With the NBA season fast approaching, we asked TSN NBA experts Jack Armstrong, Josh Lewenberg and Duane Watson a few burning questions about the year ahead.Today we ask, will the Toronto Raptors make the playoffs and should that even be the goal?
Lewenberg's take: Whether they're willing to admit it or not – and they won't – Playoffs are absolutely the goal this season assuming the roster stays, more or less, as is.
The team is smartly tempering expectations this fall after recklessly throwing around the P-word a year ago. However, the unspoken reality is this; as long as they're paying top dollar for this group – hovering just below the tax – and as long as there's legitimate playoff-caliber talent on the roster, which there is, they will be expected to break the franchise's five-year postseason drought. Anything less would amount to another disappointing season.
Of course it's not that simple, with the Raptors it rarely is. If the team gets off to another slow start and/or if its opportunistic new GM decides the time is right to pull the trigger, this roster could change in a hurry, and so too could the goal.
Assuming Ujiri stays the course, and assuming good health (both generous assumptions), a postseason berth is attainable in the top-heavy Eastern Conference. Barring injuries, the East's top five (Miami, Chicago, Indiana, Brooklyn, New York) should be untouchable but 37-41 wins – a realistic expectation for the Raps – should keep them in the mix for the six-to-eight seeds with Detroit, Cleveland, Atlanta and now Washington.
Watson's take: Every team's goal should be to improve and compete for a championship. Despite their poor start last year, they were in the hunt for a playoff spot, with their strong finish.
With a full training camp to build more chemistry, and teams getting a head start on tanking (Celtics and 76ers), the Raptors' prospects are even brighter.
Will they be fodder for the top team in the conference? Likely, but those are growth steps they have to take to get better; a losing franchise doesn't get better with more losses.
Masai Ujiri, is evaluating what pieces will be part of the future and will make the necessary moves needed to improve the team. He's proven he can finesse crafty deals in his favour in the past, with the Nene, Carmelo Anthony and Andrea Bargnani trades, and can do it again.
Jack's take: I think the Raptors have as good a chance of making the Playoffs in slots 6-8 as any of the other Eastern Conference Teams beyond Miami, Brooklyn, Chicago, Indiana & New York.
The goal every year is to win and they owe it to their wonderful/loyal fan base, season ticket holders, sponsors and, most importantly, to themselves to lay it on the line and put their best foot forward. There is so much discussion about tanking and getting a top draft pick in a deep class - I understand where some fans are coming from - but there are no guarantees in anything.
After five seasons with no Playoffs, I know I'm tired of watching other teams in mid-April and beyond. You've got to be in it to win it.
Jack's keys to the Raptors making the Playoffs:
Good Health: The Raptors must keep the top-8 guys healthy.
Backup Point Guard Play: Someone has to emerge here and I've yet to see any sign of steady backup play here yet. Kyle Lowry might end up being like a baseball pitcher who has to throw 200+ innings in a season. If that is the case, so be it. I'd rather a guy burn out any day.
Improved 3-point shooting and 3-point defending: It goes both ways. The Raptors just need to be respectable shooting from distance and just as important: they must limit the clean looks and number of threes from their opponents.
Defensive Identity: Dwane Casey can coach/teach X&O Defense with great success. I have faith it that. The key is for this team to be consistent with its effort and attention to detail in this category and limit the silly fouls that give up easy points. Be fundamentally sound. Aggressive yet smart.
Sophomores: Jonas Valanciunas and Terence Ross have to make that next step in their games. There is a major investment in these guys and the talent is there. They need to produce with consistency.
Heavy Minutes for the Starters: Every chance I get I'm playing my starters in all the prime moments of every game. It's kind of like double shifting your stars in Hockey. The key is Game Night and Winning. If that means 40+ minutes for your starters some nights and giving them down time on practice days, so be it. Guys love the games and hate practices anyway. Players 6-15 on the roster have to be doing something very good to stay on the floor for an extended time. At the very least 2-3 starters should always be on the floor with the reserves to maintain a high level. People criticize Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau for over-using his prime guys. I love it. Less is more in my book. If you're tired, too bad, rest in the spring time. I love what Dwane Casey did in the last three weeks of the season last year, he loaded up his better players with increased minutes. For this team to be a playoff team, the starters have to play longer.
Situational Basketball: Lots of games will come down to the fourth Quarter and the final three minutes. The Raps struggled in this area for a variety of reasons last season. This has to become a strength. Dwane Casey and his staff have spent good time on this and I think this area will improve this season. Having Rudy Gay in the defining moments of a game for a whole season will help. The little details have to be executed well.
Winning Early in the Season: Every game early is big. The Raptors need to get off to a good start. They need to develop a winning cushion of being a few games above .500 rather than below. Last Year's 4-19 struggle to open the year can't happen. Ask Jays fans: Lousy Spring and you've dug yourself a big hole vs. the Red Sox start--look where they ended up. I'm not sure how good the Toronto Maple Leafs really are, but they've already developed the 'cushion' and that's huge. Believe me--you win early and the referees look at you differently and you start getting the benefit of the doubt unlike last year when every defining call went against them. You make your own breaks. In the words of Al Davis, 'Just Win Baby.' Easier said than done.