The Toronto Raptors are “interesting?”

Apr 13, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard Kyle Lowry (7) takes a shot against the Phoenix Suns in the third quarter at the Toyota Center. The Suns defeated the Rockets 112-105. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-US PRESSWIRE

“Interesting” is an interesting word. Human nature tends to point us in the direction of using that word when we encounter the unknown and with sports, it’s often the easiest way to deflect a bold prediction.

As basketball fans, even the casual ones, we know that the Los Angeles Lakers will be insanely good this season. We know that the Charlotte Bobcats will be putrid once again. What we don’t know is the Toronto Raptors, who, with yet another offseason makeover, figure to be somewhere in between. Does that mean a playoff birth or another lottery appearance? It’s all in how the word “interesting” is interpreted.

We could start with those that feel like the Raptors aren’t quite there yet. Some knocks against the Raptors playoff hopes next season:

  • Their clearly unsuccessful track record. Last year they finished 11th in the Eastern Conference and haven’t been in the playoffs since the 2007-08 season.
  • The more challenging Atlantic Division. With the Celtics, the improved Sixers and Nets, and the unpredictable Knicks providing stiffer inter-division competition for the Raps, this means a much tougher path to a playoff seed.
  • Lack of offensive firepower. Although their defense was significantly better last season, they still lack the offensive weaponry to hang with the teams in their division and definitely not with the league’s upper echelon.
  • The absence of a “true” superstar. Facts are facts; Andrea Bargnani was an overall #1 pick. But you would be hard-pressed to find a person that considers him a true, reliable superstar. He’s never made an All-Star Game and when he finally looked the part last season, he got hurt and missed a ton of time. If you’re not at work, you can’t produce. While the Raps desperately hope that Kyle Lowry is the team’s next star, it’s laughable to look outside of him to find that next potential star.

However, there are those that comprise an optimistic minority that see the Raptors as a playoff team in 2012-13. They (and I include myself in this group) see the “interesting” side of the coin as a team with very legitimate competitive opportunities next season. Some of the reasons why:

  • The re-shaping of the Eastern Conference. With some position swapping sure to take place in the East, the Raptors will find themselves right in the middle tier of teams competing for one the bottom playoff spots. The Bobcats, Magic, Wizards, Pistons and Cavaliers have very solid potential to have a worse record than the Raps, leaving them to deal with a short list of teams fighting for playoff positioning. Stealing games (especially the home ones) within their division will be key.
  • The point guard upgrade(s). There is a consensus that the Raptors improved their squad over the summer. They upgraded their below-average point guard position with Kyle Lowry bumping Jose Calderon out of the starting spot and even bringing in the suprising John Lucas III. The toughness factor was definitely addressed by adding these guys.
  • The “Landry Fields” defensive factor. I know, I know, they drastically overpaid him as a ploy to lure Steve Nash, which of course did not work. So while Fields rakes in the cash, the Raptors did improve their perimeter defense by bringing him in, and likely into the starting lineup. The team already made a leap (9th overall in points allowed) last year under Casey’s watch, so adding another solid wing defender certainly won’t hurt.
  • Their two lottery picks. Technically the Raps will be featuring not one, but two, Top-8 lottery picks in the rotation this season. Jonas Valanciunas (#5 in 2011), who many claimed would have been the second pick after Anthony Davis had he come out this year instead, will be coming over from Lithuania to play the true center position, something the Raptors have lacked for a while now. This year’s pick, Terrence Ross (#8 in 2012) should get minutes right away, providing some much needed outside shooting and his own brand of tough defense.
  • Bargnani is back! Finally, they should have a healthy Andrea Bargnani back for the whole season. Although he’s never made an All-Star Game as a #1 overall pick, he was making his best case last season before his injury sidelined him for a total of 35 games. As the number one option, it can’t hurt the team to have 19.5 points (his 2011-12 average) back in the lineup every night.

Regardless of how you place “interesting” as an adjective to describe the 2012-13 Raptors, they will be a fun team to watch. Lowry, Valanciunas, Fields and Ross will provide some highlight reel material along with some hard-nosed defense, if you’re into that sort of thing, which we are. Even if they end up slightly short of the playoffs this year, a realistic reason for optimism does exist.

mhallihan