The NBA’s holiday broadcasts rarely disappoint.
On Christmas Day, the bill of games showcased matchups meant to be as tantalizing to audiences as possible and the discourse surrounding the league reached epic proportions of parody — providing enough muted giggles and eye-rolling to heat a cold winter’s night.
It’s one thing to catch the fourth quarter of a Knicks-76ers game half asleep, but it's an entirely different ball game to watch consecutive premier matchups featuring 10 teams that enjoy superstars, multi-time champions and blossoming youngsters. Once these matchups are coupled with colour commentary analogous to the narrated reading of a theatre programme, informing the casual fan who tunes in once a year prior to the playoffs of principal performers and background information, the discourse becomes burlesque since it’s, essentially, our third and fourth day of NBA basketball in a 72-game season.
“Who will rep the East,” you ponder. “What team will disappoint, and who will make that next leap?”
Early season guesstimations are among my favourite basketball discussions. It’s challenging to assess rosters, factoring in things like health and chemistry, new faces and continuity when determining where you believe a team’s ceiling is perched above. Guesses are subjective, molded by our tastes and perspectives, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the course of the last several years, it’s to not allow superficial early-season wins and losses colour your predictions. Trust your gut and factor the results into your future predictions.
What to make of the Raptors’ slow start?
Talent, defensive consistency and veteran leadership are a few tried and true components of successful predictions — a few things the Toronto Raptors possess enough amounts of to warrant the benefit of the doubt in regards to any early-season rockiness. So considering this, let’s assess what the team has looked like thus far.
When it comes to talent, the Raptors possess a few dynamic components among their core starters: a proven offensive leader in Kyle Lowry, a pandora’s box of high-ceiling potential in forwards OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, and the flair, stoicism and skillset of Fred VanVleet (to name a few). With the loss of the championship centre rotation of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, followers of the team have rightfully wondered about where the supplemental offence and defence would come from. So far, we’ve seen a number of adjustments meant to heal the losses which has manifested itself as a larger playmaking and rebounding burden on Siakam (in the form of some very ambitious and impressive passing to teammates in the losses to the Pelicans and Spurs), as well continuous three-level scoring from VanVleet.
When this core’s history of growth and development are taken into account alongside some maintained continuity, we can begin to understand the malleability this roster has demonstrated across the last few years. It makes the notion of replacing two proven and premier centres less preposterous.
To expect the Raptors’ prime core to adapt and will success isn’t far fetched, it’s part of a history of overcoming deficiencies and finding harmony within the regular season (all whilst developing rookies in the process). So far, Chris Boucher’s Ibaka impression has been proof of that. Even though natural improvements among key players should be enough to overcome the scoring losses at centre, the absence of two veteran locker room and on-court leaders will be difficult to quantify. There have been stories within the last few seasons detailing Ibaka’s ability to rally the troops after losses — the championship season’s 0-2 deficit to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference final comes to mind — and Gasol’s court awareness visibly helped the team’s youth remain defensively succinct when executing their complex schemes.
We’re potentially looking at a bit of an in between year, littered with a few highs and frequent lows. We’re also potentially looking at a season of multiple leaps and breakouts, when those on the roster entering the start of their prime years will be making the transition into the veteran leadership roles vacant on the team.
It may seem minuscule when compared to factors such as talent and defensive consistency, but all too often we’ve witnessed immature teams crumble despite possessing every ounce of talent necessary to go the distance in the postseason. The importance of transformative adversity is not new to any good roster. In fact, many vets often bask in the blips of the regular season, using it as fuel.
The importance of these roles and experiences can’t be understated, and it’ll be interesting to see how the guys bend, twist and spin their way into the ranks of the conference’s best teams, as they’ve been known to do.
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