Defining success for the Toronto Raptors upcoming campaign

Toronto Raptors (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Entering the season as the defending champions, what are reasonable expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year?

All or nothing. Three words which define the Toronto Raptor’s aspirations for this season. But is a championship-or-bust mentality the most realistic plan for the short-term and long-term outlook of this franchise?

Certain franchises straddle the line between playoff contenders and lottery teams. For them, acquiring stars at the deadline to make the leap to a middle playoff seed would define a success. For teams in the rebuilding process, losing most games and maximizing their lottery odds can be a success. For defending champions, there is only one expectation: do it again.

Over the offseason, highlighted by the significant departure of Kawhi Leonard, Masai Ujiri and the rest of the front office reloaded their roster clip and chose to take the steady path, rather than a full-on reset or a hybrid-rebuild.

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The youthful additions of Stanley Johnson, Terence Davis, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, as well as the extension of  25-year-old Pascal Siakam, indicated a franchise pivot towards youth. While the team did extend Kyle Lowry, it’s no coincidence the extension ran for just one year. A strong season-long showing will all-but guarantee 25-year-old Fred VanVleet a significant pay raise in the upcoming off-season.

Playing the young guys and getting them reps has become less of a desire for the defending champions and more of a necessity. But while Toronto will rely on a group of inexperience players, these young guns are surrounded by heralded veterans with poise, basketball IQ, and for the most part, defensive versatility.

Kyle Lowry will lead the young guards, teaching them how to impact the game in the million little ways which make him a basketball savant. Meanwhile, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka will fill the paint with two veteran centers who both have significant defensive hardware at home.

The Raptors are a youthful team. However, veteran leadership at key positions should help them contend immediately, this season.

The Eastern Conference is as competitive as it has been in recent years, with former playoff conquests Philadelphia and Milwaukee leading the way. In the regular season, the Raptors should shoot to be the 3rd of 4th seed, as locking up home-court advantage this playoffs is a necessity.

On paper, the primary competition for those upper-middle seeds are the Brooklyn Nets, the Boston Celtics, and the Miami Heat. Boston and Miami have already jumped out too hot starts, while the Nets have struggled early on.

After locking up home-court, the Toronto Raptors should be shooting for no less than a finals appearance. The Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks are good teams, but neither register as unbeatable. The majority of players on the Raptors just beat similar teams last season. Toronto isn’t the favorite to come out of the East, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t have that goal in mind.

This is a franchise that has been consistently a top team in the East, but rarely the best, and breaking that perennial glass ceiling again is on every veteran Raptor’s mind. Lowry has taken to Player’s Tribune to reiterate his hunger for more rings, and expectation to continue to compete, rather than ride off into the sunset.

How does this impact beyond this season?

The Raptors certainly increased their reputation as a winner last season. Winning a title helps, no matter what the circumstances. However, in free agency, perception IS reality. And whether it’s true or not, Kawhi Leonard was given a lions share of the credit for last year’s title.  Toronto continuing its success will help secure its place as an elite franchise, not one that was carried by an individual player.

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There is an opportunity this season to forge a legendary franchise while the coals are still hot. Losing home-court advantage would hinder a playoff run, which in turn would cool down the fire. Making the Finals would give the flames a second wind, and usher in a new decade of sustainable success. And if the Raptors can make the finals, who knows what happens from that point.