In roughly two weeks, the Raptors officially will hit the NBA’s mid-way mark, a time when reflection and projections invariably will be made.
It took rookie head coach Darko Rajakovic 30 games to make his first change to a starting group that too often began games by falling behind.
Now 34 games into the season, one can finally begin to assess Rajakovic’s work, even though Toronto’s roster is far from complete as additional changes await.
All it took was one trade to shift the narrative and potentially change the outlook of this unit.
On many nights, the most energetic and engaged individual on the court was Rajakovic, who has, to his credit, never stopped coaching.
As he so eloquently pointed out following a recent home setback, there’s no Steph Curry at his disposal, which basically highlighted the lack of options Rajakovic had to work around.
Despite losing to Detroit last Saturday night to a Pistons team that hadn’t won a game since Oct. 28, a series of moves were set in motion late that morning.
Losing to the Pistons represented the symbolic rock-bottom moment for the Raptors, who have quickly risen following one trade.
Beating Cleveland at home and beating Memphis on the road cannot be dismissed, but the truth is the Cavs were missing two starters and the Grizzlies had played the previous night.
In each instance, the Raptors weren’t able to play a complete game, allowing the visiting Cavs to come back from a double-digit deficit, while the Grizzlies almost pulled off a 20-point comeback.
In each game, the Raptors did make winning plays late to preserve the victory.
A two-game win streak heading into Friday night’s tip against Sacramento as Toronto’s six-game trip continues won’t erase the many missteps and missed opportunities, but there is hope.
Suddenly, the Raptors are no longer unwatchable.
Suddenly, there’s a pep in their step, a joy and togetherness not evident prior to the events of Saturday morning.
RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley came in and immediately became difference-makers.
While Barrett’s perimeter jumper remains inconsistent, he has brought a consistent effort level on every possession.
As he showed Wednesday night at FedEx Forum, Quickley can flat-out shoot the basketball, despite beginning the game by missing looks that were either uncontested or at times forced.
Not since the season opener had Quickley drained five three-pointers, a feat he accomplished in Toronto’s win over the Grizzlies when he led the Raptors in scoring.
He plays with this boundless joy and a fearlessness many had trumpeted when the trade that sent OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa and Malachi Flynn to the New York Knicks became official.
By starting both Barrett and Quickley, Rajakovic was able to bolster his bench in the form of Dennis Schroder and Gary Trent Jr.
The two traded places in Washington when the Raptors tipped off their most recent trip a week ago Wednesday, when Trent replaced Schroder in the starting unit.
Toronto would rout the Wizards by 30 points and then came close to engineering a miraculous finish in Boston two nights later but, in the end, the Raptors could not overcome a horrid start.
The Raptors are 0-9 against divisional foes, a record that must be corrected. For now, being out West should benefit the team.
Given the changes, being on the road should promote team bonding that no one can really quantify unless wins are produced.
For Rajakovic, he finally has cards to play, manage and experiment with, much like he did in Memphis when several disparate lineups were used. By no means is this roster complete, but it no longer is flawed to the point where Rajakovic is left with no options.
No one provides the defensive versatility Anunoby embodied, but Barrett will defend the perimeter and he’ll bang in the paint.
Quickley brings a dimension in shot making Anunoby never possessed and perhaps will never acquire.
As evidenced in Memphis, Quickley can emerge as a one-man fast break. His confidence never wavered when shots weren’t dropping. When the Raptors were playing on their heels, he asserted himself by taking over the game.
When timeouts were required, Rajakovic called them, often in moments when bad offensive possessions led to even worse defence, a combination that led to Memphis runs.
Jakob Poeltl emerged as a rim protector and didn’t need to be on the bench late in the game.
The Raptors did allow the Grizzlies to go off for 35 fourth-quarter points. It was a five-point game with 1:15 remaining in what would be a 116-111 Raptors win.
The early results of the trade are good, but it’s far too premature to reach any definitive conclusions, knowing so much can and likely will change.
The trade does afford Rajakovic with options and can perhaps truly evolve as a head coach given the current composition of the roster.
A year ago, the Raptors played arguably their best game of the season in Sacramento when they beat the Kings at a time when Sactown was the toast of the NBA.
Recommended from Editorial
Quickley paces Raptors past Grizzlies to kick off six-game road trip
GRADING THE RAPTORS: Immanuel Quickley makes his mark against the Grizzlies
Friday night’s pace will be quick, which is right up the Raptors’ alley. It likely will feature a myriad possessions, which also suits the Raptors.
The game promises to be fun and entertaining, terms that did not describe the Raptors prior to the trade.
The rest of the trip likely will reveal more about Rajakovic and his coaching chops.