The Toronto Raptors have become the subtle darlings of the NBA as they continue to climb the ranks of the pitiful Eastern Conference with their first playoff appearance since 2007-08 within arms reach.
That's the ultimate goal, right? The coalition for Toronto to tank in order to make a run at Canadian prospect Andrew Wiggins in the 2014 NBA draft must have disbanded by now, correct?
Surely the continued success of the Raptors will put an end to the pipe dreams of those aforementioned fans who can't seem to get their heads out of the clouds.
Toronto is one of only four teams in the East (Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks being the other three) with a record of .500 or better at 16-16. That's good enough for the fourth overall seed and potential home-court advantage in the postseason.
Didn't see that coming, did you? Don't worry. You're not alone.
Making a serious run at the Atlantic Division crown this season probably wasn't in the cards from the get-go. The franchise has been in a constant rebuilding mode since the days of Chris Bosh. With a new man steering the ship in general manager Masai Ujiri, why was this year supposed to be any different?
I guess plans changed. Why not go for the gusto and take this bad boy as far as it can go?
Management may have been secretly hoping for a tank job, but the players and coaches are under a different mindset; keep winning and get the Raptors back to playing meaningful basketball in April and May.
Who is most responsible for the turnaround, and who's better left keeping the seats warm on the sidelines with their posteriors firmly planted on the bench?
*All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of January 4
15) Austin Daye
2013-14 statistics: 6 games, 4.5 minutes, 1.0 points, 20 percent from the field, 0.8 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 1.9 PER
Austin Daye hasn't seen the light of day (get it?) in what seems like an eternity, having played just 27 minutes for the Raptors all season. Fourteen of those came against the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 10.
Barring some sort of major injury, that's not likely to change anytime soon.
14) Chuck Hayes
2013-14 statistics: 3 games, 4.7 minutes, 0.7 points, 33.3 percent from the field, 0.7 rebounds, 0.3 assists, -0.1 PER
A previously diagnosed heart issue kept Chuck Hayes on the sidelines while his former Sacramento Kings teammates made their debuts in the red and white.
What's the over/under on how long it's going to be until we see Hayes make his way to the charity stripe? We're all dying to see it at the Air Canada Centre. It's worth the price of admission.
13) Julyan Stone
2013-14 statistics: 12 games, 7.3 minutes, 1.5 points, 46.7 percent from the field, 0.6 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.1 steals, 0.3 turnovers, 7.8 PER
Being a 6'6" point guard does have its advantages, but in the case of Julyan Stone, even that's not enough for the third-year pro to see the court on a regular basis.
Frankly, his only claim to fame this season has been surviving the chopping block when Masai Ujiri made his seven-player trade with the Sacramento Kings back in December of last year. D.J. Augustin was the man who met his fate and not Stone. That's something to be proud of, I suppose.
12) Dwight Buycks
2013-14 statistics: 12 games, 10.1 minutes, 3.4 points, 34.1 percent from the field, 1.7 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.5 turnovers, 10.9 PER
The Toronto Raptors assigned Dwight Buycks to the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA Developmental League on Jan. 3, via RealGM.com.
Buycks is a project in every sense of the word. He's better off expanding his game with the Jam, rather than rotting away at the end of the bench in Toronto.
11) Steve Novak
2013-14 statistics: 17 games, 12.1 minutes, 3.5 points, 31.7 percent from the field, 34.7 percent from three-point range, 1.2 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.2 steals, 0.1 turnovers, 7.5 PER
Wasn't Steve Novak supposed to be Toronto's savior from three-point range?
His three-point percentage isn't awful, but for someone who's shot 42.9 percent for his career, you can't help but feel a tad disappointed. Until his shot starts falling on a more consistent basis, Novak will bring little to no value to this Raptors squad.
2013-14 statistics: 18 games, 14.4 minutes, 3.0 points, 35.7 percent from the field, 2.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.1 blocks, 0.4 turnovers, 8.3 PER
How's that three-year, $20 million contract looking now, Raptors fans?
Watching Landry Fields play four minutes against the Miami Heat on Jan. 5 delivered a shock to my system. He hadn't played since Dec. 14 against the Chicago Bulls, and that was for less than 60 seconds.
