I will admit it. I’m not nearly as thrilled about the Raptors’ recent success as most Raptor fans are. That’s not to say I’m not happy to see the recent development of Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross. Or the rise of DeMar DeRozan into an All Star-worthy player. Or the all around game that Kyle Lowry has been displaying. That’s all great. But at this point, I’m more interested in the big picture. You need to walk before you can run, but you need to have the right legs to run really fast.
1. Muhammad was never considered to be on the same level, as a prospect, as any of the top players in this draft, and his play at UCLA paled in comparison to Wiggins, Parker or Randle. Harrison Barnes was another much-hyped prospect that didn’t live up to expectations, but those expectations were lowered due to not living up to expectations at North Carolina. And like Muhammad, Barnes’ play doesn’t compare to the top prospects for 2014.
Even before the season started, I was gearing up for the big tank/rebuild/development year and was really looking forward to getting one of the top picks in what pretty much every scout and executive say will be a draft for the ages (Wiggins may be the biggest prize for Raptor fans, but it’s a tossup right now between four or five players for who will end up being the top pick). Those fans who point to players like Shabazz Muhammad as guys who were hyped early but didn’t pan out as a reason not to expect too much from this draft need to do a little more research before making that argument1.
With the win against Indiana, on the first of January, the Raptors reached .500 in January for the first time since 2010, when Chris Bosh was still a Raptor and Hedo Turkoglu was still shilling for Pizza, Pizza. After the win against Indiana, the team with the NBA’s best record, hopes were higher in Toronto than they’d been in years. Fans were not only talking playoffs, but actually winning a playoff series or two.
2. The Knicks also beat Miami last night by 10. And there are few teams as dysfunctional as the New York Knicks. None one of their top three scorers play an ounce of defense and have no idea of the difference between a good shot and a bad one. Despite this, all five experts over at ESPN 5-on-5 predicted the Knicks would make the playoffs, mostly because the East is just awful.
Keep in mind, though, the same week Toronto beat Indiana, the Knicks beat San Antonio and Brooklyn beat Oklahoma. And Sacramento beat Miami the week before and then went out and beat Portland the week after2. Any team can beat any other team in the NBA at any given time. That’s why the playoffs are seven game series. So the NBA can give the best team the best chance to come out on top.
3. Everyone loves an underdog, but underdogs rarely win in the NBA. The scrappy team without “stars” have won exactly once in the NBA’s 64 year history. And it’s difficult to call the the 2004 Detroit Pistons as a team without stars. Ben Wallace won an NBA record four Defensive Player of the Year awards and Chauncey Billups was one of the best clutch performers of his generation.
When you have to win four times out of seven, it takes away the possibility the underdog will prevail. The NBA playoffs isn’t the NCAAs.3
And while basketball is a team game, in the playoffs, the team lead by the most talented players tend to win. That’s why most NBA Champions have, at least, one top ten player on the roster. Last season’s Denver Nuggets were a regular season darling that inspired countless articles talking about how their style of play will revolutionize the game. But when the playoffs hit, they failed to advance past the first round against a team that featured a coming of age performance for All-World point guard, Stephen Curry.
If you don’t win in the playoffs, your regular season success is quickly forgotten. The Nuggets won an NBA franchise best 57 games, last season, but after losing in the first round, again, they lost their best player, in Andre Iguodala, saw their Coach of the Year, George Karl, fired and their GM of the Year leave for Toronto.
While the Nuggets were a good team, they didn’t have that elite player teams generally need to be a contender in the league. Iguodala was a very good player for them, and the only Nugget to ever appear in an All Star game, but he’s never going to be the best player on a title contender, and now he’s gone anyway. Yes, Denver had other reasons for it’s lack of playoff success, but one big one was the simply lacked a player who they could depend on when the going got tough. They didn’t have that franchise player that teams so desperately need.
In fact the Denver Nuggets haven’t made it past the first round since they traded their petulant franchise player, Carmelo Anthony, to New York.
When Masai Ujiri took control of the Denver Nuggets, back in 2010, his first order of business was trading Anthony to the Knicks for a collection of assets featuring Italian sharp-shooter, Danilo Gallinari. When trading away franchise players, teams generally have two choices of how to proceed. Some teams use it as a trigger to blow up a team that was obviously not performing up to expectations (otherwise why would they trade their best player), whereas other teams go the Denver route and try and remain competitive, hoping to either develop, sign or trade for an eventual replacement for their departed franchise player.
While Ujiri was able to keep Denver’s winning percentage above 57% during his tenure, he was never able to acquire an elite player or get his team out of the first round.
Grantland’s Zach Lowe recently wrote an article discussing the situation Denver finds itself in.
It feels like Denver has lost ground in both directions. The Nuggets are no longer an “if everything goes right” title contender, and their potential trade package for a disgruntled star isn’t as appealing as it once was. They risk meandering through the league’s muddled middle, with no clear path out.
