It's well-covered territory that the Raptors have managed to pull themselves out of their early-season abyss to become a long-shot contender for the East's eighth and final Playoff seed. After starting the season 4-19, Dwane Casey refocused his club and saw them rally to a 19-15 record since their dismal start. That's a .558 winning percentage over the last 34 games which, had the club managed to play at that level all season, would have them comfortably in seventh in the East with a shot at overtaking Chicago for sixth.
Of course, the Raptors have NOT played at that level all season, and as their loss to Washington on Monday night showed, they are still capable of playing far below that level despite their noteworthy winning percentage since mid-December.
Even still, the organization and fan base are holding out hope that they can make a late-season push for that last Playoff spot. At just 4.5 games behind Milwaukee they are at least in a position to make a serious run at the postseason over the next few weeks.
Here's the question though: would making the Playoffs actually be a good thing this season?
On the surface the answer is an unequivocal yes. Getting young players into the Playoffs early in their careers can pay huge dividends down the road. It teaches them early how arduous Playoff basketball can be. It shows them how hard they have to work to make it there and, more importantly, how much harder they have to work once they've gotten there. That kind of experience establishes a new perspective for players, and for a team as young as the Raptors that could be invaluable as they look to take the next step as an organization.
However, there are other factors in play as it relates to this organization taking the next step forward, and some of those other factors could be significantly impinged upon by a postseason appearance.
The most obvious advantage to just missing the Playoffs is that the Raptors can quickly transfer the first-round pick that they owe to Oklahoma City (via Houston) as a result of the Kyle Lowry trade. This upcoming draft is not looked upon favourably, and completing the Lowry acquisition by sending along a mid-first round pick would ensure that Toronto got Lowry for a tremendous value, regardless of his up-and-down play this season.
Plus, if the pick can be transferred this spring, it not only completes the Lowry transaction but it also puts Toronto's future draft picks back into play, both as assets in upcoming drafts and as assets in potential trades. Due to the obscure Stepien Rule, NBA teams cannot trade first round draft picks in consecutive drafts. Since the Raptors don't currently know when the pick that they used to acquire Lowry will be conveyed (thanks to it's unique protections that dictate the circumstances under which the pick will change hands), they cannot trade any first round draft picks prior to 2018. Finishing outside the Playoffs this season means the pick gets transferred this June and the Raptors can start planning the use of their subsequent picks in future drafts or in trades.
Another wrinkle that crops up if the Raptors make the postseason is the possibility of the club overvaluing the meaning of squeaking into eighth seed. They wouldn't be the first club to crash the Playoffs only to assume that they were a lot closer than they were to contending while turning a blind eye to the very real structural problems on the roster. Philly did it in 2008 when they went all-in with Elton Brand after sneaking into the seventh seed with a sub-.500 record. Chicago did the same thing in 2006 with Ben Wallace. Heck, the Raptors ignored their very real roster construction issues when they decided they were in win-now mode and brought in Jermaine O'Neal in 2008.
Bryan Colangelo is bullish on this roster, but as Monday's game demonstrated they are nowhere close to contention-level in the East. They are a team overloaded with poor playmakers, wings that cannot space the floor and no consistent post threats on the roster. They are supposed to hang their hat on their defence but are just 21st in the NBA in defensive efficiency, and their offensive efficiency has been slipping since Jose Calderon was traded to acquire Rudy Gay.
It's not that Colangelo is unaware of these issues, he has access to the same stats (and more) that everyone else does. Making it to the Playoffs, though, can have a blinding effect about a team's actual standing in the NBA power structure. The difference between being eighth and tenth in terms of record will be miniscule, yet the impression being eighth has is categorically different than the impression that being tenth has. Even if the Raptors make the Playoffs they need to approach the summer with a 'tenth place mentality', their roster is still that imbalanced, yet during his time in Toronto Colangelo has not demonstrated a ton of that kind of perspective.
It should also be noted that even if the Raptors don't make the Playoffs, they have made tremendous strides this season. They are winning far more consistently, they are developing an identity as a real grinding, hustling team (even if the defensive stopping power traditionally associated with that style hasn't fully materialized yet) and they have some very intriguing pieces to build around. Considering where they were over the last two years that's an achievement, even if it doesn't have the same kind of panache as a postseason berth would have on the public perception of the club.
None of this is meant to suggest that making the Playoffs would be any kind of failure. There are plenty of positive takeaways to a postseason series, even a four-and-out sweep, and if the Raptors could manage it, it would speak to a real growth in the club's ability to grind out necessary wins to achieve a preseason goal. Still, there are Playoff teams and there are contenders, and what the Raptors really want to be is the latter, not the former. The fact that they are even in a position to be talking Playoffs is an achievement considering the way the season started, and it may just play into the club's long-term goals to have that be their biggest achievement this year.
Missing the Playoffs would give the front office the perspective that it needs heading into this offseason, while also providing the roster with the confidence and hunger that they will need to make it to the Playoffs next season. It wouldn't be a sexy end to the season but it could pay off next year and beyond.