This year's consensus among NBA analysts is that the Raptors suck; they’re bad and going to lose a lot. It is believed they have little talent and that they are destined to own a top-five draft pick next June.
Interestingly, though, this season’s Toronto Raptors roster is in no way worse than last season’s, meaning they should win at least as many games. First off, prospects such as DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis, Jerryd Bayless and James Johnson all have one more year of NBA experience under their belts. These guys are young and raw, so their skill increases exponentially with just a little bit of added experience.
This fall, the Raptors also made a serious effort to improve their biggest weakness—a team culture of players not appreciating the importance of good defensive play.Last season the Raptors were arguably the easiest team to score on. They could not contest shots, stop dribble penetration, rebound or protect the paint.
The Raptors do have many players, though, with the tools necessary to be good defenders. DeRozan is one of the best athletes in the NBA. Andrea Bargnani is a strong seven-footer, and Amir Johnson, James Johnson and Bayless all have great lateral quickness.
The problem last year was in the intangibles. The team had a low defensive IQ and was not held accountable for its defensive effort.
General manager Bryan Colangelo made two smart moves to fix the problem. The first was that he hired Dwane Casey as head coach. Casey is a defensive mastermind who designed the championship-winning Dallas Mavericks defense.
Colangelo also surrounded the Raptors' core youthful players with defensive-minded veterans. Most observers, though, underestimate these actions as having little short-term impact.
They are wrong. Intangibles do matter.
Better coaching strategies, higher basketball IQ and stronger veteran leadership all matter. Good intangibles help players translate raw talent into effective basketball play.
Further, the Raptors are already seeing the fruits of their actions. Players are being more vocal than ever at team meetings and more intense at practice. For a young team on which players are still developing work habits and learning the game of basketball, these “little things” will go a long way.
This year, Raptors fans will see first-hand the impact of intangibles. While the team will not make the playoffs, Toronto will not tank and be the basement dweller everyone expects. Unfortunately for many die-hard fans, this means they’ll have a top-14 draft pick instead of a top-five selection.
This is good though—more wins means the Raptors will have a good core of players who have a higher potential than was expected. Combine that with Jonas Valanciunas arriving next year, a top-14 draft pick and tons of cap space in 2012, and the Raptors have an exciting future.