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Toronto Raptors head coach Jay Triano reacts whiles playing against the Philadelphia 76ers during half preseason NBA action in Toronto on Wednesday, October 13, 2010. (Nathan Denette)
Toronto Raptors head coach Jay Triano reacts whiles playing against the Philadelphia 76ers during half preseason NBA action in Toronto on Wednesday, October 13, 2010. (Nathan Denette)

Michael Grange

Triano can only be judged on how hard Raptors play Add to ...

As a third-year coach heading into the final season of his contract with a losing career record and scant chance of that changing this year, Jay Triano would seem to have as much riding on this season as anyone.

It's only his career, after all.

But there is no one better positioned to benefit from what every major publication predicted would be either a really bad season for the Toronto Raptors (out of the playoffs) or a horrible one (last in the Eastern Conference). Last night's 98-93 loss to the New York Knicks wasn't an ideal start, but Triano's team scrapped, and when you're coaching a bad team, moral victories count.

After all, there are only two sure ways to prove that you're making an impact in a job with as many dependent variables as coaching in the NBA: Make like Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich and win championships with established stars, or take a team with weak talent and elevate them.

Since the first scenario is clearly not happening, Triano can count himself lucky to have little choice than immersing himself in the time-honoured tradition of coaching them up.

Exceeding expectations is a proven route to coach-of-the-year trophies and the contract extensions that typically come with them: Sam Mitchell got one for taking an unheralded Raptors team to 47 wins in 2006-07. Boston Celtics head man Doc Rivers is a made man with an NBA title with the Boston Celtics, but he made his mark coaching a bad Orlando Magic team to a 41-41 record and the cusp of the playoffs in 2000.

Triano finished 40-42 in his first full season running an NBA bench last season. But if the Raptors go 35-47 with a lineup of castoffs, underachievers and uncertain potential it will look like good coaching by default.

A playoff spot and a mark near .500 - not inconceivable in an Eastern Conference where the quality falls off a cliff after the top six teams are accounted for - and he'll have the option on next year's deal picked up and a couple of years tacked on to that.

Better yet his boss, Raptors president Bryan Colangelo - while loath to acknowledge the club has slipped backward during the past three years of his stewardship - is under no illusions.

"It's a perfect kind of team for Jay," Colangelo said. "He's going to be evaluated on how the team comes together, on the progression of guy like Sonny Weems or DeMar DeRozan. He's not going to be judged on wins and losses."

By that standard, early returns on the first instalment of Triano's 82-game job interview offered promise in the way a gritty comeback loss can for a team with rock-bottom expectations.

"I think it makes it easier," he said before the game. "I'm having a lot of fun coaching these players because right now, they want, and are looking for, every bit of an edge they can have. They want to be good; they want to prove people wrong."

They certainly competed. Reggie Evans is no Chris Bosh but he was a screaming testament to the kind of effort Triano will need his talent-challenged team to make as he laid out unsuspecting Knicks with hard screens, sparked fast breaks with steals and hauled in 16 rebounds.

Down by 16 points in the first half, they pushed the Knicks and their $100-million all-star Amar'e Stoudemire to the limit. And if down the stretch they showed their other side - missing layups, rimming out free throws - well, it's going to be hard to pin that on the coach.

Triano doesn't have Bosh as his security blanket any more, but that leave him more emboldened than burdened.

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