Well, that was quick.
Shortly after climbing to within 3.5 games of the East's final playoff spot, the Toronto Raptors dropped three straight games (including one pivotal contest against the East's current eighth seed, the Milwaukee Bucks) and all but eliminated themselves from the postseason conversation. Now the attention turns to new priorities as the club looks to set themselves up for a strong transition into the 2013-14 season.
The overriding concern for the next six weeks is simple: win. With no draft pick to look forward to, there is no motivation for the club to tank games the rest of the way. The coaching staff should keep driving a winning mentality into its players, rather than let them take their foot off of the gas pedal to close out the season. There are still a lot of issues with the construction of this club, and it is far easier to evaluate those issues if the club is going full-bore right up to the end.
That isn't to say that player development should take a backseat, however. Jonas Valanciunas has looked like a changed player since returning from his broken finger and featuring him in the post the rest of the way is terribly important. The Raptors are aching for a player who can create high percentage shots consistently around the basket and Valanciunas has been flashing some confident and aggressive moves around the hoop of late. Finding a way to exploit that more frequently is important as it will be a staple of the club's attack next season. If the Raptors can get to a point where they feel comfortable having Valanciunas as a post threat (albeit a developing one), then that could have a significant impact on their summer shopping season as it could cross one notable need off the list.
In that same vein, Terrence Ross needs to see more minutes the rest of the way, as well. He's played only 8.4 minutes per game since the All-Star break, and while part of that is a result of his 18.2% shooting clip during that span, he's simply too important to the club's future to see so little action the rest of the way. As productive as Alan Anderson's been in spurts this season, he is simply not a long-term asset for the club (their glut on the wings makes re-signing him this summer a questionable proposition) and Ross has too many key attributes that the organization needs to hone before next season. If Rudy Gay is going to be the club's primary offensive weapon going forward, then it makes sense to develop Ross as a counter-punch to Gay's attack. At his best, he can hit outside shots, play strong perimeter defence and fill the lanes on the break - all assets that will make Gay's life easier out on the court.
None of this is to suggest, though, that Valanciunas and Ross should be given an unlimited leash, nor that the team should be sacrificing their quality of play to get them minutes. As important as their individual development is (and it is key), of greater importance for the club is the level of accountability that is needed to turn this organization into a consistent winner. No player should be allowed to get away with unproductive play just because they are young. They need to be allowed some latitude to play through mistakes and learn, but there also needs to be explicit parameters as to what will get them pulled out of a game. This is about laying a foundation of accountability, and it needs to be ingrained in a player as early as possible.
Which, of course, routes us to where everything Raptors related eventually gets routed back to: Andrea Bargnani. It is beyond imperative that the club sever ties with him this summer, for the same oft-cited litany of reasons that have always dogged Bargnani, but figuring out the best path to get him traded is the biggest headache in Raptor-land right now. He's playing so poorly these days that 11 points on 4-14 shooting (his line Saturday against the Bucks) now constitutes a 'good' game. He looks totally drained of confidence out on the court and his teammates aren't exactly killing themselves to cover for his mistakes anymore. Considering this, it's hard to conceive of a situation where the Raptors could part with the remaining two years and $23-million left on his contract and get any kind of value in return. They have to find a way, though, because that hefty salary represents the second-largest salary drain on their ledger and they have too many holes to fill to sink so much cash into an unproductive roster spot.
In order to up his value, however, he's going to need a steady diet of minutes and a concerted effort to make him look good on offence while hiding him on defence. Unfortunately, this strategy flies completely in the face of the winning-based priorities that have been outlined already, but such is the cruel reality of professional sports. Getting some kind of value in exchange for Bargnani this summer is nearly as important as hammering in the kind of good, self-policing habits that the Raptors need to become a better team next season. Balancing those two priorities is going to be tricky, and frankly there are going to be nights when Casey gets it wrong, but it's an unenviable task that is too important to be swept under the rug. While fans will clamor for Casey to just park Bargnani on the bench, the organization cannot afford to devalue this asset any further than it already has been. They need desperately to build him back up so they can sell him for something useful in a few months time. Basically, fans have to stomach him more now to avoid having to stomach him at all later. That's the trade-off and people are going to have to embrace it.
After that, it's just a matter of working through the system from game-to-game until the season wraps up. That means continuing to look for the right way to unleash Kyle Lowry, as he needs to be more of a factor next season. That means finding ways to get Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan higher percentage shots (they are both shooting below 41% since the trade). That means keeping the defensive efficiency on its current upward trend while trying to reverse the plummeting efficiency on the offensive end. That means finding minutes for Sebastian Telfair so as to avoid having given up a valuable high second round pick for a totally unused asset.
Most importantly, though, it means finding a reason for an increasingly jaded fan base to look forward to next season after this one proved so thoroughly underwhelming. This season was supposed to showcase the future of the Toronto Raptors, but instead it just showed everyone more of the same. If there really is the core here of something special, then the organization should dedicate the next six weeks to demonstrating it to their fans. This was an underwhelming season, give them a reason to be excited for the next one.