Good Vibes in Raptor Land (No, Really)

Kyle Lowry called it a “new chapter.”

To Landry Fields, its “starting fresh.”

Even for head coach Dwane Casey, its a “chance to set new goals and aim towards new achievements.”

Call it what you will, but Toronto Raptors’ media day was rife with excitement, anticipation and, above all else, ambition for the season that lies ahead. Even the “P”-word, a term seldom heard within team circles in recent years, was being thrown around confidently, almost defiantly.

“This year, we really believe that we can make the playoffs,” says third-year power forward Ed Davis, who had grown accustomed to winning in high school and in college at UNC before enduring two postseason-less NBA seasons in Toronto. “[Last year,] we said it but I don’t think everyone bought into it, but this year they’re like ‘that’s what we want to do’. There’s no BS – everyone thinks we can make it.”

At the risk of getting too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a step back. At the beginning of training camp, hope springs eternal and just about every club likes their postseason prospects. Newcomers breathe life into each roster, rookies are being favorably compared to past legends, vets are being lauded for their off-season developmental strides and every team is on even-footing, record-wise.

As Casey puts it, “29 other teams also think they’re improved heading into the season.”

And yet, in Toronto, there is a level of evidence behind the self-belief that is hard to ignore. The foundation was set last year as Casey led a talent-thin club to an increased win total in 16 fewer games and instilled a defensive mindset that bumped the Raptors’ ‘D’ all the way up to 12th after finishing the prior season ranked dead last. This season is about infusing that blue print with the right group of players (even if ‘Plan A’ target Steve Nash didn’t come on board).

Lowry (‘Plan B’ to Nash’s ‘Plan A’) is unmistakeably a Casey guy – a defence-orientated physical force who will out-muscle most opposing point guards.  Fields, meanwhile, represented the expensive (three years, $20 million) fallout to the failed bid for Nash, but he could now serve as part of the solution at the small forward position and was identified by GM Bryan Colangelo as a potential glue guy for the Raptors.

“They both go a long way towards furthering what we’re trying to do here,” says Colangelo of the two new likely starters. “Kyle has shown a knack for setting a physical tone and has grown into a solid play maker, while Landry brings that character element we’re looking for and will really help bring some competition for minutes at the wing spots. [...] It’s great to have both these guys on board.”

Rookies Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross are new additions in their own right, making their NBA debuts after being selected by the Raptors in consecutive drafts (2011 and 2012, respectively). Ross is part of what Colangelo identified as the team’s improved long range shooting, as well as a source of competition for entrenched starter DeMar DeRozan at the two-guard position. As for Valanciunas…

“On the court, I’m [always] hungry. I expect to win,” says the Lithuanian rookie, who was a bundle of nerves upon facing a big North American media scrum for the first time. “I’m a high energy guy. I like running down the court, I like rebounding, blocking shots. I like to play hard.”

As the Raptors head east to kick off training camp in Halifax, its clear that the players have already “bought in”. It will take some on-court proof before the team’s long-suffering fanbase to follow suit, but the prevalent sight on media day was a squad that firmly believes in the direction in which they’re headed.

NBA Finals Changed People’s Perceptions

Unlike a few recent NBA Finals match-ups, legacies weren’t going to be cemented depending upon the result of the Heat-Thunder series. Miami’s Big Three will all return next year to defend their title while still in their prime, while young OKC will, ideally, come back tougher, hungrier, more experienced and still just approaching their prime years.

Still, every year, the championship series plays a role in shaping the NBA landscape, either through the crowning of new champions or the re-enforcing of great teams continuing to reign. For the players involved, the Finals write another chapter and continue to develop their over-arching career arc.

Here is what this year’s NBA season meant for some of the key participants in the Finals.

The Main Players

LeBron James
One title doesn’t quite make you a pantheon-level all-time great, regardless of how much you came through for your team. But consider the possible alternative: another Finals loss – to a budding superstar four years his junior, no less – would have been more damaging (and embarassing) than last year’s defeat at the hands of the Mavericks. Now, he not only has his first ring, but has it on his terms as the unquestioned alpha of the Miami Heat. The critics won’t be completely silenced on account of his multi-title promise at the start of his Heat tenure, but that should only serve to keep “the King” motivated.

Dwyane Wade
Wade summarized the meaning of this title nicely to Stuart Scott on the podium last night, pointing out that his ’06 crown came without him learning any real adversity in the league. Now at 30 and having experienced the bitter taste of defeat last season, he probably has a greater appreciation for the accomplishment this time around.

Chris Bosh
Outside of maybe James, no one enjoyed more validation during the playoffs than Bosh. Yes, he won a title as a glorified role player, but he knew that would be the case as soon as he signed on with the Heat. However, his value to the team, which had been questioned at times during his two-year tenure, was made clear through his absence. He somehow became the biggest story of the Eastern Finals with his return from injury up in the air, and then proceeded to help turn his team’s season around from being on the brink against Boston (Miami won six of seven games with Bosh back playing regular minutes).

Kevin Durant
Arriving in a Finals puts everything under a microscope, so we were bound to learn a few things about the unassuming 23-year-old as he made his debut on the league’s biggest stage. Much was positive – he remained a clutch shooter, a savvy play-maker and a surprisingly effective slasher while matching much of LeBron’s contributions (offensively, anyway). We also learned, however, that he isn’t quite there yet. He still needs to get stronger to prevent defenders from locking him up 20 feet from the basket and isn’t quite as defensively sound as his length should dictate. Still, the dude’s 23!