I was ready to send out a search warrant for his whereabouts. I was getting worried.
Fields has topped double-digit minutes just three times over his last 11 appearances. That doesn't even take into account the numerous DNPs he's accumulated either.
How much patience can one person have? This was supposed to be the year he turned the corner and became a valuable member of the rotation. You may as well refer to him as Rachel McAdams because he's fallen off the map.
His shooting numbers have dropped across the board and his confidence is depleted.
It's becoming depressing to watch. It hurts to say, but the Landry Fields experiment could very well go down as one of the biggest financial blunders in franchise history.
I haven't seen this much money go to waste since Speed Racer.
2013-14 statistics: 11 games, 25.9 minutes, 6.4 points, 35.2 percent from the field, 34.5 percent from three-point range, 2.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 0.8 turnovers, 8.2 PER
I suppose all is forgiven between John Salmons and the Raptors fanbase.
It was just seven years ago where Salmons agreed to come to Toronto under a five-year, $23 million deal, which was the full mid-level exception at the time.
He ultimately had a change of heart and backed out, crediting his faith for the decision he made. The Raptors ended up signing swingman Fred Jones, while Salmons wound up with the Sacramento Kings.
Time heals all wounds, my friends. It wasn't a Vince Carter-esque betrayal or anything of that nature. I'm sure most of you forgot Salmons even did what he did.
He's given Toronto's second unit a nice scoring punch since coming over from the River City. Salmons' best outing thus far came on Dec. 22 as the veteran dropped 14 points in 30 minutes on the Oklahoma City Thunder in a 104-98 Raptors victory.
His long-term future with the team is very much in doubt considering the money Masai Ujiri can save if he's waived by June 30, 2014, which is roughly $6 million, according to ShamSports. Only $1 million of the $7 million he's set to make in 2014-15 is guaranteed.
In the end, it's all about the Benjamins. Salmons can still score with the best of them and put up points in a hurry, but if you were to see him in a Raptors uniform come next season, I'd be very surprised.
2013-14 statistics: 28 games, 17.5 minutes, 5.5 points, 44.1 percent from the field, 5.0 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.3 blocks, 0.8 turnovers, 13.9 PER
The Toronto Raptors sure missed Tyler Hansbrough in their 102-97 loss at the hands of the Miami Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena on Jan. 5.
His team was manhandled 42-34 on the boards and 14-7 on the offensive glass. Toronto was also gassed by the time the fourth quarter rolled on through, so having someone who plays with the endless energy that Hansbrough does out there on the court would have been handy.
It never seems like such a huge loss at the time because of the depth the Raptors have in the frontcourt, but it's games like that which go to show the value Hansbrough has and brings to this team.
A left ankle sprain has been causing him grief of late, so Patrick Patterson has been picking up the slack as the primary big for the second unit.
Upon Hansbrough's return, those minutes will likely be split pretty evenly.
He'll never wow you with an endless array of post moves down low or any fancy highlight-reel plays, but what he does offer up is hustle, heart and an unparalleled intensity for the game.
There's always going to be ample room for a guy like that.
2013-14 statistics: 11 games, 20.5 minutes, 7.5 points, 50.8 percent from the field, 50 percent from three-point range, 3.7 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks, 0.8 turnovers, 14.8 PER
Patrick Patterson is a fan of the cold Canadian air. Now I don't know this for a fact, but if you look at some of his numbers since becoming a Raptor in comparison to what they were back in Sacramento, you'll soon become a believer.
His field-goal percentage has jumped from 41 to 48.7 percent, while his three-point shooting percentage has skyrocketed from 23.1 to 53.3.
It’s just more positive energy. Everyone is more focused, everyone pretty much just believes in themselves and the team and what we can do. Whenever you string together wins, when you beat the top teams, people start believing in themselves and what’s going on.
Hard work pays off. Patterson has worked on his jumper and become a reliable third or fourth big off the bench who can stretch the floor.
Dwane Casey has clearly taken a liking to Patterson's game as the 6'9" forward has played over 20 minutes in nine of his 14 appearances.
