had to work with last season, Casey's team looked nothing like the one that got Triano fired. This team fought, they clawed, they stayed in games and did the little things that teams need to do in order to win basketball games. They just didn't win them.
Therein lies the meat of the story, for as improved as Casey's team has looked out on the court, they are still the sixth-worst team in the NBA, record-wise. For all of the areas where they have improved, they have barely made any movement at all in the one area that is most important: winning.
In fairness to Casey, winning was never on the agenda this season. The Raptors wanted to develop their youthful core, establish a new defensive-minded philosophy and winning culture and then invest their assets this coming summer into creating a competitive roster. As of today that plan looks like its right on track, but the real heavy lifting is still to come.
Next year Casey has to vastly improve the team's ranking in offensive efficiency, as the club now sits 27th out of 30 teams in that area, which makes them nearly as bad offensively this year as they were defensively last year.
Obviously having Andrea Bargnani healthy all year would help, as would adding some scoring on the wings and on the bench (how Jose Calderon managed 8.8 assists per game with this roster is a testament to his underrated basketball I.Q.). However, Casey himself is going to have to demonstrate a heretofore unseen side of his coaching acumen. The last time he coached a team for a full 82 games, the '05-'06 Timberwolves, they posted a 26th-ranked offensive efficiency. While his defensive bona fides are not in question, he is still going to need to prove he can kick-start an offence if he wants to see this team make it to the Playoffs and beyond in the coming years.
Keep in mind, the Raptors aren't the only team in the East that thinks they are making a big jump next season. The Wizards and the Pistons are both clubs that feel secure in their young cores and appear poised to make a move, while Milwaukee is going to look to pivot and rebound after this year's downturn by retrofitting on the fly. Cleveland has the assets to put together a push if they get healthy and spend wisely. More importantly, none of the East's existing Playoff clubs look eager to sacrifice their top-eight standings anytime soon, either. While it's all well and good for the Raptors to talk about setting the Playoffs as a goal and an expectation for next season, that just makes them one of several NBA clubs with the same aspirations heading into training camp. The job of making that happen falls to Casey, and if he's not up to the job all of the adulation that is befalling him today could be long gone by this time next year.
Say this for Casey, though: everything he said he was going to do upon his arrival, he's done. He wanted to make the Raptors into a defensive-oriented club, and he's done that. He wanted to change the culture in the locker room and on the court, and he's done that, too. He wanted to rehabilitate Andrea Bargnani's image and extract the best out of Jose Calderon and he's checked both of those items off of his to-do list. The expectation is that if Bryan Colangelo gives him the tools to work with he can continue to build this team into a Playoff-caliber club not only next year but for years to come.
Remember, that's the goal here. It's not about a one- or two-year sojourn into the post-season. This is about being the kind of club that gets there each and every year. The Raptors want to become one of those post-season staples like Dallas or Utah or Denver - clubs that expect to make the Playoffs every season. Period. That's the foundation that Casey is being tasked with laying in Toronto. His job is to do no less than set the groundwork at the organization to become a franchise that defies not only the entire history of the Toronto Raptors but the entire recent history of every franchise in the city of Toronto. No pressure or anything, though.
Obviously his fate is tied to Colangelo's in this regard. They have to work in lockstep to transform the Raptors organization into a place where winning is embedding in its DNA. That means that while Colangelo can take a consensus approach to decisions if he wants, Casey's voice has to count for more than just about everybody else's in the room because he is the one that has to make the roster work on the court. He's established a personality and style that incoming players have to match. Casey has been tasked with putting forth a defence-first approach and maintaining a winning culture, and that means that the players that are brought in need to play defence and contribute to winning.
The job Casey has been tasked with is difficult enough as it is without having to overcome elemental flaws in the roster he has to coach. Seeing how this team is reconstructed this summer will go a long way towards determining how in sync these two are with regards to their individual goals. If they truly are on the same path then Casey has definitely given Raptors fans a reason to be optimistic about the future for the first time in a long time, which is more than enough to make him the team's breakout star this season.
Coming up Thursday: The General Manager