It was supposed to be different this time.
After going through what seemed like an eternity filled with disappointment and despair, the Toronto Raptors appeared poised to get over their long-standing playoff hump this season. They won a franchise record 59 games, they had the highest point differential in the east (No. 2 overall), they deservedly earned the number one seed in the conference, but best of all, it had looked like the entire makeup of the team had changed.
Coming into the season, many believed that the Raptors had peaked, but somehow, they had taken another step forward. Toronto went from being ranked in the top 10 in both offensive rating (109.8, sixth overall) and defensive rating (104.9, eighth overall) last season to top five in both categories this season – 111 in offensive rating (third overall) and 103.4 in defensive rating (fifth overall). This was thanks to the terrific play of the second unit, Dwane Casey’s schemes transitioning the team from iso-ball to motion offense, and DeMar DeRozan’s evolution into an MVP candidate.
With all their improvements this season, and the east looking short on competition, it appeared the stars were finally aligning for the Raptors.
Until they didn’t.
After taking out the Wizards in the first round, the Raptors eagerly awaited Cleveland for their third consecutive playoff match-up with Lebron. But for the third straight season, the Raptors fell apart in spectacular fashion to the Cavaliers. With yet another initially promising Toronto season going down in flames, this leaves the team with the million-dollar question: Is it time to blow it up?
They would have good reason to. The team’s playoff woes are still prevalent. After getting humiliated by LeBron again following a tough six-game series with the eighth-seeded Wizards, it’s clear that the Raps still can’t find that extra gear when they play with higher stakes.
Worse yet, for the past few years, the Raptors have been regarded as a team that needed that extra push towards contention, and while they’ve done what they can, they don’t have the assets to do it. Their payroll gets even more expensive next season when Norman Powell’s extension kicks in, raising it to approximately $126 million, they have no first-rounder this year thanks to the DeMarre Carroll trade, and they have no expiring contracts.
The Raptors aren’t running low on options. They are OUT of options, which is why blowing it up should be considered, but it may not necessarily their best option (currently). Although starting from scratch would make sense, the Raptors do have reasons to give this team one more chance.
Rebuilding Won’t Be As Easy
As we know, teams who put their stars on the trade market rarely get equal value back for them in the long-term. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry could fetch good young value back, but since neither has the reputation of a Lebron or a Durant, they’re not going to fetch a ton. Even if they hypothetically do, resorting to tanking is not going to be as fool-proof as it once was.
When the NBA said they were going to crack down on tanking, they meant it. Lottery reform is set to take effect next season, so re-building through the draft won’t be so simple. With these new rules, the NBA has changed the lottery so that the odds are spread more evenly among lottery teams. While that would give a team that wasn’t among the very worst teams better odds, it still makes no promises.
To add to that, there is no guarantee that what the Raptors draft in their re-build with will lead to a team that’s better than the one they currently have. Intentionally relying on the lottery is always risky. We’ve seen teams that have reaped the rewards from egregiously tanking over the past several seasons like Philadelphia, but we’ve also seen teams that are still in the same place years after they originally started tanking like Orlando. But even in Philadelphia’s case, tanking led to jackpots such as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as much as it led to massive duds like Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor.
Re-building is the sensible choice, but, as is what always happens with the lottery, it’s a massive gamble. Especially now.
Uncertainty Surrounding the Eastern Conference
For the past three years, the Raptors’ issues in the playoffs have started and ended with LeBron James. It’s no secret that the King is firmly in Toronto’s head, but in their case, he might be the only mental obstacle in their way of a finals berth. With LeBron’s upcoming free agency, it’s possible that he might not be a problem for them past this season.
LeBron is going to weigh his options this summer. Returning to Cleveland will be one of them, but rumor has it that LeBron’s new home next season will be between three teams: Lakers, Sixers, and Rockets. If LeBron decides to migrate out west, then Toronto’s window may not be closed after all.
That, of course, leaves the rest of the conference, or more specifically, their Atlantic Division rivals. It is true that Boston will get Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving back next season, but who knows how long it will take for them to fully get back to where they were? Even if they start at 100 percent, neither they or anyone else on the roster are the basketball demigod that LeBron is.
There’s also Philadelphia. The process is finally starting to pay off in Philly, but the team has shown in these playoffs that it will still need time to work out kinks before it makes some serious noise. Of course, that would all change if LeBron goes there this summer, but that’s all speculative.
There are also the other competitors in the east such as Indiana, who pushed LeBron to the brink not too long ago; Washington, who is unpredictable but has plenty of talent; and Milwaukee, who has one of the best young players in the league, among others.
Point being, if LeBron James leaves the eastern conference this summer, then the path to the NBA finals gets easier for Toronto if it keeps the team together.
The Team’s Ability to Evolve
There have been two consistencies the Raptors have displayed in the Dwane Casey era:
1. Their failure to step it up in the playoffs
2. Their ability to improve every season
Casey has made steady progress every year since taking over as head coach of the Raptors. His first season, the Raptors won 23 games in 2012 (on pace for 28 in a full-length regular season), and that number has risen to 59 only six years later. Sure, Casey has made his mistakes, but he has shown time and time again that he has learned from them. That hasn’t translated into very much playoff success, but at the same time, Toronto has never ceased to exceed expectations.
Hardly anyone thought Toronto was capable of taking another step forward coming into the season, but they found a way to do it. Their improved play on both sides of the floor this season led to the most successful year they’ve ever had as a franchise. It is a shame that it ended yet again in heartbreak, but their steady improvement over the years has proved that they haven’t given up on themselves.
Perhaps this season was as good as these Raptors are going to get, but keeping the team together would be the only way to find out.
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