He's only 24 years of age and has yet to truly reach the peak of his basketball abilities.
Patterson will have his stinkers here and there where he shoots too much or makes bad decisions on offense, but he's only going to get better from here on out.
2013-14 statistics: 11 games, 16.7 minutes, 7.7 points, 34.9 percent from the field, 31.4 percent from three-point range, 1.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.2 steals, 0.1 blocks, 1.9 turnovers, 10.9 PER
Is Greivis Vasquez the sixth-best player on the Toronto Raptors?
It's debatable, but being the backup point guard to Kyle Lowry does undoubtedly elevate his status on this team.
If you enjoy the thought of Julyan Stone or Dwight Buycks being the first guard off the bench for Toronto, then we're obviously on two different wavelengths.
Vasquez is a proven starter in the NBA with a track record that surpasses anything any of those aforementioned names has accomplished in their careers, with all due respect.
Things haven't been pretty over this last stretch of games.
His playing time has been on the decline while his shooting numbers are coming along for the ride. He's attempted at least two shots from behind the arc (he's shooting just 31.4 percent on the season) in nine of his last 10 outings. His 11 assists and nine turnovers over his last five games are also troublesome.
Kyle Lowry is still going to see the bulk of minutes as the starter. All Dwane Casey needs from Vasquez is for him to not turn the ball over, get his teammates involved, play reasonable defense and just hold down the fort.
If he can do that, he'll be fine.
2013-14 statistics: 31 games, 23.3 minutes, 9.4 points, 43.2 percent from the field, 41.6 percent from three-point range, 3.0 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 1.0 turnovers, 12.4 PER
The Rudy Gay trade with Sacramento gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the standing of Terrence Ross on this basketball team.
The words bust, underachiever and project were loosely being tossed around as it pertained to the second-year pro, but now with a spot in the starting lineup open and more shots available in the offense, Ross has been able to calm the nerves of many fans who wondered when exactly he was going to come around.
In 13 games as a starter, Ross is averaging 13.5 points and 3.5 rebounds while shooting an astounding 46.1 percent from three-point range.
Frankly, eliminating Gay from the equation was the best thing that could have happened to the University of Washington alum. As things look right now, Ross is going to be a major piece in the Raptors long-term plans. That wasn't going to be the case with Gay.
The tease is over. The slam dunks and out of this world athleticism are important, but we all needed more. There had to be substance within all of the flash and panache.
I'd like to see his rebounding and steal totals see an upswing in production. Ross is a fairly one-dimensional player at the moment, so developing his skills in other areas outside of his scoring and long range shooting will be key.
2013-14 statistics: 31 games, 28.8 minutes, 10.5 points, 50.2 percent from the field, 8.4 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, 1.8 turnovers, 14.6 PER
What have I been saying all season?
I was sounding like a broken record, but not once did I move away from my stance that more of an emphasis needed to be put on Jonas Valanciunas from the coaching staff.
I want to shout hallelujah at the top of my lungs because my prayers have finally been answered.
Prior to the Rudy Gay trade, Valanciunas had played over 30 minutes in just five games this season. Since then, he's broken that mark eight times, accumulating four double-doubles in the process.
Trust is a very fragile thing. It wasn't always there between the 7'0" center and Dwane Casey. There were games where Valanciunas wouldn't see the floor late in the fourth quarter, even though the scores were close and the team could have used someone of his stature to defend under the basket.
The only way Valanciunas was ever going to break through that barrier and become more of a contributor from start to finish was if he remained consistent and played well enough to where Casey would be crazy not to throw him to the wolves in key moments. There's only so much you can learn by watching your teammates in those situations.
He plays with little to no fear.
Valanciunas has gone up against some of the biggest and best power forwards and centers the NBA has to offer and stood his ground admirably.
Rarely will you make mincemeat out of guys like Roy Hibbert of the Indiana Pacers and Tyson Chandler of the New York Knicks on both ends of the court, but if you can go toe-to-toe with your man, defend and make life miserable for the opposition, then you will start earning some respect.
Valanciunas had 16 points and 18 rebounds against the Knicks on Dec. 27. He then followed that up five days later with 13 points and nine rebounds against Indiana on New Years day.
