The second installment in a four-part obituary on the 2013-14 Raptors season.
If you missed the first chapter of the recap, do yourself a solid and check it out here. I covered the front office makeover, the summer months, the preseason and more.
The Toronto Raptors tipped off their season at home against the Boston Celtics.
I was in attendance for that game. It was the first home opener I’ve ever attended. I had caught a handful of Raptors games in the past, mostly capitalizing on cheap ticket deals on Stubhub hours prior to tip-off. I would get the tickets on the cheap (less than $10) because the Raptors were usually out of the playoffs, squaring up against a similarly disillusioned team and because the seats were in the 300-level.
The atmosphere inside of the ACC was usually dead. I wasn’t used to what I was seeing. The crowd was actually excited for a Raptors game. There was a cautious, yet hopeful tinge in the arena.
Admission to the game came courtesy of fearless leader Zarar Siddiqi as a reward for my work with this blog. At the time I was a novice blogger. I started writing about the Toronto Raptors just four months prior. From the start, everything that broke right for me — being invited to join a start-up blog, contributing to reddit’s season previews, joining the Republic — was cherished as a milestone. I still do. The tickets meant a lot to me.
I attended the home opener with a friend who wasn’t really a fan of the Raptors, or basketball in general. I spent most of the game explaining the minutiae of the NBA to him. That’s a pick-and-roll with Amir, he’s really good at that. Here’s Jonas with a post-up. He likes to shot-fake, back down, and shoot a hook from the middle of the lane. The lane is the dotted area inside of the paint. That’s Gay shooting his third long jumper of the first quarter. That’s a bad shot. That official that keeps screwing the Raptors is Tony Brothers. We don’t like him. In fact, we don’t like any official.
As it turned out, there was more that I couldn’t explain, than vice-versa. Why are DeMar and Rudy taking so many jumpshots when they’re not good shooters? I don’t know. Why did they stop running that pick-and-roll play for Amir and Lowry? I don’t know. Who is this Vitor Faverani character, and why does he have 9 points and 2 blocks in the first quarter? Again, I don’t know.
The game was mostly an ugly contest. It was played at a slow pace, mostly from the perimeter. Each team courteously traded missed baskets. It was like watching a college basketball game, only everyone in the arena was on barbiturates. The Raptors eventually pulled away down the stretch. Offensive execution was a premium, but the Raptors were able to eek out more points en route to a 93-87 point victory.
I came out of the game with the impression that the Raptors were definitely the better team. That wasn’t saying much, considering the Celtics sported the likes of Faverani and a physically broken Gerald Wallace in their starting lineup.
It also dawned on me: the tank race to the bottom was going to be tougher than anyone expected. Although the team was flawed and ultimately doomed to dysfunction, the Raptors would need to gut the team entirely to get anywhere near the lottery. If Masai were to pick the road more traveled, he caught a glimpse of the level of ineptitude needed to compete. Perhaps shedding Andrea Bargnani and John Lucas III was a mistake?
Despite their preseason success and home-opener victory, the Raptors quickly lost their footing early on. They followed up wins against bottom feeders in the Celtics and Bucks with loses to the Bobcats and Hawks. To nobody’s surprise, they were also squashed by legitimate title contenders in the Heat and Pacers. It seemed as if everyone’s worst nightmares came true — the Raptors weren’t good, but they also weren’t bad enough to secure a high draft selection. They were on the dreaded treadmill.
Central to the Raptors’ struggles were the woes of their offensive leaders in Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan. They mirrored each other in style and substance. The fanbase’s goodwill towards the roster diminished with every long-two and possession wasted. Both Gay and DeRozan found themselves at the butt end of basketball twitter’s snide group-think. It was maddening that their detached ridicule was on-point.
Every night, Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm and CBS (an excellent blogger and a fantastic twitter follow) published a nightly list of players who had attempted more field goals than points scored. Gay and DeRozan found themselves on the list for well over a month. Their offensive performance is as pictured below:
Fairly or unfairly, the fanbase’s wrath focused more on Gay than DeRozan. Gay’s contract was larger (on a yearly average basis), he was older (and thus less likely to improve), and unlike DeRozan, he wasn’t home-grown. He was the embodiment of Bryan Colangelo’s doomed tenure with the franchise — lots of talent, little performance.
The sentiment seeped into the locker room, which prompted Gay to famously ban boxscores and stat-sheets from the locker room. The blunder backfired, bringing more attention to his struggles, and served as a lightning rod for the fans’ frustrations. Any hope of Gay’s offseason work and eye surgery improving his performance was dashed. Almost everyone wanted him gone.
For Gay, it all came to a head in a mid-Novemeber game in Houston against the Rockets.
The Raptors actually fared rather well, pushing Houston to double-overtime, but they ultimately lost 110-108. Gay actually kept the team alive with a three to tie the game at the end of the first overtime, but once the final buzzer sounded, the focus was on his boxscore line: he shot 11-for-37 from the field.
His shot-chart caught the fancy of basketball twitter, reddit, forums, what have you, and the image of his bloodstained shot-chart was retweeted and favorited until every NBA fan got the message — Gay shoots too much for someone who can’t. It didn’t matter that he was clearly a talented player in a bad situation with the Raptors. The groupthink of NBA fandom, especially the sliver belonging to the Raptors, had made its ruling on Gay.
