TORONTO - Some of the faces may have changed, the roster reconstructed once again, but for the Toronto Raptors franchise the result remains the same.
With another disheartening season nearing its end the team's players, like its fans, are left to wonder, what if?
What if they could take a mulligan after their 4-19 start? What if they had traded for Rudy Gay earlier in the season? What if they had better luck with injuries? With the referees?
"We all do," admitted guard Kyle Lowry, who was asked if he thinks about what could have been. "It sucks that we had the 4-19 start. We might [have made] the playoffs. We might have been eighth, seventh seed the way we've come on of late."
Despite improved play during the month of April, these questions are ultimately rendered moot. As they wrap up the campaign and prepare for the coming off-season, the only thing that matters to this recently remade group of Raptors is the bottom line. For the fifth consecutive season this team will miss the playoffs.
As second-year head coach Dwane Casey likes to point out, this has been three seasons in one for his team. Following the aforementioned slow start, a group led by the now departed Jose Calderon and Ed Davis navigated Toronto through a resurgent 10-3 stretch into the New Year before a mid-season trade shuffled the deck once more.
"I think we were still figuring ourselves out after the trade," guard DeMar DeRozan reflected, "getting things together, trying to find out what's the best way for us to play."
The team has experienced mixed results on both ends of the floor since the Jan. 30 trade that shipped Calderon and Davis out of town to acquire Gay, the high-end talent President and General Manger Bryan Colangelo had been seeking.
"It's been a whirlwind," Gay said of his season as he and some teammates gathered outside the Air Canada Centre practice court for a community relations signing session Monday. "Being here, starting in Memphis and being here, just adjusting to what Canada has to offer. I like it but it's definitely been an adjustment."
Feelings of optimism engulfed the organization and its loyal, albeit restless fan base as the Raptors won seven of their first 10 games in the Rudy era while knocking on the door in the Eastern Conference playoff race. That excitement quickly dried up once the losses began to pile up and the reality set in; this team, even with Gay, lacks an identity.
After engineering a defensive renaissance in his first year with the club, Casey focused on playing at a faster pace offensively heading into this season. That emphasis was quickly abandoned, more or less, for a number of reasons, including defensive slippage and injuries (along with an eventual demotion) to Lowry.
Lowry was brought in to be the general behind their new offensive attack but the 27-year-old hasn't always seen eye-to-eye with Casey regarding his role, contributing to a disappointing first year with the team, to his own admission.
"[I] just had too many ups and downs for me," Lowry acknowledged. "Injuries set me back a lot, being injured in training camp set me back, a lot of things in general. Very disappointing for myself because I know I'm a much better player than what I've shown this year."
He'll need to be if the Raptors hope to establish themselves as an up-tempo team in 2013-14. Despite an uptick in offensive efficiency (from 29th to 16th), Toronto will finish among the bottom third of the league in terms of pace for the second straight year. Even with the athletic Gay on board, the team has generated the ninth fewest possessions per 48-minutes.
Without the pristine ball movement or elite outside shooting required to exceed as a half-court offence, the Raptors best option, presumably, is to utilize their athleticism and push the tempo.
"I mean, look at our wings," Lowry said. "You've got guys who can get out and fly. So it's just one of those things where I think that's what our identity can be but with coach, he wants a little bit of defence in there so it's a mixture, if we get stops we can do that."
As Casey would maintain, the team's identity -- however they choose to play offensively -- must stem from their defence. After finishing in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency a year ago, Casey's squad has dropped to 22nd in that category this season. Thanks in large part to inexperience (rookies Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross) on top of occasional indiscipline from risk-taking defenders (Lowry and Gay), the Raptors have been largely inconsistent where they hung their hats in the lockout shortened season.
"When we're all scrambling on defence and once we get the ball, push it and play instead of coming down, running a play playing like robots," DeRozan said, "[we've] got enough talent on this team to beat anyone in this league."
During the month of April their defence has been much improved, allowing 101.3 points per 100 possessions, good for sixth in the association and 3.5 fewer than their season average. Over that stretch they're ranked 12th in fast-break points. Clearly they're capable of playing the way Casey envisioned in the fall, now the question is; can they sustain it for a full month? A full season?
"We have the athletes," Gay said. "I think our younger guys and myself have to grow with this defensive scheme. It's new, I mean it's just as new to me as it is to them and we're all important to this team so I think the better we get together the better this team will be defensively."
"When you have a lot of offensive minded people and you ask them to play defence it's tough," he continued. "We've got to get out of that."
Finding Their Shot
Toronto's offence would also benefit greatly from some additional three-point shooting threats, an area Colangelo may address via trade or free agency this summer but one that could also improve internally. DeRozan -- a 22 per cent career three-point shooter -- and Gay, who has seen his efficiency from long distance drop over the last couple years, have both vowed to extend their range during the off-season.
"Three-point shooting for a fact will definitely be part of my game next year," DeRozan promised. "Without a doubt."
"It's repetition," he insisted. "There's nothing else wrong with it because I can shoot a fade-away, long two with my toe on the line and feel comfortable with it so what's the difference if I'm an inch back? So it's just repetition and it's mental more than anything. I've just got to understand once I start shooting them more, feel more comfortable it's really going to be tough to guard us as a team."
Gay has regressed as a shooter since hitting the three-ball at a 39.6 per cent clip with Memphis in 2010-11. For him, he's not over-thinking the statistical drop -ff. "Less of my three-pointers went in, that's how I explain it," he said with confidence.
"When I go from [scoring] 20 points per game to five on a consistent basis that's when you should be worried."With their core group expected back for next season, the Raptors know they have a lot of work to do in order to transform themselves over the next six months. With another disappointing campaign in the books, their feeling is that they finally have the pieces in place to complete the makeover. For now, that's the most pressing question.