The Toronto Raptors are really good every year. However, they seem to be eternally stuck in the “not quite good enough” phase.
Over the last three seasons, they’ve won 51 games, 56 games, and 49 games respectively with their 2016 campaign ending in Eastern Conference Finals. Considering this is a franchise that, before 2016, had never won 50 games in a single season, this is an undeniably impressive era in Raptors history.
But at the same time, last year could be viewed as rock bottom for this great era of Toronto teams.
Every year, the Raptors seem to be pegged as a team with a chance of taking down LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But time after time it ends the same way – dinosaur guts are splattered all over the court by James and his supporting cast.
Last season was especially bad. Despite winning five less games than the season before, the 2016-17 team is arguably the best team in franchise history. They almost certainly would have secured the best record in the Eastern Conference if All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry hadn’t missed 22 games.
Their offense came out of the gate at a historic pace, and over the course of the season scored an outstanding 112.8 points per 100 possessions with Lowry on the court. Most importantly, Raptors president Masai Ujiri bolstered the team’s playoff chances by adding defense and three-point shooting at the trade deadline, acquiring versatile big Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic, and small forward P.J. Tucker from the Phoenix Suns while only giving up long-time Toronto wing Terrence Ross and draft picks. These additions should have been the final pieces to the puzzle, making Toronto a legitimate contender at last.
Orlando has agreed to trade Serge Ibaka to Toronto for Terrence Ross and a 2017 first-round pick, league sources tell @TheVertical.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) February 14, 2017
When the Eastern Conference Semifinals rolled around and the Cavaliers came to town, it made no difference whatsoever. The Raptors were blown out repeatedly and were swept out of the playoffs by the eventual Eastern Conference champions. This failure made it clear; this team just may not be built for the playoffs.
Luckily for Ujiri, this offseason presented him with plenty of options. Several key pieces to last year’s squad, Lowry, Ibaka, and Tucker, as well as long-time Raptors power forward Patrick Patterson, all saw their contracts expire at the end of last year. Staring down the barrel of free agency and the draft, Ujiri had a few different directions he could go in.
Toronto has a long bench of young guys who have been waiting to get more opportunity, including wing Norman Powell — who was moved into the starting lineup during the 2017 playoffs in a key adjustment by coach Dwane Casey — center Lucas Nougeria, and point guard Delon Wright. Ujiri could have moved on from some of his vets in order to give his young guys a chance to change the culture of playoff failure in Toronto.
He also had the option to follow the Los Angeles Clippers model, and just run back the team’s flawed core once again and hope for the best — though even the Clippers finally saw the flaws in that model this summer.
Or he could try to pull off a blend of the two, bringing back the Raptors’ top-tier talent while attempting to shake up the supporting cast as much as possible while factoring in their difficult cap situation.
Ujiri went with his third option. While many expected perennial All-Star Lowry to get a max deal — whether it was from Toronto, Philadelphia, Minnesota, or elsewhere — the point guard market dried up quicker than expected. This gave the Raptors the ability to get their star guard back on a three-year, $100 million deal.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) July 7, 2017
Toronto also brought back Ibaka on a three-year deal worth $65 million. When it came to Patterson and Tucker, they both fled Toronto to sign with Western Conference contenders, joining the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets respectively.
So, Ujiri decided to commit to his core, not opting for flexibility or an entry into the point guard market. Additionally, by signing both Ibaka and Lowry to three year deals, he made an interesting statement about his team’s future.
Ujiri’s starting point guard and power forward both come off of the books in 2020, which is by no coincidence the same year Raptors star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan will likely opt out of his contract. Beleaguered Toronto center Jonas Valanciunas — currently making $17 million per year — will also likely be off the books by then.
— NextSportStar.com (@NextSportStar) July 18, 2017
These contracts send a clear message to everyone in Toronto; this team has three years to figure it out, or it is getting blown up. And it makes complete sense – a great regular season team that struggles in the playoffs is fun for three or four years, but can get a bit morbid after seven. On top of that, Lowry will be 34 in 2020, and Ibaka and DeRozan will both be 31.
Overall, Raptors fans are likely left wishing their team could have done more. While their offseason moves were savvy, the team likely didn’t do much to change their fate in a series against the Cavaliers. Even if the Kyrie Irving situation implodes and sabotages Cleveland, Toronto has done little to differentiate themselves from other mid-tier Eastern Conference teams like the Washington Wizards and the Boston Celtics.
Toronto has traded DeMarre Carroll, a future first-round and second-round pick to Brooklyn for Justin Hamilton, league sources tell ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 9, 2017
Even the Raptors’ shakeup of their supporting cast was more savvy than starry. They salary dumped injury-riddled small forward DeMarre Carroll — owed $30 million over the next two years — to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for center Justin Hamilton, who was promptly waived.
OFFICIAL: Raps have traded Cory Joseph to the Indiana Pacers. #WeTheNorth
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) July 14, 2017
They also traded bench guard Cory Joseph to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for C.J. Miles, an excellent 3-and-D role player who should help their bench sufficiently. But at the end of the day, they turned four useful role players — Tucker, Carroll, Patterson, and Joseph — into just Miles. It helps their salary sheet much more than it helps their roster.
At the same time, it gives those aforementioned young guys the opportunity they’ve been waiting for. Toronto can be confident that Powell is ready to contribute. But how much can they expect from Nougeria and Wright, second-year center Jakob Poelti, forward Bruno Caboclo, or number 23 overall pick in the 2017 draft OG Anunoby?
Only time will tell. Young guys are always hit-or-miss, and it is a risky proposition for a team with such a defined timeline to expect so much from guys with such little NBA experience. Even if the Raptors pivot towards youth blows up in their face, the front office has set themselves up nicely to hit the reset button in just three years.