Andrea Bargnani he is not.
2013-14 statistics: 31 games, 30.1 minutes, 11.5 points, 59.5 percent from the field, 7.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.2 blocks, 1.6 turnovers, 16.9 PER
If you look up the word underrated in the dictionary, you're likely to find a picture of Amir Johnson staring into your subconscious with a look that would instill fear in even the most courageous of men.
It's either that or a picture of Tatiana Maslany from BBC's Orphan Black, which I could probably blab on and on about in a different setting.
Whether it's being underrated, underappreciated or a little bit of both, Johnson is one of the hardest working players in the NBA who never receives his just due.
Toronto is aware of Johnson's fighting spirit, believe me. A prime example of this would be when Johnson missed a running floater late in a close game against the defending NBA champion Miami Heat on their home floor on Jan. 5. It was a simple shot which he would probably hit 99.9 percent of the time (his current 59.2 shooting percentage is third in the league), but it didn't drop.
Rather than rip him apart on social media for botching what appeared to be an easy look, fans rallied around him, giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt after his strong performance throughout the night. He would finish the game with 17 points and eight rebounds in a little under 37 minutes.
The city loves him because he rarely gives anyone a reason to dislike him. He will never be looked at as one of the greats in franchise history alongside Vince Carter or Chris Bosh, but he will surely be remembered as one of the most beloved.
There's still more where that came from.
2013-14 statistics: 31 games, 36.5 minutes, 15.7 points, 42.7 percent from the field, 38.5 percent from three-point range, 4.1 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.2 blocks, 2.2 turnovers, 19.6 PER
The fate of the Toronto Raptors in 2013-14 rests in the hands of Kyle Lowry.
This team will go as far as he's willing to take them. That shouldn't be a problem considering how motivated he is, whether it be by winning games or the power of the almighty dollar itself.
Becoming a free agent can bring out the best in a player. You want teams to be fighting for your services as they look to fill your bank account with plenty of green.
It's no coincidence that Lowry is putting up the numbers he is during a contract year. I'm not saying it wouldn't have happened otherwise, but it certainly helps.
Lowry has four double-doubles over his last six games, averaging 17.6 points and 10.3 assists. The Raptors are 5-1 during that span with victories over the New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers.
The trade talks have quieted subsided. He still has the option to walk at the end of the season, but there's no need to make any hasty decisions, even with the NBA trade deadline coming up in February.
There's a reason why Lowry is averaging 36.5 minutes, which is 14th in the league. The quality of play drops every time he's on the bench. You want him playing as much as possible, even at the risk of wearing him out.
Moving Lowry before the deadline would be a clear indication that a division crown and/or playoff berth is something management wants to avoid. If the Raptors begin to slide in the standings, perhaps the rumors will begin to circulate again.
Until then, it's best to just admire Lowry from afar and enjoy what he's doing for this team.
2013-14 statistics: 31 games, 38.2 minutes, 20.9 points, 42 percent from the field, 30.7 percent from three-point range, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.5 blocks, 2.4 turnovers, 16.3 PER
If DeMar DeRozan isn't named to the 2014 NBA Eastern Conference All-Star roster, it will be a crime against nature.
Alright, that's a tad extreme, but you get the idea.
The city of Toronto knows just how good DeRozan can be, but it looks like the rest of the basketball world is starting to take notice of the 24-year-old as well.
His numbers have risen across the board, although his shooting percentages (42 percent from the field and 30.7 percent from three-point range) could use some improvement.
With Rudy Gay out of the picture, the Raptors have become DeRozan's team, if it wasn't already before.
This is a man who hasn't experienced postseason basketball since being drafted ninth overall back in 2009. There's a hunger there that's constantly nipping him in the butt, reminding him on a daily basis that he's never competed in the NBA playoffs.
You can tell simply by watching him compete how badly he wants it. Fans are rallying around him more and more because they see the passion he exudes. They're just as frustrated as he is.
An All-Star appearance in February would further validate the terrific start to the season he's having. Someone from the Raptors deserves to be recognized.
It should be DeRozan.