That’s the big danger teams like Denver have. Collecting assets only works if you can actually turn them into something. Yes, Houston was able to turn it’s assets into James Harden, but there are only so many times we can point to Houston without realizing they’re the exception, not the rule. And eventually you’ve got to start paying those assets, which makes them a little more difficult to package for a better player.
Ironically, after the Raptors beat the Pistons Wednesday night, they finished the evening with the exact same record as the Denver Nuggets, 17-17. But while the Raptors are sitting with the fourth best record in the East and a fourth seed, the Nuggets are two games behind Dallas for the last playoff spot.
The Raptors’ roster has a similar makeup as the Nuggets last year. They are deep with decent talent, but lacking in elite talent. DeRozan and Lowry are in the All Star conversation, but if either is your best player, or even second best player, then your team will not likely be a contender.
4. There are currently more than 20 teams projected to have cap room this summer, and many of those will be under the cap by more than $10 million. And unless all those players who have player options (LeBron, Carmelo, etc) decide to opt out, there is going to be a lot of money available for not a whole lot of top tier players. Remember what happened the last time lots of teams had cap room? Carlos Boozer got paid $80 million over five years by the Bulls after LeBron, Wade and Bosh rebuffed their offers.
DeRozan is probably making a little more than he should be for a guy who isn’t very good on the defensive end, doesn’t score all that efficiently and doesn’t exactly knock your socks off with anything else he does. And Lowry is going to be an unrestricted free agent this summer. And the best way to get someone overpaid is to make them an unrestricted free agent the summer after a career year and during an offseason when a record number of teams have cap space4. Possibly the only thing worse than overpaying Lowry this summer is losing him for nothing.
The Raptors also have to figure out what they will be doing with Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson this summer. Both will be restricted free agents and the Raptors have to decide whether they want to offer them a qualifying offer allowing them to match any offers they might get, or let them go for nothing.
On the other hand, Amir Johnson’s contract is one of the better deals out there, and both Valanciunas and Ross are on their rookie contract.
These players certainly help the Raptors compete against most teams in the league. If Lowry is re-signed, however, the Raptors will have little cap room to spend, and none if Patterson is brought back or John Salmons’ team option is picked up.
While the Raptors do have some decent talent, any trade for an elite player is probably going to gut the roster, leaving little to actually surround that player with enough talent to compete on a nightly basis. And trading for an elite player is not only difficult, it’s risky. Ujiri traded for Iguodala (who’s not an elite player, but was still the best player on the Nuggets) only to see him leave a year later to a team that beat them in the playoffs. One that already had an elite player.
Denver had made ten consecutive playoff appearances, yet not only couldn’t sign any free agents of note, they had trouble keeping the good players they had. The oft-repeated notion by fans that winning will make players want to come doesn’t seem to be true in reality.
The Raptors are scheduled to have plenty of cap room in the summer of 2015, though, as long as they don’t take any large contracts between then and now. Of course, the team hasn’t had a whole lot of success in the free agent market in the past, and after seeing Dallas and Atlanta strike out time and time again in their failed attempts to reel a big fish, it’s very evident that simply winning isn’t enough.
The Raptors have played so well, recently however, that they might convince some fans that the current roster is good enough. Especially if the players continue to improve and develop. The “internal development” argument is often used when the prospect of outside improvement doesn’t look promising.
The problem is that most of the roster are playing at a career high level. That’s simply not sustainable. There is a mistaken belief that young players always improve. They don’t. Most ebb and flow. Some peak early, some peak late, and some just plug along at the same level throughout their career.
5. While DeRozan has improved, especially passing the ball, his scoring has increased mostly due to the fact he’s taking more shots and playing a career high minutes. His three point percentage has increased only slightly, and is still shooting under 30% for the season from there. He’s also shooting the second worst True Shooting Percentage of his career. And while his defense has improved, he’s still a negative on that end.
That’s not to say that DeRozan isn’t having a good year. He’s scoring more when it matters and hitting tough shots. But he also has shown he should not be a team’s first option, or likely their second option.
Players don’t have unlimited ceilings. Valanciunas and Ross will likely develop more and Valanciunas has the potential to be a very good centre/center. DeRozan still couldn’t improve more, but it’s unlikely those improvements will be very big improvement over last season isn’t as big as many might think5.
And at 27, Lowry is likely playing as well as he ever will. And there is a very big danger that Lowry has peaked during this contract year and could see a decline. Lowry isn’t Mike James, but he certainly wouldn’t be the first player to relax a little after signing a big contract. And that’s assuming he re-signs with the Raptors, which isn’t even close to a sure thing.
While I’m a huge fan of Amir, he is mostly the same player he’s been the last couple of seasons. Players in their 9th year rarely improve much. He’s a good player, but he is what he is.
The team also can’t play much better than they have been. There have been fewer “dud” games since the Rudy Gay trade than most teams have had during that period. Like players, teams peak at different times during the season. Philadelphia surprised everyone with their great start, lost 15 of their next 17 games and have recently won 5 of their last 9 games.
