Make Up or Break Up: Toronto Raptors

Like the past two years, the Toronto Raptors went into the postseason this year with high hopes of finally making that run at the Eastern Conference crown and Finals. The 59 regular-season wins signified a franchise best and secured the best record in the conference, second overall best record in the League and homecourt advantage in the East—the Raptors couldn’t have asked for a better position to be in.

Except LeBron James still plays in the East.

Two years ago LeBron and the Cavs knocked off the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals and last season, Cleveland got the best of Toronto again, sweeping them in the second round. That loss prompted DeMar DeRozan to famously exclaim, “If we had LeBron on our team, too, we woulda won.”

It was an immediate sign of mental defeat from one of the best two guards in the game, but that was last year and the team went into the postseason this spring thinking they had what it took to knock off “The King” and the outcome would be different.

It wouldn’t. It would be worse.

Once again LeBron James, with arguably one of the weakest teams he’s had to play with in years, swept the Raptors out of the playoffs and quite possibly, as far as this current roster goes, into extinction. The sweep was painful, but the series was ostensibly over after LeBron’s Game 3 buzzer beater or when Kendrick Perkins challenged Drake to take it into the halls. The organization has invested a lot of money in this team to try and turn it into a championship contender, but after this latest disappointing postseason loss, it may be time for Toronto GM Masai Ujiri to start planning a future without his current core.

What’s Wrong

Let’s cut to the chase. It may be time for DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the Raptor’s All-Star backcourt, to have a change of scenery. For as stellar a duo as they are during the regular season, four of the last five years we’ve seen them struggle to find success in the playoffs when it counts. These failures are magnified when you consider both take up about $60 million in cap space a year. The backcourt situation in Toronto is eerily similar to Portland’s, where there has also been talk of shaking up the team’s talented backcourt. DeRozan, for as talented as he is individually, seems unable to get LeBron out of his head. If you take into consideration his comments from last year, and this year being benched in the fourth quarter of Game 3 and then being assessed a flagrant foul, getting himself ejected from Game 4 with his team down 30 points, it shows a lack of mental toughness from a player who’s supposed to be a superstar.

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Lowry’s playoff struggles are well documented. Despite being one of the toughest point guards in the NBA, Lowry can never seem to impose his will on opponents in the postseason. At 32, he’ll be tested next year in a League full of fast and hungry guards looking to steal your lunch. It’s troubling to see two great players regress in real time like this, and it’s even more sobering to know that these playoff struggles aren’t an anomaly, but a regular occurrence.

Another issue is Serge Ibaka, who made $21 million this year, is on the books for $23 million next year, and is a shell of the player we saw in Oklahoma City. As the team’s third stud, the veteran big man instead had his worst playoff performance in six years, and his future with the team should certainly be in question at this point.

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Jonas Valanciunas showed some life in the playoffs, but like he’s done throughout his six NBA seasons, all that has done is tantalize the franchise with hope. As more an old-school center, he’s limited by his ability to guard the pick and rolls and his lack of range won’t help with spacing.

As a whole, the Raptors might be deep. Their bench was a strength, especially in the regular season, but come the postseason, when other teams are trimming their rotations, the Raptors need to lean on DeRozan and Lowry. Unfortunately, Toronto doesn’t have much cap flexibility and the only way they can make any real moves, they’ll have to start shedding salaries in a major way.

Head coach Dwane Casey is a Coach of the Year candidate, but is now on the hot seat, thanks to another LeBron evisceration. As much as it’s on the players, Casey might be a fall guy for the team’s failings.

How To Fix Things

Everything starts with DeRozan and Lowry. Do you trade one and keep the other? The two are best friends, making that choice impossible. Or do you move on from both and start over from scratch? Tough decisions will have to be made. Everything else is secondary after that franchise-altering decision.

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As an undrafted player, second-year surprise Fred Van Vleet (8.6 PPG) enters the summer as a restricted free agent. VanVleet flashed plenty of gritty production off the bench, ensuring interest from teams around the League looking for reserve firepower or even taking a chance with a starting spot. The Raptors would ideally match any offer sheet the young guard gets, but it would mean pushing them further into the luxury tax category. Given that scenario, it may make sense for the Raptors to take a gamble on the 24-year-old VanVleet (they also have another promising young point in Delon Wright) and and shop Lowry, who’s owed another $64 million over the next two years. Of course this is easier said than done, but certainly not unreasonable to consider, especially if the team isn’t as willing to let DeRozan go.

Another option to try and free up cap space would be to look at moving Valanciunas. The big man had a solid season, has a very trade-friendly contract (two more years at $17 million annually) and just turned 26. With the able Jacob Poeltl waiting in the wings, moving on from Valanciunas is a lot easier. Unfortunately, because the game has changed so much, slow, plodding bigs aren’t exactly what teams are looking for these days. However, it would be a much more likely and easier deal to make than say, trying to find a taker for an aging Serge Ibaka, or even a younger guy like Norman Powell, who just signed a four-year, $42 million extension and barely saw the floor.

It would also be wise to try and ramp up the development of the teams younger guys outside of the aforementioned Poeltl and Van Vleet. OG Anunoby was thrown to the fire when the rookie was inserted into the starting lineup. Casey’s decision looked good as the Indiana product didn’t fold and gained valuable experience and confidence that can be built upon going into next season.

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Speaking of Casey, the Raptors will have to decide if he’s right man for the job moving forward. If the Raptors decide to blow it up, does that also include the head coach? If they stay pat for one more run with the same cast, do they try to bring in a new voice to try to get them over the hump?

As presently constructed, this Raptors team has most likely reached the pinnacle of its success. Breaking up is hard to do, but sometimes it’s necessary to pave the way for new and better opportunities. It appears Ujiri is at that particular crossroad and the direction he chooses to take could propel the team forward to the next level, or put them back and out of the conversation completely.

It’s going to be an interesting summer in The Six.