Many will contend that in today’s day and age, it’s not all about winning. You’ve likely heard the sales pitch that there’s joy to be found in the journey. Perhaps more specific to our topic, you’ve heard that teams like the Grit ‘n Grind Grizzlies have opened the door to a gleeful sporting experience without total success. Those people are wrong.
At least, they are wrong when it comes to the Toronto Raptors. No one is talking about the delightful bench unit, the altered team culture nor the savory moments of a 59-win campaign.
This series was everything to Toronto. Five years of commitment, arduous work and growth decimated instantaneously. LeBron James treated the series like a continuous shooting drill, hoisting fadeaways like a post-practice game of horse. The Raptors watched paralyzed as James and the Cavaliers disintegrated a franchise’s best year in 197 lengthy but inevitable minutes.
There’s no hyperbole too aggressive not to be spilled generously over this copy, it was cutthroat. James’ Game 3 game-winner was a full-court, life-sucking charge that resulted in a falling out of bounds, off-balance mercy killing. James led both teams in scoring all four games and finished just two points shy of what DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry combined for the series.
The lucky-to-be-there Indiana Pacers took the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games. Kevin Love was atrocious in that series and the Cavaliers had never looked more vulnerable. In the end, none of it mattered to the Raptors and fruitless quest for redemption.
Seerat Sohi of SB Nation got this depressing tidbit from coach Dwane Casey, “There’s a huge gap, I think we closed between the first 4-0 and the second 4-0,” Casey said. “That 4-0 is very, I think, deceiving. You had two games by what, one point and two points. So the gap is closing.”
Sad times in Tdot.
Ask fans anywhere if it was fun losing, albeit “losing better” to James for the third straight year in humiliating fashion and you’ll get your answer. Toronto isn’t Memphis and the expectations were not the same.
At the end of the 2013 season, the Toronto Raptors capped a big growth year by winning seven of their last eight games. They only won 34 on the season but the mood was shifting in the 6. The Raptors brought in the hottest name on the executive market—Masai Ujiri had just capped off a Denver Nuggets turnaround with a 57-win season and was a freshly minted NBA Executive of the Year—and second year head coach Casey felt like the right fit long-term.
At that time, I worried the Raptors were going to become underachievers, a team that made the playoffs but had no shot at being a real contender. Not unlike Ujiri’s prior franchise, the Nuggets. However, the Raptors surpassed expectations, winning a lot of games and battling through many tough playoff matchups over the next five years. Though, notably, many of those series were ugly. Ultimately, the team rose to Eastern Conference contender status and had many people believing they were legitimate this year. Toronto met long-sought national recognition by climbing 2,579-steps up the CN Tower and promptly diving head first into a sweep.
Over the last five years, the Toronto Raptors have won 64 percent of their regular season games. The high being 59 games this season, the peak of their efforts being a Conference Finals appearance in 2016. The notable 64 percent five-mark puts them only behind Golden State (77), San Antonio (71), and Houston (66) over that same five-year span.
But what does it all really mean? Well, from a numbers perspective, not a whole lot. While the Raptors have been genuinely good over the last half-decade, they just squandered the best chance they’ve ever had statistically or contextually to reach the Finals. To compare with other five-year wonders: The Oklahoma City Thunder won 67 percent of their games between 2010 and 2016 and peaked at a Finals appearance; the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns won 68 percent of their games from 2005-2010 and never made the Finals.
For all the Raptors success, teams have done it better and came up just as empty. The Raptors are stuck, wedged between the League’s greatest player and a rapidly approaching future with multiple Eastern Conference powers (Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Indiana) on the come up. Where they go from here is anybody’s guess but Ujiri has some very tough decisions in front of him. Let’s take a brief look at their summer.
Staying Put Was Never an Option
Perhaps Ujiri holds the belief that this Raptors team is a lucky break away from getting through. Remember, we’re just talking about the Finals. Let’s be honest with each other, it’s very unlikely anyone is beating the Warriors the next two to three years.
