When a team has as many question marks as the Raptors do, no one position can be termed as needing critical attention. The poll on the left side of the screen says that the majority of Raptors fans would like to see the team draft a point guard, with the center a distant but notable priority. You can’t go wrong either way, both are amongst the needs of this team as it tries to climb it’s way out of a rut that feels like it started decades ago. And this summer will, as have all the others, start with expectations beginning with the draft pick. Expectation is the midwife to disappointment. Keeping perspective in a rebuilding situation is very difficult and I find that I need to remind myself that whatever happens in the draft, or in the summer that follows, the results on the court next year are unlikely to change.
The equation is simple enough. Teams are loading up in the Eastern conference and playoff contention is harder than it has ever been, it’s not that there are great teams in the East, it’s that there are enough mediocre ones who happen to be better than the Raptors. If playoff basketball is the short-term goal, the question to be asked is what can be done to move ahead of the likes of Indiana, Milwaukee, Charlotte and Philadelphia. And honestly speaking, is playoff basketball the short-term goal or is the consistent form of it the ultimate goal for a franchise like Toronto? The teams seen as the Raptors’ “peers” have similar issues as them, they usually have one good, above-average, potentially All-Star quality player surrounded by a mediocre group of guys who try to claw their way into the playoffs, knowing very well that they’re going to get their asses handed to them come the post-season. They’re not exactly attractive NBA markets and will always be considered second-best in a race to sign a big name free-agent.
Contenders in this day and age are not formed by harvesting draft picks and turning them into All-Stars who lead you to glory, gone are the days of Jordan and Pippen, Malone and Stockton, Thomas and Dumars, shining examples of teams investing in the draft, growing through disastrous years, mediocre seasons, heartbreaking playoff campaigns, before reaching true contention. Contenders are now formed through amalgamation of existing All-Stars, not nurture. I’m not suggesting that it is impossible to contend for a title using the old formula of breeding your draft picks into high-quality NBA players, and then topping it off with key well-placed free-agent signings, it just happens to be increasingly rare. Oklahoma City could be the only current example of going that route, everyone else has bought their title credentials on the market.
The odds are that without splashing into the free-agent market, a team will always be stuck in mediocrity, an example would be the Atlanta Hawks. Not that it’s a concern for the Raptors right now, they’re at the bottom of the barrel and anything is an improvement. I tell myself that we’ll have the conversation of signing a big-name free agent when the time comes, until then we’ll just clean house and make the situation attractive enough for that all-important free-agent to seriously look at Toronto as a place where there success can be achieved. To be in such a position, though, a team needs a magnet that will attract talent. It doesn’t even have to be a great W-L record, it needs a player that can capture the imagination of his peers and intrigue them about the possibility of playing with him.
Look no further than the Bulls, in two years of .500 ball, Derrick Rose put the Bulls in a position where any free-agent would covet playing with him. The Knicks signed Amare Stoudamire which led to the trade for Carmelo Anthony, we already know about Miami, before Boston began its run, they had Paul Pierce as the main cog in their wheel, Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, Dwight Howard in Orlando and so on. As of today, the Raptors lack that player and the chief hope is that DeMar DeRozan turns into that kind of player. Based on his first two years, superstardom doesn’t appear to be in his forecast, maybe an All-Star like Joe Johnson or a good solid player like Jason Richardson is what a betting man would lean towards. This is why I was hoping the Raptors would score in the lottery, to have a chance at injecting the team with that player that has been missing since Vince Carter, one who would not only improve the product on the court, but more importantly, one would excite and entice others to join him because that is what is ultimately important.
Going back to the start of this 2:38 AM post, my expectations of this franchise have never been high. Never have I seriously talked myself into believing that we are title hopefuls or that the people running this organization are aiming for a championship. I don’t even hold it against them, they’re just hoping to get lucky and strike gold, much like every other mid-market NBA team. Cleveland felt the joy with LeBron for a few seasons until reality hit them hard, we did the same with Vince for a couple years, it’s all about getting a couple players and riding a few winning seasons out of them. For the Raptors, they have a player in DeRozan that will sufficiently provide the illusion of growth to the starved fans of the club, the reality on the ground is harsher: mediocrity breeds complacency and unless the Raptors strike gold in one of these drafts, all every season will amount to is fighting for the eighth seed.
The rebuild that is going on is happening in good faith, I have no doubts about that, my fear is that the Raptors are investing in known entities. Maybe it’s the Drambuie and Lime Cordial talking, but I’m thinking that on the heels of the lottery disappointment, the Raptors need to pair DeRozan with a player of equal or greater caliber. Drafting Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter or anybody else and chugging along on the rebuilding train is the easiest (and maybe even the best) thing to do, and it appears the board is also sold in it, there is a way however that this process can be accelerated: find a way to get someone like Tyreke Evans out of Sacramento, where the team is bleeding money and the ownership and location is in question (umm, get ‘er done BC?). The win-expectation for next year won’t necessarily change, what will happen is that the Raptors will have a shot at having a legitimate one-two punch. Of course, making such a move would have been a whole lot easier if the Raptors had the second or even the third pick. As it stands, Colangelo has an early decision to make – use the pick to make this team even younger or flip it to complement DeRozan.