Teams also learn to adjust to players and teams. The Raptors play has surprised a lot of teams, but the Raptors will start facing teams that are better prepared for what they do, now.
You also have to wonder about the minutes and health of DeRozan and Lowry. DeRozan is playing the third most minutes in the league, and his three point shooting has declined steadily since November. DeRozan is not only playing a career high in minutes, he is shouldering the biggest offensive burden, too. Although he has missed few games to injury, throughout his career, there’s a very good chance we’ll see a tired DeRozan struggle more with his shot and defensively as the season wears on.
Lowry plays the same number of minutes as LeBron James and Paul George (tied for 13th best in the league), has only played a full season once in his career, and plays the type of game that puts his body at risk. The likelihood of an injury for Lowry is very good. And while Lowry has his flaws (he still takes far too many bad shots at the worst times), the team cannot take an extended absence from Lowry without struggling.
So much depends on Lowry, not just this season but for the future. They’re fourth in the Conference right now, but both the Nets and Knicks have been playing .500 ball recently and Brooklyn is currently in the 8th spot (a far cry from when they were second worst just a few weeks ago). The Atlantic Division title is not exactly a lock and the Raptors are only a game and a half better than the 6th place Bulls. If the Raptors end up with the 7th or 8th seed, then a drubbing by Indiana or Miami is what would await the Raptors in the playoffs. Hardly the playoff return most fans would have hoped for.
Even if the Raptors are able to hold onto the lead in the Atlantic Division, and get the fourth seed for the playoffs, the future is very unclear. Will Lowry re-sign? If so, will he be worth it and can he sustain his level of play? If not, how can the Raptors replace him?
With the ceiling of this team realistically being a second round team at best, how can Ujiri take the next step? Is there any reason to believe he can do in Toronto what he couldn’t in Denver?
My biggest problem with Ujiri, so far, is that he doesn’t seem to have a real plan. And he doesn’t seem to be a guy who likes to make the tough decisions. Was his plan really to wait and see how the team did before making any decisions? Wasn’t he familiar with the roster before he took the job? And what exactly did he do over the summer?
His indecision certainly hurt the team when he finally decided to trade Gay. Trading Bargnani was an easy decision because so many fans wanted him gone. But trading Gay before the season, when his value was probably much higher, would have been tougher. And smarter.
Ujiri seems to be too easily swayed by things other than what is best for the long term prospects of the team, despite his assurances to the contrary. The Raptors recent success should not have altered Ujiri’s plans, but they seem to have. Lowry will still be a free agent this summer, whether or not the team makes the playoffs.
6. On a recent podcast, Raptors Republic’s own Zarar recently made the statement that finding an elite player high in the draft is easy, and what separates the bad GMs and the good GMs is being able to find the talent later in the draft. Actually, what separates the good GM from the great GM is doing whatever it takes to build a legitimate contender. If that means tanking, then so be it.
The ceiling of the team hasn’t changed despite going 11-5 since trading Gay. They still lack that elite player he knows the teams needs. And he still knows, despite many claims to the contrary, the best way to acquire elite talent is high in the draft6
No GM who has won a title hasn’t made the tough decision, whether it’s trading away a top ten centre/center for a high school player picked 13th in the draft. Or whether it’s refusing to take on or sign any long term contracts for a year or two just to make sure you’ll have enough cap room to sign three max free agents.
Danny Ainge knew there would be backlash when he traded the second longest tenured player in Celtic history, but he broke up a playoff team that included Kevin Garnett because he knew it was best for the team, long term.
Yes, the Raptors team is much younger, but there are no Paul Pierces or Kevin Garnetts on it. And the likelihood of acquiring one gets more difficult, not less difficult, the more they win.
Bryan Colangelo made the mistake of believing he would be able to lure talent to Toronto and was eventually fired for that failure. Saying you will make Toronto a destination and making it happen are two very different things.
The hardest thing for a GM to do is to turn a good team into a great team. The Raptors have the ability to be a good team, but not a great team. They don’t have the potential to become a contender. There are certainly Raptor fans that would be happy with a that, but I’m not one of them. Fans that don’t demand excellence from their team will never get it.
I don’t feel there’s any reason the Raptors can’t become a contender and have a legitimate shot at the NBA Championship. Just not with this roster. Not with this foundation.
The consequence of doing nothing right now might very well be to limit the ceiling of the Raptors for the near future. And I don’t feel it’s worth it considering what the team is right now. A decent team in a very weak conference.
I’m still very hopeful that Ujiri will make the right choices to turn the Raptors into something they’ve never been, but all he’s shown so far is that he can trade away players that the fans don’t like and get a decent return for them. What he needs to do is start making the tough decisions the fans might not agree with in order to give the team the best future they can have.
There are those who won’t like what I’ve written, and that’s your right (just as it’s mine to write it). For those that just want to look on the bright side, let me leave you with this….