Lovable Losers
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Lovable Losers

For fans who are used to seeing the Toronto Raptors come up short, this year's team line-up was, in some ways, a pleasant surprise.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/studiogabe/5452261831/"}Gabriel Li{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

This is the time of year in Toronto when fans of the Raptors have traditionally found their thoughts drifting from basketballs to ping-pong balls. As the NBA regular season winds down and the playoffs carry on ahead, the Raptors have—year after year—asked fans to turn their attention to the draft lottery, and to resign themselves to dreams of next season, where hope springs eternal.

This year, of course, is no different. Before the Raptors closed out their season at home on Thursday night, Toronto-born centre Jamaal Magloire grabbed a microphone and addressed the Air Canada Centre crowd. “We are going to improve,” Magloire promised, “and we are going to make the playoffs next year.”

Bold words from a man whose team lost nearly twice as frequently as it won this season. But there is reason to believe that Magloire might not be entirely delusional.

Raptors fans have become great connoisseurs of bad basketball teams. They have sampled a different kind every year—with precious few exceptions over the course of the Raps’ 17-season history—from the fledgling franchise’s mid-’90s growing pains to the unravelling of the Lenny Wilkens and Vince Carter era, and right up to the present day.

But what was refreshing about this year’s bad basketball team was the quality of their losses. For the first time in a long time, the Raptors were honest losers—usually defeated by a lack of talent, not a lack of effort.

Credit for this transformation seems due to Dwane Casey, who took over head coaching duties after the firing of Jay Triano in June 2011.

An assistant to coach Rick Carlisle with last year’s championship-winning Dallas Mavericks, Casey arrived in Toronto vowing to do what his recent predecessors had attempted in vain: to change the mentality of a team that had for years been developing a well-deserved reputation throughout the league—cast in iron after the Boston Celtics’ Paul Pierce dunked over then-Raptor Chris Bosh in 2009 while kneeing him, with impunity, in the groin—for its milquetoast defence.

Miraculously, Casey seems to have kept his promise. Unlike the lackadaisical groups that all too often loafed indifferently through games for Triano (and Sam Mitchell before him), this season’s Raptors were downright scrappy, regularly hanging tough in close games against line-ups far better than their own.

The team’s once-porous defence tightened up, and ranked among the top 10 in the league in terms of both opponents’ scoring average and opponents’ field-goal percentage—categories in which last year’s nearly-identical roster ranked 26th and 29th, respectively, out of 30 teams. Even the chronically nonchalant Andrea Bargnani started to show signs of progress in this regard.

Of course, the Raptors struggled mightily in other areas. Bargnani, the team’s most effective scorer, missed more than half of the season due to injuries. Young shooting guard DeMar DeRozan showed flashes of brilliance in his third year, but was inconsistent. Ditto sophomore Ed Davis, who has the potential to become a defensive anchor for the Raptors, but will likely need to bulk up in the off-season first.

There will be plenty of opportunity to add additional talent by the time next year’s training camp gets underway. Tied for the NBA’s seventh-worst record at season’s end, the Raptors are guaranteed an early first-round pick from what is being billed as a very deep and talented draft pool, plus two selections in the second round.

The team should also get a huge boost from the much-anticipated arrival of centre Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors’ fifth-overall pick in last year’s draft, who has been playing until now for Lithuania’s Lyietuvos Rytas, and was recently chosen by FIBA as Europe’s top young talent in 2011.

Whether the Raptors will be able to improve their roster enough to make Magloire’s pre-game address into prophecy remains to be seen, but there are some early signs that things are looking up. Shortly after Magloire spoke to the fans, his team closed out their season with a wire-to-wire thrashing of the lowly New Jersey Nets. Even with seven Raptor regulars sitting out what was an utterly meaningless contest, third-string point guard Ben Uzoh recorded the team’s first triple-double since 2001, seldom-used Solomon Alabi pulled down 19 boards, and Toronto held the Nets to a paltry 67 points on 30 per cent shooting.

Perhaps it was a preview of things to come. But whatever becomes of next year’s Raptors, all we can do, for now, is try to savour the last effort of a bad basketball team that was more palatable than most.