Have The Toronto Raptors Hit The Wall?
Eventually it happens with every successful professional sports team. Whatever got them on their current run starts to run out of steam. The fans continue to show up for a while reliving the memories, but the passion isn’t the same. In Toronto, the fans seem to know the Raptors have hit the wall.
The Toronto Raptors won a very respectable 51 games last season and were tied with the NBA Finalist Cleveland Cavaliers at the end of the regular season, but make no mistake, the electricity and excitement of the last three postseason runs was gone. The playoff seats were sold, but the butts in those seats seemed more interested in drinking beer than what was happening on the court.
Everyone knows the Raptors current run happened by accident. After five straight years of missing the playoffs and a terrible start to the 2013-14 season, new general manager Masai Ujiri traded quasi-star Rudy Gay for four journeyman playing on an even worse Sacramento Kings team. He then had a deal in hand to dump Kyle Lowry in New York so the Raptors could tank for a better Lottery draft pick, but Knicks owner James Dolan kiboshed it after all the participants had been informed and Lowry ended leading the Raptors to a franchise record 48 wins. That wasn’t supposed to happen.
The Raptors ended up as first round playoff fodder, losing Game Seven to a veteran Nets team in front of their own fans, but that was something to build on or so one would think.
The fans certainly thought their team was worth watching and on November 11, 2014 started a run of consecutive sell outs that has yet to end. Last season the Raptors were third in NBA total attendance with a franchise record 813,050 seats sold proving the fans in Toronto will come out to support a winner.
However, it isn’t always easy to tell if Ujiri believes his team is as exciting and ready to win as the fans or even his players.
A good record means a late first round draft pick and for a team on the rise three summers ago, Ujiri picked a player as unready for the NBA as was possible at the 2014 NBA draft.
Bruno Caboclo is best known for being “two years away from being two years away” and now about to enter his fourth NBA season, he’s barely a memory for most fans. Last year he said no one was helping him develop with the Raptors and the organization’s NBA Development League team, the Raptors 905 was his family. He still looks like an NBA prospect, but that’s about it.
Ujiri also managed to trade for another first round draft pick and plucked Lucas Nogueira off of a team playing in Spain. Often injured and nowhere near ready for the NBA, it wasn’t until last season that he managed to contribute something and then he lost his minutes to one of the Raptors new rookies Jakob Poeltl.
The Raptors won more games in 2014-15, but they did it less convincingly and got swept out the first round of the playoffs by Wizards. Perhaps that is why Ujiri kept going younger?
Carrying over two next to useless rookies from the previous season, Ujiri added two more rookies in 2015, Delon Wright (20th) and Norman Powell (46th). This time he drafted players that at least looked promising and his second round pick, Powell, surprised everyone by actually contributing during the season and in the first round of the playoffs.
2015-16 marked the high water mark for this franchise. Second place in the Eastern Conference with 56 regular season wins and 10 playoff wins as the team finally bowed out to the eventual NBA Champion Cavaliers in Game Six at the Air Canada Centre to the deafening cheers of their fans. The building has never been as loud and electric before or since and even the Cavaliers LeBron James was stunned by the level of support after a playoff loss. It was truly special.
Then came the summer. Would Ujiri try to build on the Raptors unheralded success and fan support? Apparently not. Instead of strengthening his roster, he drafted two more rookies in Poeltl (9th) and Pascal Siakam (27th) and then added a third undrafted rookie, Fred VanVleet. While the starting lineup looked solid, the biggest subtraction was letting free agent forward James Johnson walk away for a very modest contract to Miami and when his own free agent addition Jared Sullinger was lost for the season before it even started, the Raptors were forced into starting the not ready for prime time (not his fault) rookie Siakam as there wasn’t anyone else.
These weren’t the moves of a GM looking to contend and despite a strong start to the season, Toronto was always just one injury away from sliding badly, and those injuries happened.
Objectively, the Raptors played well in their first round series victory over the Bucks in April, even if the fans seemed less than inspired by how they got it done. The trade deadline additions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker weren’t enough to prevent the Raptors from being swept out of the second round by the Cavaliers and with Kyle Lowry injured, there was no reasonable expectation of stealing even one game in that series. Those events weighed on the Air Canada Centre crowd. Playoff games felt like regular season games against the disinterested tanking Brooklyn Nets.
Ujiri must have felt it too. It was impossible not to notice. So heading into a very important summer of unrestricted free agency for Lowry, Ibaka, Tucker and the last remaining player from the Kings trade that started the run, Patrick Patterson, Ujiri is saying he has plans for five different scenarios. It seems everything is on the table from re-signing his own free agents, to trading for a major talent (dreams of the Pacers star Paul George), to blowing it all up and going really young or any combination of the above.
Then after drafting the injured small forward OG Anunoby in June, who may or may not be fully healed in time to play next season, the Raptors, with over half of the players on the roster still on their rookie deals heading into the July 2017 free agent / trade season, Ujiri dropped this bomb shell,
“He’s a player we feel has to develop, but we feel will develop quickly,” Ujiri explained about the Anunoby pick. “And if we decide to go younger or another direction, he fits. I think he fits in all scenarios.”
The only way to go younger than where this team is now will be to let Lowry, Ibaka, Tucker and Patterson walk in free agency and then trade All-Star DeMar DeRozan and veteran DeMarre Carroll. In other words, blow it all up and rebuild like the still Lottery-bound Philadelphia 76ers did five years ago. Now that scenario would make the wall the Raptors hit this past year look like the next franchise target to get back to.
The Toronto Raptors did hit a wall this past season and it isn’t going to be easy getting over it. The Cleveland Cavaliers will head into the summer as the prohibitive favorites to get back to the NBA Finals again next year and it’s hard to see what Ujiri could do that would change it.
So far it seems like Ujiri’s only solution has been to keep adding young talent and hoping he finds a player that can make a difference at some point in the future. What he does beyond that this summer will determine if the fans can get over the wall and get excited about this Raptors team for next season.
Stephen Brotherston has covered the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre since 2009 and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.