TORONTO - The word "stability" is not one that often goes hand-in-hand with the Toronto Raptors franchise.
In their 18-year existence they've had eight head coaches, nine leading scorers and 12 opening night starting centres.
Throughout an injury-riddled 2012-13 campaign they have used 22 different starting lineups -- third-most in the association -- a year after using 20 in the shortened season. To put that into perspective, the Thunder have employed a total of seven different starting units over that two-year span.
Despite the inevitable uncertainty that is sure to cast a shadow over the team's front office and coaching staff this summer, the Raptors may have finally found some stability in their roster heading into what will be a critical 2013-14 season for the organization.
"Since I've been here it seems like it's been a constant change somewhere," admitted guard DeMar DeRozan, who has missed the playoffs in each of his first four seasons in the league. "After all the stuff we went through this year with the trade and everything, I just think [it] is time we stick with this and go full head of steam with this."
Following DeRozan's four-year extension, signed on opening night, and the mid-season trade for Rudy Gay -- in which they took on an expected $37 million in salary over the next two seasons -- the Raptors may be married to their core group for better or for worse.
In addition to DeRozan and Gay, rookie standout Jonas Valanciunas isn't going anywhere, Amir Johnson's contact -- which has him locked up through 2014-15 -- now looks like a bargain and Kyle Lowry is expected to be back manning the point, assuming the team picks up his option for next season (I can't imagine why they wouldn't).
"That lineup, we've played together maybe two months now together and it's been pretty good," Lowry said. "I think that, coming back [and] knowing how to play, with JV getting a little bit better, with DeMar getting a lot better and Amir being consistent like he was and Rudy just becoming more of the star he could possibly be and myself being healthy and being aggressive, being myself, I think we have a good, solid starting five."
That five-man unit has been Toronto's most used group this season, despite only being assembled in February. What are they capable of accomplishing in a full season together? There is certainly some reason for optimism, particularly on the defensive end where they have been the team's most efficient unit (of any five-man lineup that has played over 32 minutes together this season, via NBA.com/Stats).
The lineup of Lowry-DeRozan-Gay-Johnson-Valanciunas has played over 300 minutes together and is giving up just 92.4 points per 100 possessions, 15.3 fewer than their 22nd-ranked mark as a team this season. On the year, that group is ranked fourth among five-man units in the NBA (minimum 200 minutes played) in defensive efficiency.
Offensively is where this quintet has come up short, producing less efficiently than the team's previous incarnation anchored by Jose Calderon. Their upside is rooted in their athleticism but they haven't found a way to consistently utilize it enough to mask their inefficiency from three-point territory, overuse of the midrange game and limited ball movement in the half court.
With the season coming to a close they have shown glimpses of what they're capable of on both sides of the ball. Coach Dwane Casey has given Lowry more freedom to run the offence while Valaciunas has blossomed into a low-post scoring threat.
"Coach just kind of told me he's going to let me run the show that last couple weeks," Lowry said. "I've been doing it the last two years. I've had coaches that let me pretty much call the plays, run the offence and had the confidence in me that I'm going to do the right things. I think [with] Coach [Casey] it took a little bit of time but he's kind of letting me do a lot more now."
Both the Raptors' point guard and centre will be crucial factors in determining whether this team succeeds or fails in 2013-14.
"I always knew JV could be good, I didn't think he would be good that fast to be honest," Gay said of Valanciunas. "The better he can get the more open shots [there will be] for me and DeMar."
Looking for Leadership
Of equal importance, if Toronto is going to take the next step, a vocal leader must emerge from this group. The obvious choice would seem to be Gay, coming from a winning program in Memphis.
"I look up to Rudy," DeRozan said. "I always talk to him, he always gives me advice on ways I can be better or we can be better. And he's been there. He's played with All-Stars, playoff teams, he's been there. He's something that we really didn't have in the locker room."
However, as the second longest serving Raptor that role could fall to DeRozan himself. Casey has pushed the 23-year-old to be more vocal despite his quiet nature.
"Everybody has their own personalities and certain ways," DeRozan pointed out. "But if we had somebody that was just vocal, that [brought] out everything in us, that would be more beneficial.
"For a while, I think until I got to college I was real anti-social," he continued. "I always stayed to myself. I never said much but each year I've been in the league I tend to try to say more, try to speak up here and there but it [takes] a lot for me just to say stuff sometimes."
Playoffs or Bust
One way or another, there will be tremendous pressure on whoever is back next season. The franchise has gone five seasons without a playoff berth -- the longest drought in Raptors history -- and those expected to return are already feeling the city's understandable anguish.
"It's everything," DeRozan told TSN.ca Monday, reflecting on another lost season. "This is what I train in the summer for. The exact reason, to play in the playoffs and that [doesn't] do nothing but fuel me personally and fuel other players on this team."
For Gay, it's a different motivation that fuels him. Having already helped a perennial losing team reach respectability in Memphis, the 26-year-old forward is out to prove he can do it once again.
"I like the task," he explained. "It is a task, it's a lot of hard work but I like that. I want to be known as a winner. Whatever team I'm with I want to be known [for doing] whatever it takes to getting that team to being a winner."
"If you've never done it you don't know how important it is," Gay said of experiencing the postseason. "I want to be one of the people that gets to show this team what it's like because there's nothing like it."
He, along with the rest of the Raptors' starting five, should get that opportunity in 2013-14. What they do with it will determine whether this newfound stability is here to stay.