Heading into the start of any given National Basketball Association season, the Raptors feel forgotten, perhaps even overlooked. Every year, pundits assess their victory potential, and, every year, they set about exceeding it. Not that it has mattered any; in recent memory, they have failed to turn 50-win campaigns into deep playoff runs. And even as the reason — LeBron James — is understandable to the casual observer, their inability to translate early overachievement to late prosperity serves only to fuel their intent to break through.
And so the Raptors greeted the 2017-18 season intent on disproving armchair experts anew. Not a few quarters saw fit to rank them as low as sixth in the East, behind usual suspects (the Cavaliers and Celtics) and unusual upstarts (the Bucks and Sixers), and they viewed the development as a continuing dis. Significantly, the chip-on-the-shoulder mentality pervades the roster, from top dog DeMar DeRozan to backcourt mate Kyle Lowry to fellow starters Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka to head coach Dwane Casey to general manager Masai Ujiri.
Fast forward two months, and the Raptors are once again in the thick of things in their conference. They’re on the heels of the Celtics and Cavaliers, but ahead of notables supposedly better than them. Granted, it’s hard to draw conclusions when a full three-quarters of the regular season still has to be plaed. On the other hand, it bears noting that they’re competing on the strength of better ball movement, with emphasis on the power of a determined team of five players to surpass the output of five determined players on a team.
Parenthetically, the Raptors’ new identity stems from their desire to effect lasting changes. They didn’t want to be branded insane for moving to do the same thing and expecting a different result. Instead, they reinvented themselves, relying less on isolation sets and more on equal-opportunity efforts, to decidedly tangible results. Their net rating of 7.2 is tops in the conference, a reflection of their preferential option to spread the wealth (with five players norming double figures in points and a sixth coming close).
Whether the Raptors manage to do better from April onwards is anybody’s guess. Meanwhile, one thing’s clear: They’ve earned the right to wax optimistic. And armed with no small measure of confidence, they’re out to turn their underdog status to success.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is the Senior Vice-President and General Manager of Basic Energy Corp.