What does future hold for lottery-bound teams?
The league is now split into two worlds -- teams that are focused more than ever on the here and now of the playoffs, and teams that are already looking ahead to next year. Raptors president Bryan Colangelo is part of the latter group, and he has reason for optimism.
"We're young," he said. "We've got really good talent. We've got depth at every position. We've got a chance for some -- what I'm going to call -- organic growth."
Toronto should improve with the continuing growth of rookies Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross. DeMar DeRozan hasn't peaked, and the Raptors will hope that hard-driving point guard Kyle Lowry can turn the corner after seven frustrated and frustrating seasons with three teams. There is also a full season of Rudy Gay to come, following the midseason trade for the Grizzlies' leading scorer.
"Rudy immediately gave our team a presence in the locker room; it's a quiet presence but a strong presence," said Colangelo. "I think he gives us a little credibility around the league. My counterparts, different media guys that I've talked to, agents, a couple of owners have commented that it's not every day you get a guy like Rudy at his level, and there's a little bit of star power that comes with it."
It also presents questions for the early offseason that begins with the official end to the season next week. How will the Raptors fill out their rotation around Gay? They're surely going to gauge interest in a trade for Andrea Bargnani, their former No. 1 pick who has been rumored to be on the move for the last year. They must also decide whether to commit to Lowry, whose $6.2 million expiring salary for next season can be bought-out by Toronto for $1 million. The Raptors' new ownership group must itself decide the future of Colangelo, who effectively will be a free agent, and coach Dwane Casey, who has another year on his deal.
Ownership would be smart to maintain the investment in Colangelo and Casey for at least another year, rather than bring in a new group that would be inclined to tear down and start over. Under the new rules of the collective bargaining agreement, tearing down and starting over is more difficult than ever. In the case of Toronto, the prospects are, at the very least, intriguing.
Here is a look ahead at the questions that will face the Raptors' peer group -- the other 14 teams that have or may miss the playoffs (including the Jazz and Lakers, who are fighting for the final postseason spot) -- this summer. Let's work our way up from the bottom of the league standings:
Get To Know Courtney Lee
? He was raised with two brothers by their single mother in Indianapolis. "There was a lot of gang activity going on. There were definitely drugs involved, but for the most part I stayed away from it because I played sports, and when I went outside with my friends we were playing football. The most dangerous thing was a lot of drive-by shootings. We were outside playing football, and you could hear the tire screeches and gun shots.
"My mother definitely was tough. She had to be -- she was raising three boys. She wanted us to grow up the right way and not get off the right path and get involved in what everybody else was doing, getting involved in the neighborhood.
"Everybody went to college. My oldest brother went to Pace University in New York, and he's in medical science. My other brother went to the University of Indianapolis, and then finished at Ball State. He's an engineer. A month and a half ago I relocated my family [mother and brothers] to Orlando. Indianapolis was good, we all lived there -- born and raised and grew up there. I think they've been there long enough. You go back, so much has changed. All the people you grew up with, they started their families or they've moved on with their life, or moved out of the state. There's really not too much there, besides family. That's why I want to get them closer to me, and I live in Orlando.''
? Basketball wasn't his first choice. "I was a football player. I was quarterback, running back, wide receiver, played safety and cornerback. Once I hit a growth spurt and realized getting hit in the snowy weather is not what I want to do, I started focusing on basketball a little more. That was my freshman year of high school: I was on the football team, and I remember there was one scrimmage. It had to be at least 20-below out. I got hit one time, and I just sat there numb. This is not for me, no more. I switched to basketball.
"My freshman year of high school, I was kind of with the wrong crowd and I wasn't going to class. I wasn't getting the grades I needed to get. My sophomore year I did better, and my junior year was when I turned it around. I got good in basketball, the teams were calling, and then in my senior year I had to go to night school to make up for my freshman year. So a lot of teams were calling, and they weren't giving me offers because they weren't sure if I was going to qualify with my grades and then my test scores. I got in a nice groove my senior year, making up for the D's and F's, and getting A's and B's -- it brought my GPA up. Then I got my test score and the first time I took it, I qualified. The schools that were there from the beginning, even when I wasn't, was Western Kentucky and Bradley University, so I said these are the two schools I'm going to stick with and visit both of them. And I liked Western more than Bradley."
? After four years at Western Kentucky he was picked No. 22 overall by Orlando in the 2008 draft. He found his niche as a defensive player. ``That was something my coaches always wanted me to do. Growing up, I was always a scorer. But I had the capabilities of becoming a good defender; playing defense is just effort. It's what got me on the court in Orlando, and I just stuck with it. Stan [Van Gundy] taught me all the philosophies, the sets, the scheme, the everything of the NBA, especially guarding the pick-and-roll and what not. He put me out there, he had faith in me. I think he's a great coach."
