Last October, Head Coach Dwane Casey gave every indication that the Raptors were taking the 2012-2013 season very seriously. The days of tanking for a better draft pick were over and he was going to be running a tight 8 man rotation in order to win as many games as possible. No one was promising playoffs, but it was obvious that was the goal.
“This year is about winning,” said Casey at media day last year. “It’s about getting the 5 to 8 to 9 guys on the court that are going to produce a win and to give guys playing time because they are a rookie – (Jonas Valanciunas) will get his playing time because he deserves to be there, not because we are called to develop him, he is going to help us win – Terrence (Ross), we’ll see how it goes.”
Casey experienced more issues than expected with his revamped roster during the preseason, but rather than picking his 8 to 9 best players and sticking with them, on opening night 12 Raptors saw the floor and this became a trend early in the season. Casey never threw President and General Manager Bryan Colangelo under the bus for the decision to play guys who obviously didn’t deserve to be on the court, but earlier this summer he did describe Colangelo as more of a hands-on general manager – not that there is anything wrong with that.
After falling to a 4-16 record early in the season, Casey was lamenting his inflated rotation and wanting to get back to what was originally intended. A team just can’t be effective using 12 players in every game.
“We are going to get it fixed, whatever it takes,” Casey said in early December. “Whatever seven or eight guys we have to find to get it done, will get it done.”
The team’s fortunes did turn around soon after, but the damage was done and the hole the Raptors had dug was just too big to climb back out of. It wouldn’t be fair to blame all of the Raptors struggles at the start of last season on a grossly extended rotation. Injuries to Kyle Lowry, Landry Fields and Alan Anderson also played a big part in the team’s inability to win early. However, it is very difficult to succeed in the NBA if you are not using a tight core of players that get the bulk of the minutes.
As we race towards the start of training camp on October 1, the Raptors appear to be in the same situation as last season. They have made changes over the summer and it looks like they upgraded the talent on their roster, but success on the court will be determined by how that roster is used and whether Casey is once again placed in a position where he is trading wins to develop young players and attempting improve someone’s trade value.
Jack Armstrong was on the DNB Starting Five with host James Borbath recently to discuss the Raptors summer and what to expect this season in Toronto.
The question is, what does the organization want Casey to do this season?
“If I were the coach of the team and I was in the last year of my contract, I would want to know from ownership and management, what do you want from me?” Armstrong said. “Do you want me to win or do you want me to develop this roster? How I am I going to be judged? I don’t know the answer to that.
“If this is about winning – we understand the top 5 spots in the East are going to be Miami, Indiana, New York, Brooklyn and Chicago and you can argue anyway you want in those 5 of who is going to be 1 thru 5, if they stay healthy. My question is going to be, do you want me to go for the 6th spot because we legitimately, like anyone else in the East have as good a chance at that 6, 7, 8th seed as anybody else. So the question is now, how are we going to do this?
“We owe a lot to a lot of people and we have underperformed the last 5 years. So are we going for the playoffs? If (the Raptors) are doing that, I am playing Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas 38-40 minutes every single night. Fellas, strap it on 82-games, you guys are going to play major minutes and you tell the other 10 guys on the roster, you are getting the scraps. That is the reality here. These 5 guys, if they are not in foul trouble, they are playing every minute they can possibly play.”
While MLSE President and CEO Tim Leiweke can stand behind his statement – ‘I inherited this situation, I didn’t create it’ – it is still his problem. This team has grossly underperformed for 5 years now and if they tank again on purpose, a lot of fans, sponsors and advertisers are not going to take it very well. Trying to be competitive while developing players at the same time was Colangelo’s method, it failed miserably and led to obvious tanking through the back half of recent seasons. We will know early if that bit of history is about to repeat itself again this season.
“(I am) going into my 16th year as a Raptors broadcaster and I don’t know the answer. I don’t have any feel yet for how I think this is going to go this year,” Armstrong said. “I don’t think any of us will know until we watch opening night and the first 5-10 games if they are going to play it all out.
“If you are going for the 6, 7, 8th seed, certain guys have to play heavy minutes. If the Raptors want to be a playoff team, they have to be all-in with their top 5 guys.
“If (winning) is not the way you are going to be judged, rather try to be competitive but try to develop at the same time, then obviously you loosen the reins a little bit on your substation pattern and you go that way. You give guys like a Terrence Ross and D.J. Augustin and people like that more minutes.”
In order to compete for a playoff spot with Detroit, Cleveland, Washington, Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta, the Raptors have to play their best players. Guys like Ross, Augustin, Dwight Buycks, Landry Fields, Quincy Acy and Austin Daye will have to win their meager minutes in practice and hope for an injury to see any significant court time that matters.
If the Raptors are playing the tight rotation Casey described to the media before the start of the last season and is demanding heavy minutes from his top players every night, then the Raptors are going for a playoff berth this season and they should succeed. Anything less is wishing, hoping and pretending to go for it and a strong signal that tanking is in the Raptors future.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report.
You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors