That’s basically what the immediate and intermediate future of the Toronto Raptors will turn on.
Does the franchise ownership trust general manager Bryan Colangelo and coach Dwane Casey and the path they’ve set their basketball team on?
Will the players, who should start next season with a degree of continuity that has been missing — for obvious reasons — for the past two years, make the greatest sum possible from the whole of their parts, regardless of imperfections?
“It’s continuity,” was Colangelo’s argument for staying the course when he addressed the media on Monday. “A team awareness of where to be, how to be and what to be on the court. It takes trust.”
And will that be enough to earn back or at the very least maintain the belief of the club’s fan base, which has been given every reason to be skeptical over the past few years?
Of course there’s bias at work: Colangelo and Casey each have jobs and reputations riding on the Raptors staying with the status quo.
A big step was taken on Monday when Colangelo made about as clear cut and public a statement of support he could possibly make for a man in his position when he tied himself at the hip with Casey.
“If I come back, Dwane Casey will coach this basketball team,” he said.
And Casey did his part to smooth over any perceptions that he and his boss were less than simpatico:
“I hope Bryan and I are back because we started this plan together — we’re rebuilding and I do know and am very confident that we’re on the right path,” Casey said. “… We have the right pieces and the right talent. Now we have to get that talent pulling together (but) I hope it is Bryan and I because he put these pieces together.”
Tactically putting out a united front was wise. United there’s no guarantee they stand, but divided there is every chance they fall. As Colangelo tries to get an extension or at the very least have his option picked up by MLSE it probably won’t be doing his credibility any favours by trying to pin a 34-48 season on Casey.
Similarly for Casey, Colangelo’s presence is likely his best chance of getting to coach into the third year of his contract. A new GM would likely mean a new coach and while Casey is a well-respected assistant and one of the most likeable people in the NBA, coaches who miss the playoffs in their first two head coaching stints — Casey missed in Minnesota too — don’t often get a chance a third time around.
So Colangelo and Casey — whatever their motivations — have declared their faith in one another.
Should MLSE show their faith in them? Should Raptors fans buy in to the same-old same-old?
In the absence of a clear alternative, they should.
It’s pretty clear at this stage what the Raptors are not: They are not, for example, a team like Oklahoma City or the San Antonio Spurs or even the Los Angeles Clippers — franchises that have leveraged homegrown superstars acquired via some tremendous luck on draft day.
And they’re not like the Miami Heat or New York Knicks or Brooklyn Nets — teams that cleared salary cap space over a number of seasons to be able to acquire superstars via free agency or a trade.
Among the 16 teams that made the playoffs, what can they reasonably aspire to become then?
Would the Indiana Pacers be a team the Raptors could model themselves after? Perhaps the Memphis Grizzlies?
The common thread with both those line-ups, each in good position to advance to the second round of the playoffs and maybe beyond with some luck, is good health and continuity.
In Indiana, the fewest number of games played by one of their starters this season was 73; three of their top four players off the bench played at least 76 games. All of their starters are in their second full season playing for Frank Vogel; the majority of them are in their third.
The Memphis Grizzlies were 24-58 the year Lionel Hollins took over as head coach midway through the 2008-09 season. They were 40-42 the next year but have won 64 per cent of their games since, or an average of 52 a year.
Their lineup has also been one of the most stable in the NBA, with Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, Tony Allen and Marc Gasol appearing in 91 per cent of the team’s games over the past three seasons.
Contrast that to the situation in Toronto the past two years — while DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson have been constants, appearing in 145 of a possible 148 games coached by Casey, or 98 per cent — they are the exceptions. The other members of what would be projected to be the starting lineup next season — Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Lowry and Rudy Gay — played in just 66 per cent of the Raptors games this season and none of the three were with the franchise last season.
And that’s not even mentioning Andrea Bargnani, who has missed more games than he’s played during Casey’s tenure.
Continuity guarantees nothing, of course. A bad team playing a lot of games together is still a bad team.
But as Sportsnet’s Tom Liston pointed out on Monday, the lineup of Gay, Lowry, DeRozan, Johnson and Valanciunas was one of the most efficient in the NBA in their brief time together.
One would expect Valanciunas to build on what was a very impressive rookie season, given he’s just turning 21; DeRozan is still only 23; Johnson is 25, Gay is 26 and Lowry is 27.
Admittedly it’s hard to imagine that lineup contending for an NBA championship unless Valanciunas turns into Tim Duncan. But with the paths available to them, what choices do the Raptors reasonably have to get better?
There is no free agent cavalry coming. Tanking for draft picks and extending the rebuild well into the foreseeable future is something only the most diehard fans could reasonably stomach.
Colangelo and Casey will make their case to MLSE that they should be trusted to finish the job they started.
Colangelo said the expectation was that given the chance this group would be a playoff team next year. It’s on his shoulders he said.
He and Casey should get their chance and likely will, as unsexy as that might sound.
I can see the marketing campaign now: A radical embrace of the same.