As a rookie he started all five games of the NBA Finals against the champion Lakers. "It was an unbelievable experience. Coming in your first year, you go along that ride of not just being on the team, but part of the plan. My senior year was my first time experiencing the NCAA tournament and we made it to the Sweet 16, so I thought that was the highlight of basketball. Then I got to the NBA and made it to the Finals."
Lee missed a difficult tip-in that would have won Game 2 off an inbounds lob with .06 seconds remaining. The Lakers won that game in overtime. "It stuck with me for a while. You put anybody in that position, you definitely want to make it; but then when you miss it, it definitely makes a statement. I wasn't going to let that define me. I was definitely down about it for a year or two -- always thought about it. But you just have to keep going on. You have to continue to play, keep doing what you do, what you have to do, wherever you're at. It defines character."
The upcoming playoffs will be Lee's first return to the postseason since the '09 Finals. "They [the Celtics] are a playoff-caliber team every year -- you see the guys they had last year, they went to the conference finals and gave [the Heat] a battle for their money. I definitely want to be a part of that again. It's been four years since I've been to the playoffs. I'm thirsty -- that's the term we use around here. I want to get back.''
Quote Of The Week
"I want to keep bringing in pieces that are going to complement them and hope we can have one of those 10-year rides."
This pronouncement by the Miami Heat president was depressing to his rivals throughout the league. They hope that the Heat dynasty will end with the departure of LeBron James as a free agent next summer. Not so, said Riley Sunday. "You think about every team -- the Celtics in the '60s, the Lakers in the '80s, the Bulls [in the '90s] and then again the Spurs. Those guys have been together for eight, nine, 10 years. If we can keep this group together for eight, nine, 10 years, we're all going to have some fun. Don't ever take it for granted. This is a special time."
An NBA advance scout looks at the race for the Most Improved Player award. He opens the discussion with the candidacy of Rockets guard James Harden:
"The question is how much has Harden improved, as opposed to how many more shots is he taking? I don't think he'd be a terrible pick, but I also think his minutes have increased more than he's improved.
"If you look at Harden in the playoffs for Oklahoma City last year, he had a bad stretch -- but there was also a stretch where he was their best player. I think he was already there as a talent. The role that he was in was a good fit for Oklahoma City, and not so much for him. I'm not surprised that he's as good as he is. I saw that he was this good last year.
"Obviously I didn't think the Rockets as a team were going to be as good as they have been. Harden is solely responsible for that. He's proven that he's good enough to be a superstar of a team, which is saying something, but I think most people would have thought that he was able to be the best player on a team.
"I'd say [Rockets center] Omer Asik is more improved than Harden. Even saying that, I already thought Asik was good before this year. Most people that I know [in the league] really like the guy. Maybe he's a little better than a lot of people thought, but I don't think the way he's been playing is a big shock. He's showing that he was better than the backup role that he had in Chicago. I would vote for Asik more so than Harden because Harden was the third-best player on his old team, whereas Asik was not playing Harden's minutes. Now, he's had to do it on a higher-minute basis.
"Jrue Holiday has been horrible lately, but he's actually the first guy I think about for this award. He definitely took a bigger leap those guys in Houston. But on the same scale, he didn't get his team in the playoffs.
"Serge Ibaka has taken a step up, and he's been given the opportunity and moved up to that third-guy role for Oklahoma City. The other one would be Stephen Curry as a guy who has taken that next step and also got his team into the playoffs. His team is better than the Sixers, obviously, but Curry is definitely their star. I just think he's a hell of a player. He has become that guy for a team that hadn't made the playoffs, and now he's made them into a playoff team.
"Greivis Vasquez has got to be in the mix because he's had such a great year. I really liked him when he was a backup, because he tries -- but he just can't quite do it. He's obviously one of the best 30 point guards in the league, but you're a good team if he's your backup. So many times I've seen him at the end of the game when Eric Gordon hasn't been there, when Vasquez has got the ball in his hands, and very rarely can he get it done. But that's not to say he didn't improve a lot. The fact that he's third in the NBA in assists, that's a hell of a step up for him.
"Nikola Vucevic was good last year, but no one saw this coming -- the numbers he's putting up this year. I guarantee you that no one thought he would be this good so early in his career. Larry Sanders also deserves to be considered.
"I'd also say that the jump Paul George made this year was harder than the one Harden made. George looked like a star in spurts last year, but this year he made a big step up. He's not a legitimate All-Star, in my opinion, but he's very close.
"I'm going to say my top three, in no particular order, would be Paul George, Vucevic and Curry.''
These players broke through barriers. None was a Hall of Famer, but great players would follow them through the door.