A new hope

With the convoluted details of the new collective bargaining agreement and the condensed free agency frenzy dealt with, we, as a small segment of NBA fans, can finally shift our focus to the most frustrating and emotionally painful part of the season: Will the Raptors make the playoffs?

The free agency period and the early segment of the season are the most confusing time for Raptor fans. Free agency period has always yielded unsubstantiated hope for us, where we delude ourselves into believing that Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo signing a player like Linaz Kleiza to a four-year, US $18.8 million dollar contract last season was a savvy move.

But, questionable contracts and unwarranted optimism aside, let’s take a look at what the Raptors have done over this past offseason and through the start of the regular season and try to predict if they’ll still be playing in May. Keep in mind that in the not-so-deep Eastern Conference a .500 record should guarantee a seventh or eighth seed.

In June the Raptors announced that they had hired Dwane Casey, a former assistant coach with the 2011 title winning Dallas Mavericks. Casey was brought on to guide the Raptors through their rebuilding period and instill a defensive mentality in the team, similar to the one that he created in Dallas. Casey also brought with him a 590 kg boulder to place in the Raps’ locker room, invoking the stonecutter’s persistent work ethic. His motto for this year is “Pound the rock.” What’s not to like about this guy?

A defensive readjustment is just what the Raptors needed. The past two seasons have seen the Raptors allow a shade over 105 points per game (ppg), tying them for third most points allowed in the 2009-10 season and placing them as the fifth worst defensive team in the 2010-11 season. So far, the addition of Casey seems to be working.

Whether the Raptors are a team that has transitioned from a primarily offensive orientation to a team that practices the fundamentals of defence remains to be seen. Despite the defensive liabilities that both Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani pose, the Raptors are holding teams to 92.3 ppg, seventh best in the league. The lockout, though, has brought some painfully sloppy offensive basketball into this young season. Currently, the league average stands at 94.7 ppg compared to last year’s 99.6 ppg, the year before the average was even higher, at 100.5 ppg.

If the Raptors have improved as dramatically on defence as their early stats suggest, there still may be hope for Bargnani. After slow progress through his first three years in a Raptors jersey, he is emerging into a perennial 20 ppg scorer. There has been some improvement shown on the boards on the defensive side of the ball in the past few seasons — Bargnani has been averaging a career best 5.4 defensive rebounds per game this season. As an added benefit, he has been able to put more pressure on the opposing team’s defence by getting to the free throw line an average of six times per game, nearly double his average from two seasons ago. Although there has been some improvement in his game, as anyone that has watched a Raptors’ game this season knows, Bargnani’s defence is still a work in progress.

With a greater emphasis placed on team defence and Bargnani finally improving past the level of “unaggressive seven footer that can shoot threes” this season, I predict the Raptors will post a 32-34 win-loss record, which will sneak them into the playoffs as an eighth seed.

Then again, maybe I’m just deluding myself.