Russell Westbrook
To paraphrase’s Bill Simmons, Westbrook somehow managed to become the most polarizing player in a series that featured the most polarizing player (okay, so Simmons said second-most to Wilt Chamberlain) in NBA history. Yes, it was Westbrook’s explosive play and multi-faceted skill set that helped get the Thunder past the last 13 Western Conference champions and to the show, but can any team afford to have their starting point guard shooting 4-20 in a Finals game? At the same time, one looks at his 43-point Game 4 reveals his value and GM Sam Presti won’t be willing to do anything drastic to alter what is a championship-calibre foundation. His maturation over the coming years will be fascinating to watch.

The Supporting Players

Shane Battier
It can’t be easy gaining almost universal popularity when you’ve won NCAA and NBA titles with, arguably, the most hated team at each level (2001 Duke and 2012 Heat). Credit Battier not only for that, but also for using a stellar playoff performance to ensure that he didn’t win an NBA title on account of simply being along for the ride (sorry, Juwan Howard). Like Bruce Bowen before him, it will be interesting to see how NBA history remembers an all-time great defender and glue guy who was never “the Man” on his team.

Pat Riley
Two years and another title later, Riley still looks like the cat that ate the canary regarding his role in the formation of the Big Three during the summer of 2010. I still can’t shake the feeling that there is an awful lot of knowledge within that well-coiffed head of his.

James Harden / Serge Ibaka / Scott Brooks
While neither Harden nor Ibaka exactly had a playoff performance for the ages, their value to the club was made plainly clear throughout the season. The Thunder will soon have to put a price tag on that value, with both young talents slated for free agency after next season. With both Durant and Westbrook signed to big deals and Harden and Ibaka set to hit paydirt, Presti will have to do some serious roster massaging for any shot at keeping his entire core together while not being cap-strung for years to come. Even more pressing, though, is the status of Brooks, whose contract expires at the end of the month.

Sullinger, Jones And The Burden of Scrutiny

The smile on Jared Sullinger’s face was hardly indicative of the frustration he was experiencing upon being faced with the same health-related questions and criticisms he was hearing for the umpteenth time.

“Not really,” says Sullinger in response to whether reports of his back issues have been getting to him. “Most of [the reporters] have never even played the game before, so what can they say?”

One could argue that young NBA prospects have never been better prepared to endure the public scrutiny, attention and second-guessing that comes with their introduction to the pros. Of course, one could also argue that the degree of scrutiny, attention or second-guessing has never been higher.

Regardless, these are still young men in their early 20’s being forced to contend with a repetitive and often vaguely attacking line of questioning as they continue to position themselves ahead of next Friday’s draft.

On Thursday in Toronto, in what Raptors’ vice-president of basketball operations Ed Stefanski called “a real heavyweight workout”, Ohio State’s Sullinger showcased his abilities against Baylor’s Perry Jones III, Kentucky’s Terrence Jones and UNC’s John Henson. The common thread among all four is their status as prospective NBA big men.

But, at least in the case of Sullinger and Jones III, there is a common chip to be found on their broad shoulders.

Sullinger’s prickliness, in particular, was on display on Thursday, a surprise from a player with a reputation for being mild-mannered. But while some may be quick to chalk his moody, snappy disposition up to being an immature 20-year old, it may not be that simple.

Think about things from his perspective: you are coming off two successful years as the go-to guy with the Buckeyes and are now working towards draft day through continued battles with a group of rival power forward prospects while so many others shy away from competitive workouts. And yet, all you’ve encountered along the way is negativity – questions about your health, your draft stock, your decision not to go pro a year earlier and, ironically, reports of a potentially costly red flag from NBA doctors even as you participate in full contact drills.

Jones III, who has participated in several workouts already with Sullinger, can relate.

The athletic 6’11” forward boasts a muscular physique and 7’2″ wingspan, prompting many observers to expect more out of him that what he displayed in two years at Baylor (13.7 points, 7.4 rebounds). Despite playing a critical role as a scoring and passing threat out of the post on two talented Bears squads that also featured Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller, questions about Jones’ motor were still rampant.

“I can’t worry about what’s being said about me or what people think I should do different,” says Jones. “[...] For me, it’s all about finding a way to block out a lot of what the critics are saying but, at the same time, also use it as motivation.”

Who’s to say that there isn’t any legitimacy to the criticisms being levied at this trio of prospects? It’s hard to see Sullinger’s injury reports being completely baseless and Stefanski wasn’t ready to extinguish the speculation when asked about the health of the former Buckeye (he would only say that “our doctors will look at everything”).

Meanwhile, the unpredictability of Jones, perhaps, best illustrated through the 20-year-old’s projected “Best Case / Worst Case” comparables on (best case: Rudy Gay / Josh Smith hybrid, worst case: Yi Jianlian).

At this stage, no one – not even Anthony Davis – is a sure thing. As with so many other drafts, there will likely be a player to fall through the cracks on account of over-evaluation.

If it turns out to be one of these men, it will represent yet another case of nitpicking taken too far.