The Raptors Road To The Unknown

There are now just 19 games left in the Toronto Raptors 2010/11 season. I was talking to someone over the weekend and they hit me with that number and I was kind of surprised. The season goes by so quickly, it really does. In those last 19 games it is more about the Raptors positioning in the draft lottery than anything else. But even that is flawed to a degree.

The Lottery itself is a bit suspect in nature. Some people have a hard time believing in it's legitimacy. From the very first lottery that saw Patrick Ewing going to the New York Knicks people have wondered how on the level it is. All those conspiracy believers may not be right but enough strange occurrences have happened in it makes you wonder. But legit or not this NBA Lottery maybe the most unusual ever given the back drop for the draft. The NBA's looming CBA issues and the lack of a deal and a lockout looming threaten to alter the draft class. Many feel that because there is a real question if we even have a season next year will cause many kids to take a pass on the draft. However David Stern has never been a fan of letting youngsters in this game. He created the rule to bring an end to high school players being drafted. The last ever high schooler drafted is on the Raptors Roster in Amir Johnson. Who is to say that Stern does not push to increase the eligibility age to enter the draft. That might make kids flock to this draft if they saw that as a possibility. The general consensus is this draft class is stocked with power forwards. The one position the Raptors seem to be over stocked. In a terrible season like this people look to the draft for hope and answers. But in terms of this season it may just provide more questions than it does answers for the Raptors. Much like the year Andrea Bargnani was selected, there is not a clear cut number 1 selection. No slam dunk Blake Griffin or Lebron James to select.

As for the future of this team we still have yet to even see if Bryan Colangelo is coming back. It is widely assumed that he will. It was also widely assumed that Jose Calderon and Reggie Evans had been traded. If Colangelo is back that likely means Jay Triano will remain as well. Regardless of if Bryan is back or not he has laid a foundation to fix this team under the new CBA. But it is hard to even say how well he has done in that regard with having no idea what the new rules are going to look like. The game is going to be altered and rule book to how you build a franchise will be re-written this off-season. Teams will enter the draft most likely with no clear road map as to what free agency is going to look like and no clear idea to when that even takes place.

The Raptors ability to be competitive in the NBA may greatly be helped by the results of the collective bargaining agreement. While the Raptors are in no danger of moving this league has other teams that are in that position. The Sacramento Kings seem almost a lock to move to Anaheim while the league itself owns the Hornets. Look around the league and you don't need anyone to tell you it has some serious issues in small markets. The actions and events that lead to Chris Bosh and Lebron James going to South Beach are being felt. Now New York wants to have a similar model and have 2 thirds of it in place. While there is no question the general interest in the sport overall has been helped by the creation of this super team in Miami. NBA ratings have been up and interest in the sport has been too. But in contrast to that interest is down in this market. The attendance for the Raptors is off from the past. Television and Radio numbers are down as well. Even online interest is down if I base it on myself. The easy answer to that is losing. Team loses interest will drop. But really it can be a much larger and bigger problem. It can be a loss of hope. When there is no hope that a team can truly be a contender you have a serious issue. While in a market such as Toronto that is not a death blow by any means it is for other markets and makes teams become not viable.

This CBA will need to address that competitive balance. Which in real terms that ability to have hope and faith that any team can truly win be restored. Oklahoma City is the exception and not the rule. Fans in markets need to have faith that they can have stars and not worry that at the first chance they have to leave they will bolt for a more attractive situation. You are never going to be able to create a perfect system but the NBA must create a better one that allows teams to have the ability to keep it's stars. That can be tough when at a certain point players have made so much money that it becomes less about the money and more about other things. It is not like you can mandate someone to be loyal. Players will make the point that franchises are not always loyal as well. Teams on any given day when they are able to make trades can send a player packing at the drop of a hat.

