At what point does 'patience' become 'delusion'?
It's a question I've been noodling with as I prepare to write my annual end-of-season breakdowns of the various parts of the Raptors' core (coach, players, GM, etc) in anticipation of the end of Toronto's season next week. Coaches and management groups that preside over rebuilding infrastructures often point to a need for patience before verdicts are rendered about the relative successes or failures of their particular team. They contend, justifiably, that chemistry cannot be achieved overnight and that it takes time to make disparate pieces work as one.
It's a perfect argument, too, because you can't prove patience won't one day pay off, so you can just say it is hasn't paid off YET.
No one knows when patience became delusion until it's too late. It's not until a project has clearly failed that one can look back clearly and say with any authority that the signs of trouble had been lingering for years and everyone failed to notice or act on them. Only in retrospect does a team realize that they deluded themselves into believing that their missteps were just growing pains and that a lack of development just required a greater investment of time and resources to iron out. Call it the "Chris Bosh Is A Franchise Player Effect" or the "One Day Andrea Bargnani Will 'Get It' Effect" - then ask yourself if Toronto is on a similar path to nowhere as constructed right now.
This was supposed to be a breakthrough year for the Raptors. They were supposed to make a serious push for the eighth seed in the Playoffs. Instead they have a winning percentage (.385) that is barely above what last year's piecemeal rebuilding roster (.348) managed. Their defensive efficiency, the part of their game that was supposed to anchor their ascension, went from 12th last year to 22nd this year, despite the importation of what was thought to be several superior defensive cogs. Worse still, the team's payroll has ballooned so tremendously over the last nine months that the club has next to no financial flexibility left to improve with. They are basically capped-out as a tenth-seed with zero All-Stars on the roster and no draft pick this coming June. It's hard to find a lot of room for optimism in that scenario.
Nonetheless, the team will preach patience. They'll point to the youth of Jonas Valanciunas, they'll point to the injury woes (despite the fact that the team was at its worst when fully healthy thanks to a pathetic season from Bargnani) and they'll point to the roster-reshaping trade for Rudy Gay as reasons to believe that better times are on the horizon. They'll point to internal player development, both statistically justifiable (Amir Johnson) and not (DeMar DeRozan). They'll point to the flexibility afforded by the amnesty provision, the trade chip that is Bargnani's $11-million salary and the various cap exceptions that will let them improve the roster in subtle ways. If they're smart, they'll even point to the All-Rookie Team selections that the club has managed with undrafted players like Jorge Garbajosa and Jamario Moon - proving that the club doesn't need a first round pick to find an impact rookie.
And you know what? They'd be right in a lot of those arguments.
The fact is, teams DO require patience before they can become good. They need an investment of time, both on and off the court, to develop skills and chemistry. Jonas Valanciunas does look like a real gem that could be an impact player on a good team one day. It will take time to rebuild the offense around an inside-outside combo of Valanciunas and Gay. Kyle Lowry and Dwane Casey do need time to figure each other out. Some things really do require patience.
Plus, they aren't as paralyzed from a roster-improvement standpoint as their cap situation would seem to suggest. A savvy scouting staff can find very useful (and cheap) assets outside of the NBA draft. If MLSE decides to maintain the status quo by keeping Bryan Colangelo and Dwane Casey, pointing to all of these areas as justification, one would have to concede that it's possible (even if its an incredibly remote possibility) that all of these factors could lead to Toronto's improvement next season and beyond.
Of course, that doesn't mean that that's the direction they should take.
If one accepts that this team had more talent to work with than last year's squad, and that's a pretty easy point to concede, then one should also accept that this team has actually had a WORSE season than last year's club, despite the slight uptick in winning percentage. Last year's club outperformed expectations. They played hard, they played determined and they gave fans a reason for hope. This year's club underperformed. They were inattentive on defense, they were undisciplined on offense and they were so prone to collapses it was often a matter if, not when, a lead would evaporate and turn into a deficit. What made people so excited after last season was the feeling that the culture of the team was changing, which by extension should make the most disappointing part of this season the fact that the culture seems to have reverted right back to where it was two years ago. Last season now looks like a blip on the radar. If you transitioned right from the '10-'11 season right into the '12-'13 season it would be as smooth a transition as most other lottery year-over-lottery year passages. It's hard to see how being patient with the status quo is going to improve the fortunes of this beleaguered club.
MLSE has a choice this off-season: they can allow Bryan Colangelo's contract to expire and bring in a new general manager (a move that would start the clock ticking on Casey's tenure with the Raptors) or they can pick up the option year on Colangelo's deal and buy into the idea that patience in his vision will be rewarded. At this juncture, it is totally unclear which direction the organization will take.
Remember, it's not just a matter of subtraction. If Colangelo and Casey go, the organization still has to find SUPERIOR options to replace them with to justify the move. Letting heads roll at the end of a disappointing season may provide catharsis for an embittered fan base, but that catharsis will be short lived if the replacements fare no better than the men they are replacing.
You can argue against having patience after a step-back season (and next week I probably will), but when the alternative is having patience through another rebuilding situation it starts to feel like the cure is no different from the symptom. As quickly as patience can become delusion before you know it, sometimes ignoring the virtues of patience can be a delusion all its own.