For the team as a whole, everything came unraveled during a five-game losing streak which included an embarrassing loss at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
Coming into the game, the Raptors had dropped three-straight contests to the Nets (close loss), Heat (to be expected), the Nuggets (they were good to start the season), and were looking to get on-track away from the Air Canada Center crowd, who formed a habit of booing their team off the court. The game in the Oracle provided the perfect cover. It was a late game, they had every excuse to lose, and it was on the road.
The Raptors surprised the Warriors by jumping out to a 17-point lead to end the first half, and stretched it to as much as 27 in the third quarter. It was almost too good to be true. They simply could do no wrong. Every shot was falling, and the “Splash Brothers” in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompshon shot a combined 5-for-16 in the first half. It seemed as if the quiet shelter from the poisonous atmosphere in the ACC was the perfect antidote for the Raptors’ woes. A surefire win against the heavily-favored Warriors would galvanize the team.
Turns out, it was too good to be true. Incredibly, the Raptors squandered a seemingly insurmountable lead in rather humiliating fashion. The Splash Brothers came alive in the fourth quarter like a Foo Fighters track, prompting a Warriors comeback with a 42-15 fourth quarter to capture the win. The turning point came on a steal from Curry, who found an open Thompson in the corner for a three in transition. The shot brought the Warriors to within five, and the crowd to its feet. Golden State eventually emerged victorious with a 112-103 point victory.
In the post-game presser, a jovial Mark Jackson spoke to the media about his team’s win:
The good teams and the great teams they know.
He was right. The Raptors and Warriors were in different leagues, figuratively speaking. If the goal isn’t to become a championship contender like the Warriors, what was even the point?
Rudy Gay was traded five days after the loss to Golden State. Along with Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray, the deal netted Toronto an assortment of spare parts and expiring salary. Nothing particularly of value was coming back. The sense of relief was attributable to Gay’s departure alone. Addition by subtraction and all that.
Unfairly, Gay was painted as the villain. It should have been evident from the Open Gym episode — his teammates loved him. He was struggling, and wanted to win. There was no lack of effort on his part. He simply didn’t play well in the role he was afforded. Thanks to his physical gifts and basketball talents, Gay looks every bit the part of a leading man, but he was always more George Clooney than Brad Pitt. He never seemed out of place in scenes with other established actors, but he could never carry a blockbuster on his own. As one could have expected, Gay’s numbers rebounded in Sacramento, when he was relegated to third option on offense behind DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas.
On the whole, Gay’s tenure failed to move the needle one way or the other. He was not the salvation that Colangelo hoped for. He was the flash-in-the-pan that Colangelo deserved. He was the embodiment of bad process ultimately failing. Although it some of Gay’s moves were successful — extending Calderon, trading for Amir, finding the Anthony Parker types — his process was ultimately flawed. Colangelo was like a chess player who only practiced openings — he was utterly clueless when it came to endgames. Whenever he went all-in, it always backfired. Unfortunately for Gay, he joined the ranks of Bargnani, Shawn Marion, Hedo Turkoglu and Jermaine O’Neal in the dark corners of Raptors lore. Fortunately for the fans, it signaled the end of Colangelo’s failed tenure with the franchise.
In a word, I was jubilant upon learning the news of Gay’s departure.
The news broke at around 6 p.m. on a Sunday. I caught the news on Twitter. Raptors fans and the bloggosphere was alight with glee. Ujiri’s status as “GODGM” cemented for the umpteenth time. As with Bargnani, moving out from under Gay’s gigantic contract was previously thought impossible. In making the move, the Kings were perceived to be spinning their wheels in the mud. The Raptors, on the other hand, cut straight through the mud in their glorious tank, or so the popular sentiment went.
I was in a study hall with a classmate when I got the news. I looked around, made sure no one else was there, and started literally screaming in delight. It was like that scene in the Wizard of Oz. The wicked witch was dead! I paced up and down the hallway outside, jumping in excitement. So much for being an objective and balanced writer. In that moment, I was just a fan.
My relief came not because I wanted the Raptors to tank. If losing was the goal, jettisoning Gay was the wrong jenga piece to pull. Rather, as someone who commits at least one hour of every day to the Raptors, it was tremendously comforting that change had come. At the time, the Raptors’ record stood at 6-12. Something had to be done. It was relief more than anything else.
Gay’s departure put the Raptors at a crossroads.
His absence left a sizeable void in the team and issued a challenge to the likes of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. It was the equivalent of Stringer telling Bodie and Poot to assassinate their childhood friend — they either had to step up, or step off. If they couldn’t get their act together, Lowry was to be the next to go, and DeRozan would be saddled with his fifth consecutive losing season.
No one knew what to expect from the incoming Kings. For those who played fantasy basketball, the addition of Greivis Vasquez was seen as a move for the future in the event of a Lowry trade. Patrick Patterson was a known commodity, something in the mold of Bargnani on a good day. John Salmons was thought as limp salary fodder, while Chuck Hayes was sunk cost.
No one could have predicted their impending turn-around. Don’t tell me as if you
know knew. At the time of the Gay deal, the tanking movement was at its zenith. After waiting impatiently for a quarter of the season, the mass exodus finally came. Fans crashed the ESPN trade machine. We bloggers braced ourselves for impending misery.
Little did we know, it wasn’t an exodus at all. Rather, it was the start of something great.