MacKenzie on Raptors: Revisiting pre-season predictions

"I'm a professional," Rudy Gay said. "To even hear 'tank' makes me sick to my stomach. No team that I'm on is going to tank. We're going to try and win every game." (CP/Frank Gunn)
April 8, 2013, 7:50 PM

Admitting you were wrong is not usually an entertaining experience. Add in the 2012-13 Toronto Raptors, though, and things change.

During the positive and carefree days of training camp, where hopes, goals and playoff dreams soared through the team, the National Post had four people who covered the team around the internets — myself and fellow sportsnet.ca writer Tom Liston included — answer some questions about the squad. Normally I’m not a fan of predictions because, well, I hate being wrong. The only thing worse than being wrong is being wrong on the internet where your foolish thoughts will live on forever.

Regardless, I participated in the bloggers panel and now I will share with you where I went wrong predicting how things would unfold for the Raptors this season. Hey, at least I’m not the only one who missed the mark.

1. What should reasonable expectations be for Jonas Valanciunas?

MacKenzie: Most importantly, people should remember that he is a rookie playing his first year of NBA basketball while learning terminology and a flow to the game that’s still new to him. That being said, he played well in the pre-season. Expect him to make a difference on the defensive end, gobble up rebounds, block shots and get to the line with more frequency as the season goes on.

So, this didn’t go terribly off course. Valanciunas definitely looked like a rookie for most of the season and, defensively especially, like a rookie learning a new game. He did have more trouble than I expected on the defensive end of the floor, but the growth he’s shown over the past five weeks have been evidence of his abilities. He also had that 16-for-18 performance at the free throw line last week and seems to be earning the respect of the officials.

2. Andrea Bargnani was efficient offensively and competent defensively in last year’s first 13 games before getting injured. Was that a mirage?

MacKenzie: I don’t think it was a mirage. I think it was a version of Bargnani that was comfortable and motivated and the credit for that goes largely to Dwane Casey. Almost every coach says you’ll sit if you don’t play on the defensive end, but Casey has made it clear that his words are not just empty threats. As for his performance during this pre-season … well, it’s pre-season.

And this is where I felt like setting the internet on fire.

I suppose this is what you get for believing in a 13-game segment from a season ago instead of the six previous seasons, but count me in on the list of people who were all-in on Bargnani. Less than six months later, this statement makes me want to shake my head at myself.

It’s been a bad season in Toronto and, through injury/apathy, it has been the worst season for Bargnani. From fans booing to Italian interviews needing to be cleared up, there probably isn’t a Raptors player who is looking forward to the off-season more than Bargnani. The question now: Where will home be for Bargnani next season?

3. Assuming full health, should the Raptors trade Jose Calderon this season? If so, what should the price be?

MacKenzie: The Raptors should trade Jose Calderon if the price is right. That “price” would need to be a player that significantly improves the Raptors on the perimeter. It would also be dependent upon the play of Lucas, who has impressed thus far.

Two months and change later, this is a deal that did end up happening and while there were business reasons behind it, its after effects still sting. The Raptors elected to move Calderon’s expiring contract to Detroit, while sending promising big man Ed Davis to Memphis in return for Rudy Gay and his max contract. This was a move that was made to make a splash. This franchise has lusted after an all-star calibre player since Chris Bosh left for Miami. While Gay isn’t an all-star, he has the talent. Whether it is realized in Toronto or not we’re yet to see, but this was one of those things that seemed inevitable.

4. How will his new teammates take to hard-nosed Kyle Lowry, and how will he take to the Raptors?

MacKenzie: They’ll take to him, because it’s been made clear that this is Lowry’s show to run. This team has needed an edge for a while now. Lowry provides that edge.

It’s tough to comment on this question because Lowry missed so much of the season and never got to properly assert himself as the starting point guard and leader from day one. That being said, his first season with the Raptors hasn’t been nearly as successful as most — myself included — had hoped.

5. Will DeMar DeRozan, a restricted free agent to be, help or hurt his value this season?

MacKenzie: While DeRozan has yet to show that he has added another element to his game, he has put on weight, improved his ability to get to the free-throw line and attack the basket. For a player who can already score 20 easily, this is a positive that can only help.