The end result of the CBA will have a lot of say in what the Raptors future is going to be. If fans can embrace Demar DeRozan as the next one or just the next one to leave. I had said long before this season had ever got started that his development was the most important thing of this entire season. Injuries and a lack of any sort of a competitive team has made that even more the case. Whatever they come up with in a new CBA is not going to change one simple fact about the NBA. This is a star driven league and more than any other sport you truly need a star player or players to have any hope and being a serious contender. The Raptors as currently constructed have no star or franchise player at the moment. They have two potential stars in Bargnani and DeRozan. But when you look at things realistically the chances that Bargnani ever reaches that level grow less and less as the days go by. The same is not true for DeRozan who is showing true signs that he can be an elite player in this league. It has not been in the way that a Vince Carter burst on to the scene in Toronto. It has been a steady progression of improvement. Demar is still very young and I think we sometimes expect so much from kids these days. Not everyone can be like Lebron James or Sidney Crosby and walk into a sport and instantly dominate it. It takes time for most to learn and grow and develop into superstars. But there is not question that Demar at least has the tools in terms of ability to become one.

The question will become if DeRozan can reach that level can this team surround him with a team that is capable of winning. They have failed to do that with Carter and with Bosh. While you can point to those players and lay some of the blame on them, you have to assign blame to the Raptors as well. If Colangelo is indeed back he will need to get things right. While Bryan has had a lot of success in bringing in some complimentary pieces. When Colangelo has looked to hit the home run he has struck out every time. This will be his last chance to get it right and it may take him doing some things that many do not see him doing. He may need to take a hard look at Andrea Bargnani and if he truly should be here. Can he be a complimentary piece to a DeRozan or do you need to trade him and move on. Bargnani is not and will not be this team's franchise player. If people are going to question if Bosh could be to argue that Andrea can be is beyond ridiculous.

Who ultimate Colangelo makes part of this young core moving forward is going to be vital. While Bargnani is part of that mix if Colangelo is not willing to move him. DeRozan, Ed Davis and Amir Johnson all I would suggest are the other locks but after that it becomes cloudy. Jerryd Bayless is a real question mark above all others. He has not exactly blown anyone away really. Especially as the losses have mounted for this team, he has seemed to see his play drop off as well. He is likely to see more competition come his way as a result. I can not imagine the Raptors would not seriously be interested in finding a young point guard to develop and eventually replace Jose Calderon. You have Sonny Weems who it would appear has been ruled expendable by the Raptors acquiring James Johnson. It seems unlikely that both Johnson and Weems would remain. Solomon Alabi has in a sense just become the white flag for the Raptors throwing in the towel on games. He has bounced back and forth from the Bayhawks to the Raptors. I am not sure what to make of his future. Maybe they give him another year to see if they can turn him into anything. He very much is a project like Nathan Jawai was suppose to be and never was.

It will then become finding the vets to place around this group. In terms of the vets they have it would seem unlikely that Reggie Evans or Barbosa enter into the longer term plans for the Raptors. Both have been plagued with injuries and we have only got to see snap shots of what they are capable of doing in Toronto. The Raptors however the CBA shakes out are going to have cash to spend. Evans contract is going to expire and unless Reggie takes a serious discount I can't see him being back. While Barbosa becomes an interesting asset entering the final year of his deal. Definitely he is an interest piece for a contender if he is healthy. He also will offer a ton of cap relief for whoever is holding is contract by the end of next season assuming we have one that is.

But to truly know what this team or any team is going to be able to do in the future is just not possible. We have no road map on what teams will or won't be able to do. At the same time the NBA's future is in flux so is the NFL's future. They too are in the beginning of their labour situation. While the two are not related exactly should the NFL find a way to have labour peace, as an NBA fan you would hope that increases the pressure for the NBA to do the same.

The sad fact is that as fans we are held as the hostages in these things. It takes away your ability to even look towards the future with no really idea on what it will be. Which in terms of the Raptors is all they have going for them right now is the future. The present has been painfully obvious you could argue even as far back as when Chris Bosh signed in Miami. We all remember the post Vince Carter Raptors. It took a long time to recover from that. This time around the Raptor fan base is far more bitter and far more jaded. They have endured 16 years of a team that has not been able to deliver on it's promise of wanting to be a winner and a contender. They are more educated as fans and are not as easy to accept that this team will be able to get it right this time. After all they have enough history of them getting it wrong to be justified in thinking that it will not change.

However with a new CBA that will eventually come it is hard to predict what it will mean for the NBA and for the Raptors specifically. What is not hard to figure out is this fan base regardless of that is tired of losing it's stars, tired of losing faith and just tired of losing in general. The pressure to get it right will be intense. Raptor fans are not like Maple Leaf fans and are not willing to wait 40 plus years for them to get it right.

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