If that’s the case, Ujiri is dreaming of an East that doesn’t house one LeBron Raymone James. If James leaves, maybe, just maybe you’ve got one more year to contend before the youth in Boston and Philadelphia takes over. As you can see, there’s a lot of dice rolling in this scenario, most of which don’t even see the dice in Ujiri’s hands.
Lowry is 32, DeRozan is going to be 29, how much more room for improvement is there? It’s hard to see a Raptors team finally getting over the hump with that duo at the helm.
Speaking of the Celtics, Danny Ainge dealt Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce out of Boston while they still had value. Billy King isn’t running the Nets anymore and arrogant Russian billionaires aren’t making outlandish claims at the moment but the Raptors backcourt has value today with no guarantee of tomorrow. The Raptors youth impressed this year, maybe it’s time to consider a re-tool if not a rebuild.
With Ujiri moving on from Casey, it’ll be the second time a Coach of the Year was let go under Ujiri’s watch—George Karl was fired after getting awarded the League’s top coach, an honor that will likely lead to an awkward speech—a fascinating and coincidental cringe-worthy note.
It’s attention worthy that Ujiri said during exit interviews this team wasn’t going to blow it up and tank. Unfortunately for Casey, with the Raptors not blowing it up—how could Ujiri change the culture and trajectory of a franchise, that much like the Los Angeles Clippers last year, had ran its course? Casey fans have cause for frustration, firing the coach feels like the easy move rather than the right move.
In the wake of today’s events, it feels hasty to have fired a coach who just led Toronto to their greatest run in history. Especially, when the loss came against a force that no one in the East has been able to figure out—James has won 23 consecutive series against the conference—and the team’s best player (DeRozan) had a horrid series capped off by an ejection in Game 4. Casey is more fall guy than guilty party.
Wins aside, Casey has accomplished some feats that have alluded other coaches. Casey has developed young players—Anunoby, DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, Norm Powell, Pascal Siakam, Valanciunas, VanVleet were all homegrown stars who blossomed under his watch—and routinely got amazing contributions from his bench. He got two veteran All-Stars to change their play style for the betterment of the team. Look across the League and consider just how tough the latter is to do. Look at Billy Donovan and Russell Westbrook; Mike D’Antoni and Carmelo Anthony; David Fizdale and Marc Gasol. Having an intimate rapport with your star players isn’t easy and Casey has the respect of both DeRozan and Lowry—that shouldn’t have been taken for granted. Failed result or not, Casey got a raw deal here. If there aren’t major roster changes, it will bear paying attention to how the returning players respond to the new head coach.
Making a Splash
Obviously, the Raptors would love to package one of Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas with the necessary sweetening draft picks to improve, but who is buying? No, if the Raptors want to make a franchise-altering trade, they will have to dispense with some of their youth or a member of the All-Star backcourt.
OG Anunoby was one of the bright spots this postseason for the Raptors. He was given tough assignments in Bradley Beal and LeBron James and performed admirably. His 18-point Game 3 against Cleveland felt special amidst the slaughter. It’s unlikely Toronto wants to package their promising young rookie in any deal that doesn’t bring back a star. Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, and Delon Wright may be slightly more available, though, on their own the appeal is going to be limited.
It’s likely that if the Raptors want a real shakeup, DeRozan or Lowry will have to be shipped out in addition to the Casey firing. DeRozan, who likely holds more value due to age and contract, would be an interesting name to throw out on the market.
Trading DeRozan presents its own challenges. He’s the franchise player, beloved by the city and arguably its biggest star since Vince Carter. His old-school play style of midrange jumpers could make finding a suitor difficult. The other side of the coin is that like Toronto, teams like Miami, Portland, and Washington are more or less stuck in their current cap situation. Teams like Denver, Minnesota, New Orleans, and Utah are on the way up and might be willing to make a move, the Raptors aren’t alone in their need for a shakeup.
Perhaps, if Ujiri is patient he will be able to maneuver the right set of pieces to reload around the current core for another playoff run, but how many times can this Raptors squad run it back? Time is running out—if it hasn’t already—and it’d be a shame to watch the greatest era of Raptors basketball end on such a sour and familiar note.