Sleeper Week, Part 2: The Fossils

Gay Raptors

You think the Raptors are a young team, don’t you? It’s a fair point, you know, because everyone on the team is young. But they aren’t a young team. They’re old. In fact, they’re so old they might as well have come straight out of a time machine from 1998.

Rudy Gays don’t exist anymore. They’re extinct save for the original. Teams are too smart to waste assets on inefficient volume scorers on the perimeter who can’t hit threes. Yet here Rudy Gay is, the sole “star” on a team of misfit toys.

An uber-athletic shooting guard who can dunk over anyone but constantly leaves you questioning whether he maxes out at 30% effort? Nope, not talking about Vince Carter. That honor belongs to the perpetually frustrating DeMar DeRozan who, by all rights, should’ve been the next Carter. It never happened mainly because he has very few discernible basketball skills. But damn, can he jump!

And you know what they say about jumping, white men can’t do it. Well, some can, but Steve Novak isn’t one of them. Nearly a dead ringer for Steve Kerr (by NBA standards at least) save his hair and a few extra inches, Novak is singlehandedly keeping the “stick the white guy in the corner and wait for the defense to forget about him” strategy alive. There are plenty of specialists in the modern NBA and it’s something teams encourage. Typically though, those specialists can do more than one thing at a middle school level. Steve Novak couldn’t defend Yi Jianlian’s chair.

Speaking of posting up chairs, I can only assume that was part of Jonas Valanciunas’s pre-draft workout. The last top-five pick of a dying Euro fad (which you could forgive Toronto for ignoring considering the Andrea Bargnani disaster), the gigantic Lithuanian is everyone’s favorite breakout candidate. And with good reason; he’s got the classic European touch with some good old-fashioned American grit and toughness.

They’re anachronisms, every one of them. Everything about the Raptors screams ‘90s right down to their retread coach Dwane Casey, whom the analytically driven Masai Ujiri chose not to fire upon his arrival. But that will change, and so will the rest of this roster. Ujiri is going to rebuild the Raptors into a more modern team. It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen in a year, but it will happen. But in the meantime?

Remember when I called the Grizzlies an accidental contender? On a smaller scale, that’s what the Raptors are. They’ve made a series of stupid decisions that in the long-run won’t pay off, but for right now they’re a sleeper.

Let me clarify. They’re not a sleeper in the sense that they’ll make a playoff run. They won’t win a single series. But could they leap ahead of the Detroits and Clevelands of the world? Absolutely. Because despite their ill-conceived roster, the Raptors have one thing that NBA teams will always want: talent.

An analytic thinker might look at Rudy Gay as an inefficient ball hog. While that’s true, in simpler basketball terms he’s also someone who can create his own shot. DeMar DeRozan might just be a ball of athleticism and nothing more, but that athleticism still allows him 10-15 easy points per night.

Kyle Lowry may be just a good point guard in an era of great ones, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t good. It’s easy to overlook guys like Lowry because in a vacuum, none of his skills are rare or even unique to him. He can get to the rim. So can most point guards nowadays. He can hit three’s at a slightly above average rate, every team has five shooters. He plays defense. Point guard defense never gets credit unless it’s otherworldly like Gary Payton. Put all of that together and you have a useful player, even if he’ll never get appreciated.

The Grizzlies aren’t just accidental contenders. They’re accidental trendsetters. A year ago we were headed for a future of small-ball. Then the Pacers caught onto the Memphis system. Houston’s buying in as well (to an extent depending on what happens with Omer Asik). The Spurs just gave Tiago Splitter big money to be 7 feet tall and do nothing.

In a sense that’s what the Raptors have a chance to do. Maybe inefficient perimeter players have been overrated for so long that they’ve actually become underrated. Maybe athleticism has been eschewed so much lately in favor of shooting that the league’s best athletes now have the element of surprise. Maybe talent has been so overlooked that some under-the-radar team can use it exclusively to make a run nobody expected.

If you’re betting on the Raptors as an Eastern Conference sleeper then that’s your logic. Washington’s cupboards are bare beyond John Wall and Bradley Beal. Detroit won’t hit a shot outside of the paint. Cleveland will be the No. 7 or 8 seed because they’re a young contender on the rise and that’s just how the NBA treats young contenders on the rise. The No. 6 spot in the East is totally up for grabs. Why not bet on the team with talent to snag it?

By: Sam Quinn
Twitter: @SamQuinn23

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