Three months ago, the Toronto Raptors stood at the brink of extinction.
Kyle Lowry had opted out of his contract, and rumors swirled that he had zero interest in coming back to Toronto. Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, the team’s midseason acquisitions, both seemed poised to head elsewhere as free agents. They faced a crossroads, no matter what they did — bring everyone back with no flexibility to improve a team that had just been embarrassed by the Cavaliers, or have Lowry, Ibaka, and Tucker all walk, and be stuck in the middle, with no flexibility to get better, and too much talent on hard-to-trade contracts to get bad enough to improve through the draft.
In the end, Toronto decided to bring back Lowry and Ibaka, both on rather large deals that for all intents and purposes cap their flexibility for the time being. From the team’s perspective, that had to happen. Blowing up the core of the best sustained run in team history is never easy, especially when the stars are in their primes. But it certainly seemed the Raptors had capped themselves at around the No. 3 seed in the East, with the Cavs looking set for 1-2 more years of dominance, at least, and the Celtics, Bucks, and 76ers seeming like the long-term usurpers lining up behind them. The Raptors come into 2017-18 firmly stuck in the middle.
This question rears its head every time a franchise reaches a crossroads that is just short of a Finals appearance. The assumption is that you came up short, and don’t have what it takes — if you don’t have the flexibility to improve, do you continue to try to wait for a break, exhausting resources in the process, or do you flip your sub-elite core players (or let them walk in free agency) for more flexibility to try to make a run down the line? Basically, do you grind down to the studs like the Memphis Grizzlies have been doing, or do you bail early and try to recoup value, like the Celtics trading away Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce? Is two or three extra years of playoff runs worth whatever time that comes afterwards to delay a return to that near-contender level? These are the million-dollar questions for a team that was in Toronto’s shoes in June.
Toronto voted to keep the band at its current membership. There were some changes on the fringes — Patrick Patterson left in free agency and DeMarre Carroll was traded, while C.J. Miles and O.G. Anunoby joined in their place. But the core is intact, and locked in place financially. That ensures that the Raptors will at least be a competitive playoff team for the next two to three years, barring a trade. However, the stated goal, especially since taking the Cavaliers to six games in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, is to win a championship. On paper, the Raptors are no closer to that. Despite what was a whirlwind offseason for both teams above them in the pecking order, the Cavaliers and Celtics still have a talent level that is well above what the Raptors can offer. That likely means that the Raptors are doomed to stay a bridesmaid in the East for the duration of their core’s peak.
But that’s not the way the Raptors see it, nor is it a certainty. Randomness has a way of breaking at the right time once in a blue moon in the NBA, and this season could be a scenario where that occurs. The Cavaliers and Celtics both look like they may have some chinks in the armor at least early in the season, and there’s no guarantee that the new pieces mesh on either side. The Cavs have LeBron, but traded a major core piece for Isaiah Thomas, who may not be healthy. The Celtics got that major core piece, Kyrie Irving, and added Gordon Hayward to join Al Horford, but we have no idea how that group works together, or really what their ceiling is. Both will probably be good enough to make the Finals, but there are no guarantees.
The one percent chance that either or both of those situations goes full 2012-13 Lakers is enough, because the Raptors are ready to pounce. The Raptors know exactly who they are — they’ll slow the pace, bludgeon you with attacks at the rim, hit the shots your defense is programmed to allow, take care of the ball and force you into mistakes. In an ideal world, that’s a pretty solid solution against Boston or Cleveland, neither of whom will be able to rebound at the level Toronto can, and who will consistently find problems with DeRozan and Lowry driving to the rim, especially with Miles and an improved Norman Powell sitting beyond the 3-point line waiting to capitalize on a caved in defense that lacks an elite rim protector.
That’s not to say the Raptors don’t have problems — their defense has been inconsistent over the years, and their offense has been unimaginative beyond Lowry and DeRozan, which gets less effective in the more “let them play” playoffs. Jonas Valanciunas is heading into his fifth straight season of posting 12 points and eight rebounds a game while looking incredibly inconsistent in getting there. But this is the Eastern Conference — every team has their warts. Whoever ends up making the Finals in recent years has relied on who has LeBron James, but that plan could end any year now. And while the Raptors still don’t have an answer for LeBron — I guess C.J. Miles is getting that assignment this year. Their strengths could end up needling the Cavs or Celtics enough that we get into those random things, like close-game results and injuries, to determine who wins a series.
Of course, this is all somewhat futile when it comes to an NBA Championship, as the Warriors or even the Rockets will likely eviscerate whoever comes out of the East. But just getting to the Finals is enough to have shenanigans happen to spin things in your favor. The Raptors may not be the frontrunners, but they are certainly in a solid position to capitalize on any misstep that befalls the two teams ahead of them in the pecking order. As long as they stay healthy (never a given with Lowry), Toronto is absolutely good enough to potentially replicate the Utah Jazz of 20 years ago — when Houston (created an aging superteam) and Seattle (previous Finals representative) fell apart, letting an aging Jazz team relying on continuity to proceed to the Finals.
Ultimately, that’s why you do what Toronto did. If you have the core of the best team in franchise history, you keep that group together as long as possible. In the worst case, they’re remembered fondly, like the Mark Price-era Cavs or the Gasol/Conley Grizzlies. In the best case, a perennial bridesmaid sticks around long enough to become the bride thanks to a few lucky breaks. Either way, you’re revered in history, which this Raptors team clearly is going to be.
Toronto doubled down on its core, with the promise of nothing more than a few more secound-round exits. But the prospect of another Eastern Conference Finals appearance, and the slim chance at a first Finals birth, is too good to pass up. The Raptors may not be the best team in the Eastern Conference, but they are a few breaks away from making that coveted final four. With Lowry, DeRozan, and Ibaka, the Raptors will have a shot at competing, and that’s all that matters. Championships may rule the NBA, but keeping this Raptors core together was the right decision, regardless of how close they end up coming to a title.