This question was negated the second Bryan Colangelo pulled out his pen and handed it to DeRozan — literally seconds before tip-off of the season opener when DeRozan ran into the back tunnel — to sign his four-year, $38-million extension. The team outbid itself with the extension, but DeRozan’s work over the off-season as well as his commitment to the franchise is what pushed the Raptors towards giving him an extension.

6. How would you describe the three-year, US$19-million investment made in Landry Fields?

MacKenzie: Ballsy.

Yep. That still applies. Kidding aside, Fields’s first season with the Raptors has been an unfortunate mess that started horribly thanks to an injured elbow ligament that needed surgery. While he has shown flashes of what he can do on the floor, he is but another wing player who cannot hit threes. With two weeks left on the season, Fields has made two three-pointers and attempted just 14.

7. Will Dwane Casey turn the Raptors into a top-10 defensive team?

MacKenzie: If we look at the improvements that the team made last season, add Valanciunas, who is a presence inside, along with very capable defender Terrence Ross and another year for players to get familiar with the system and Casey’s expectations, and it’s a safe bet to assume they’ll continue to climb the defensive rankings.

This was the question I’d felt most confident about answering. Really missed the mark here, didn’t I? I think we all did. While Valanciunas struggled to pick up the defensive schemes and speed/size of the NBA game more than I expected, I also was overly confident in Ross’s ability to transition to the NBA from the jump. Both players needed the duration of the season to get adjusted and comfortable with their new surroundings. As for the rest of the team…yeah. Easily the biggest disappointment in a season filled with them.

8. What or who will be the biggest unexpected positive for the Raptors this year?

MacKenzie: John Lucas III. Instant offence, great character guy and has a way of tempering younger players and teaching them how to deal with criticism and coaching without getting deflated. This is a team that needed new blood and fresh energy. Lucas provides it.

Okay, didn’t nail this one either. Despite Lucas’s role being up and down throughout the season, I will say his professionalism has served as a good example for the younger players in the locker room.

Whether he was in the rotation or benched in favour of Sebastian Telfair, acquired from the Phoenix Suns at the trade deadline, Lucas handled things the right way and put a smile on his face when needed.

In a good year you need your reserves to fall in line. In a rough year, it’s absolutely necessary. Lucas knew his role, played it while on the floor and didn’t create any unnecessary drama even if he didn’t get to flourish as he had hoped when signing with the Raptors.

9. What will the Raptors’ record be, and where will they finish in the Eastern Conference standings?

MacKenzie: I’m going to say the Raptors will finish eighth, at 37-45. Yes, this basically means the rest of the Eastern Conference will have to fall apart, but this is my fifth season in this city and I’ve yet to cover a playoff game. It’s time.

Fun fact: When the Milwaukee Bucks clinched a playoff spot on Saturday night. They had 37 wins. Beyond that magic number and the recognition that 37 wins could make the post-season cut in the Eastern Conference, I really regret being wrong on this one. Another year without the playoffs — I feel you, Raptors fans.

10. After this season, the Raptors have a team option to retain president and general manager Bryan Colangelo. Will he still be running the Raptors a year from now?

MacKenzie: Yes, I think he will be. Drafting Valanciunas, pulling off the trade to bring in Kyle Lowry (he’s making $6 million each of the next two seasons, making the failed Steve Nash pursuit look like a blessing) and, of course, the positive after-effects of his decision to hire Dwane Casey will ensure him more time in Toronto.

Ahh, the (multi)-million dollar question in Toronto right now. Well, things certainly look different than they did in November, don’t they? They also look remarkably different than they did after the 4-19 start or the midway break of the season or even the beginning of February, when the team reeled off wins in the immediate aftermath of the Gay trade.

While Colangelo’s decision to draft Valanciunas was absolutely the right one — and one that will pay off big time in the years to come — the other moves haven’t unfolded as planned.

Lowry has not fit in as expected; Casey’s defensive schemes seemed to elude the team a season after they had made serious strides on the defensive end of the floor and the team is missing the post-season for the fifth straight year. It isn’t that they are missing the post-season so much as it is the way they missed it. It’s been a season of disappointment after disappointment and regroup after regroup. When the pieces don’t fit and each one matters, eventually the blame has to fall upon the person responsible for putting them together.

It’s been a wild ride this season, hasn’t it?

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