In midst of golden era, Raptors need to invest in the present

Eric Smith and Paul Jones preview the Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic game on Thursday in London, England & talk about the Raptors attitude going into the game.

By any measure this is the Toronto Raptors’ golden era.

Never before in the franchise’s history have they enjoyed this much sustained success. Not when Vince Carter was at peak Vinsanity. Not when Jorge Garbajosa was riding shotgun for Chris Bosh and not when … well, that’s about it really.

So being in the middle of the best stretch of basketball in Raptors history isn’t exactly on par with the Chicago Bulls building toward their second three-peat, or the Los Angeles Lakers engineering Showtime or two decades of San Antonio Spurs excellence, but that doesn’t mean where the Raptors are at the moment shouldn’t be recognized and celebrated.

We’re not suggesting a private audience with the Queen while the Raptors are over in London to take on the Orlando Magic on Thursday as part of the NBA’s Global Games series, but what they are doing shouldn’t be ignored.

In a league where championships are typically sprinkled among the near-dynastic few – just 10 franchise have won a championship in the past 36 years – it’s too easy for the Raptors to look at the Golden State Warriors, Spurs or Cleveland Cavaliers and feel like they’re a long way from the NBA’s super-elite.

Where they are – a solid near-contender with two potential 2016 all-stars in the lineup and a nice collection of depth pieces of varying age and experience surrounding them – has proven an elusive destination for the Raptors over the decades, as any fan would know.

So before they begin to worry about scaling the next peak – and general manager Masai Ujiri’s task will be to figure out how to get from good to great – they should admire the view for a moment.

And where they are is pretty damn good.

Their cumulative record since the Rudy Gay trade in December 2013 is 115-70 – they’ve been playing at a 51-win pace for nearly three full seasons. Dwane Casey is now the most successful coach in franchise history and the only coach to have a winning record.

Presuming they continue on their current trajectory, they’ll finish the season with 50 wins, the third straight season they’ve broken the franchise record for regular-season victories. They’re in second place in the Eastern Conference and are second in the NBA in road wins, with 13.

Given they’ve got to this point having suffered significant injuries to starters Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll, and that they’ve played 22 road games – only the Philadelphia 76ers and Lakers have played more, each with 23 – there’s reason to expect the second half of the season will be better than the first.

And while the memory may play tricks, the numbers don’t lie.

Is this edition of the Raptors better than Carter’s gang? It’s not even close.

The 2000-01 team that won a then franchise-record 47 games finished the season with an offensive rating of 105.9, while the Charles Oakley-anchored defence had a rating of 103.4, according to basketball-reference.com, for a net differential of 2.5 points per 100 possessions. That was the best net differential in Raptors history until the Kyle LowryDeMar DeRozan Raptors turned things around so dramatically in 2013-14 and finished at plus-3.5.

This year, the Raptors are at plus-3.4 as the season approaches the halfway point and, with a reasonable expectation, things will improve.

Perhaps more important is that Toronto’s performance relative to the rest of the NBA is better than it’s ever been. The only time the franchise has had both its defence and its offence rated in the league’s top-10 for a full season was in 2013-14 when they each were 10th. Right now the Raptors have the seventh-rated offence and the ninth-rated defence.

As of Wednesday they are in second place in the Eastern Conference, have won 13 road games – one more than the mighty Spurs and second only to the Warriors’ 18 road wins so far. It’s the most in Raptors history through the first half of a season.

And how much better would their home record be if they hadn’t dropped four games to losing teams in almost identical fashion: On the second night of a back-to-back or the first game home after a long stretch on the road? They’ve beaten the Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Cavaliers, and came so achingly close to wins over Golden State twice.

And now the schedule is poised to turn in their favour. When they get back from London they begin one of two seven-game homestands they’ll enjoy during a period in which they play 17 of their next 26 games at home.

There are all kinds of risk factors that could yet derail the Raptors’ season. Can DeRozan and Lowry – currently third and fifth in minutes played, respectively (albeit fifth and eighth in minutes per game) – hold up as they carry the team?

Will the injury to Carroll – likely out until the beginning of March after having knee surgery last week – begin to drag the roster down?

Are Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson reliable cornerstones for the second unit?

There are plenty of uncertainties.

But the chances of something good happening outweigh those risks and this is where Ujiri will need to shine.

The Raptors have four first-round picks to use in the next two seasons; there is no way this team can absorb four more rookies. There simply has to be a trade coming and it only makes sense for Ujiri to do it before the Feb. 18th trade deadline to add to the current core.

If there was ever a time to invest in the present, this is it.

There are all kinds of opportunities to overthink this, to question whether it’s wise to commit to building around DeRozan as he heads into free agency and reports are being floated on both coasts that there will be suitors lining up to offer DeRozan a maximum contract – about $108 million over four years, based on current salary cap estimates. The Raptors could offer a fifth year, pushing DeRozan’s potential take to $147 million. And committing to DeRozan means committing to a then 31-year-old Lowry the following summer.

Does pouring all that money and building around a core that doesn’t exactly include the hall-of-famer-in-the-making pedigree we associate with NBA championship teams make sense?

It does.

The problem in the NBA is that it’s difficult to properly define success. Given the NBA’s history of dynasties or near dynasties it’s easy to lose sight of what the reality is for most “successful” NBA franchises: A slow build to respectability, ideally a habit of 50-win seasons and hopefully some lengthy playoff runs mixed in there.

That’s where the Raptors are now, and it’s too late to turn back. No one in their right mind tears down a 50-win team that is still ascending, even if the ceiling might be, at first glance, shy of a clear-cut championship contender.

Could Ujiri and the Raptors go down that path, paved with gold and good intentions, and eventually end up the Eastern Conference’s version of the Memphis Grizzlies? Good but never good enough?

Maybe. It’s almost likely, but having come this far it makes more sense to see how much can be squeezed out of this group; to see if there is some semblance of the 2004 Detroit Pistons or the 2011 Dallas Mavericks waiting to emerge – the two most recent examples of championships won mostly by committee – given the right support.

There is some irony in that the foundation for the Raptors’ best-ever era has been built on the bones of a team that was slated for demolition in 2013-14, but the Raptors have rarely had things unfold as predicted or expected, so it’s fitting in that respect.

Considering the team’s history, it only makes sense to stay the course – as unconventional as it seems – and keep the faith to see where it all leads.