Every year at this time of year I usually write a recap of the Raptors season. (Before I switched allegiances, it was a Leafs’ recap.) I’m sorry to say I don’t really do this for other people. I know there are actual basketball writers in the world who have actual things to say about Toronto sports teams which are informed. I really do it for myself – it lets me put my thoughts down on paper about the sports team I pay most attention to, and by looking at each player’s stats for the reason, maybe I battle the narrative impulse in my self at least just a little, so that I will remember the player’s performance in 5 years, not the media narrative about that player.
But last year I had trouble. I couldn’t bring myself to do it like I usually do. And I’m finding I’m having the same problem today, after the Raptors not only got swept for the second year in a row by the same damn team, but got swept in just about the worst way possible, with two agonizing losses which could have easily gone the other way, and two losses (one at home!) in which they just gave up, because, you know, LeBron. Just about the only thing giving me consolation this morning – even though I knew this was going to happen since Game 2 – is that the 60-win, 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks were also swept by the (better) Cleveland Cavaliers, despite being the #1 seed in the East (though that did happen in the Conference Finals, not the Semis).
And the only thing keeping me from screaming “Blow it all up!” is what has since happened to said Atlanta Hawks. Yes, they will get a high pick this summer but their best player is John Collins and it sure seems like a long way back at this point.
The thing about basketball that I have to keep reminding myself is: it’s not hockey. One player (sometimes more than one player) can completely alter a franchise. We don’t need to go back very far in Raptors history to see that. When Kyle Lowry showed up and turned out to be better than everyone (Ujiri included) thought, the team went from tearing it all down to becoming the best team in franchise history. It just so happens that this team’s ceiling is called LeBron James.
So what the hell do they do? I was super skeptical of the “culture reset” until I saw it in action. And I do (strongly) believe that, had the Raptors managed to tip one of those shots in and won Game 1 in regulation, Game 2 would have been different, therefore the whole series would have been different. (I’m not saying the Raptors would have won, but that the series might have been semi competitive, which is all someone like me was looking for after last year’s sweep.)
But the fact remains that a healthy, yet-to-age, LeBron James in the Eastern Conference is the Raptors’ ceiling. And if he leaves for the West for some crazy reason (why would he make his life harder as he gets older?) the Raps still have to deal with a Celtics team which will have its stars back next season, as well as a presumably better Sixers team, as well as some other team(s) which will be better because, well, that’s just how this goes, nothing is ever stagnant. (Remember when the Heat were going to win 8 titles in a row?)
So, what do they do? There are three broad options:
- Keep everything nearly the same
- Make some serious changes
- Burn it all down
Run It Back
This is what they did last year. It worked in the regular season, spectacularly well actually. But obviously not even one win in the Conference Semis is not good when your goal should have been Conference Finals or Finals. I’m not sure this is an option, especially if LeBron is still in the conference next season.
Make a Major Change
It’s clear to most of us that the ceiling of the DeRozan-Lowry Raptors is LeBron. Obviously, they need at least one other player at their talent level to get past him. That player is obviously not Serge Ibaka, who isn’t even the third best player on this team (though he is paid as if he was).
A major change of the kind I am thinking about would involve replacing one of the starters but it absolutely involves moving one of the highest paid players. Per The Ringer, here is Toronto’s salary situation:
|Jonas Valanciunas||$16,539,326||$17,617,976 (PO)|
|C.J. Miles||$8,333,333||$8,730,158 (PO)|
|Jakob Poeltl||$2,947,320||$3,754,886 (TO)|
|OG Anunoby||$1,952,760||$2,281,800 (TO)|
|Malachi Richardson||$1,569,360||$2,581,597 (TO)|
|Pascal Siakam||$1,544,951||$2,351,839 (TO)|
The most glaring thing that sticks out to me here is that Ibaka’s contract is probably untradeable, with Powell and Miles also fairly difficult to move. With all three of these players, it’s worth wondering if trading them wouldn’t be easier in the autumn, if they get off to a good start. But those contracts beg the question, is it time to trade Lowry or DeRozan?
I don’t know the answer, but Lowry is going to break down at some point. DeRozan has improved year upon year, but it’s worth wondering when that will stop.
The long and the short of it is, if they are going to move someone, it’s hard to see how they will get someone back on the level of Lowry or Derozan without moving one of them, or Ibaka/Powell/Miles plus one of the good young players they no doubt want to keep.
(Also, it’s worth noting that even if the Raptors could attract a marquee free agent, they don’t have the cap room and they would still have to move more than one of these guys (or one of three highest paid players) to make room.)
Blow It All Up
The last option is to understand that this team’s ceiling has been reached and the only thing to do is to try to get a new franchise player. That can be done through free agency, through trades or through the draft.
I have no faith the Raptors can attract a marquee free agent, especially after two sweeps in the playoffs.
Ujiri has shown an ability to win trades more often than not. But if you look at his trade history, it’s only Lowry who is a star Ujiri has acquired; all the other major trade wings involve Ujiri getting a lot of assets for an over-valued player (or players). And that makes me think that the above option of trading away one of the Raptors’ highest paid players is more likely to yield futures than a star. And if a “start” is what he trades for, it will be a flawed one like Ibaka that comes back, not a franchise-transforming player. (The name at the moment is Boogie, who I don’t think I want on the Raptors.)
And so that brings us to the draft, where you can luck into a player like Giannis but, for the most part, you have to be bad to take advantage of. But if you look at Philly until recently, or Orlando or Charlotte, you can see how high picks in basketball still do not guarantee franchise players. So the peril of blowing it all up, of deciding that being bad for high draft picks is the only way to go, is that you turn into Orlando, or you turn into Philly before Embiid and Simmons got healthy, and maybe that lasts for a very long time, and you lose so many of the fans you gained when your team was winning all these regular season games.
I honestly don’t know what they to do. 2 games ago, I wanted them to blow it all up. But the more I think about it, the more I don’t want the Raptors to become the Magic of the North. As much as I my inclination is to tank for a star, it’s not as clear cut as all that. Here’s hoping that the Raptors brain trust is able to figure it out.
Here are the “advanced” playoff metrics for our franchise player: