The Toronto Raptors have been building to this for some time. That it’s going the way it has is disappointing, frustrating, and a little depressing. The entire process, however, has been and continues to be entirely necessary and worthwhile.
Three years ago, the Raptors famously got good more or less by accident. The ouster of Andrea Bargnani proved to be addition by subtraction, dealing Rudy Gay relieved the weight of the prior era off the shoulders of the franchise, and a fateful non-trade of Kyle Lowry set the stage for the Raptors to discover a strange, inexplicable chemistry. What followed was among the best six-month stretches in this city’s recent sports history: Not only did the Raptors get good but, at a time when every other major team in Toronto was as moribund as the Raptors had been for years, they captured the city. The team pulled ahead the We The North marketing campaign, a rousing success, and the fan base – die-hards still sticking with the team from the hard times, relapsed fans coming back into the fold, and a wave of new, young, excited bodies letting their hearts be captured for the first time – all bought in. The Raptors lost in seven games to the Brooklyn Nets that year, and it was among the best defeats you could ask for, however heartbreaking. The Raptors were good again, and the stage was set for the next few years.
Fast-forward to now, and the goalposts have shifted significantly. The growth of the franchise, in real and reputational terms, has been incredible. Once a laughing stock best encapsulated by the inflatable Raptor falling down the Air Canada Centre stairs on rollerblades, the Raptors are mentioned in a similar breath as the San Antonio Spurs, their stars representing USA Basketball, their front office lauded, their ranks constantly under the threat of poaching. In the process of that growth, moral victories have become extinct, and the pleasure in just being there has dissipated. That’s what’s supposed to happen, inside the organization and out: Once you’ve established that you belong at the table, simply being there isn’t a goal to accomplish in and of itself.
That’s put the Raptors in a somewhat difficult position over the last two years. Last postseason, the Raptors finally rid themselves of some serious historical demons, finally winning a seven-game playoff series, then advancing past the second round for the first time ever. That they were mostly pasted by the Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t matter, especially since the Raptors managed to take two games in the series. They had once again ascended to a new level, and in doing so, the scale by which they’d be measured moving forward changed. In changing that scale, the Raptors now face a different question. It’s no longer about whether the Raptors are good – they are – but about whether they’re good enough and, if they’re not, how they get to that point. Masai Ujiri and company kept the core together, re-signed DeMar DeRozan to a near-max contract, and fortified with the additions of P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka. The team looked at itself and believed enough to take a second run at LeBron James and company.
They shot their shot.
And they should absolutely be commended for that, even if the results don’t end up as they hoped. Getting to the Eastern Conference Finals, failing, and hitting the reset button was an option, but it wasn’t really a palatable one. Not without taking another swing at it. Too much organizational equity had been built to revert to being a bottom-feeder so quickly, there was too much risk of losing momentum, and there was (and is) a really strong case to be made for keeping yourself in a position to strike if the balance of power somehow changes, by way of injury or inability to flip a switch or whatever. It’s how the Dallas Mavericks won a championship, basically. It’s also how the mid-2000s Atlanta Hawks or the current “Raptors West” Los Angeles Clippers wind up on the proverbial treadmill, but it’s not a bad place to be in, especially when the franchise has lived the untenable alternatives for the two decades prior. It’s not a place you can reside permanently, but it’s a place you can stomach living in only your fourth year of being good.
But while the Raptors were measuring themselves and trying to draw closer to the Cavaliers, the Cavaliers did the most painful thing they possibly could: They didn’t think about the Raptors at all. Remember when the Raptors evened the series at 2-2 a year ago and James refused to call that an adverse situation? Well, he’s spent the first two games here toying with the Raptors, apparently perturbed that they had the audacity to think they could challenge him. The Raptors are talking up pulling off the upset and the Cavaliers are telling Kyle Korver about the benefits of sweeping teams early for time off, while James spins a basketball in his hands, feign drinks a beer, and throws down off-window alley-oops. They respect the Raptors enough to come out and assert their dominance, but not enough to, you know, actually respect them as a threat.
The issue with trying to close the gap with the Cavaliers is that, the closer you get, the further the Cavaliers can pull away. James is a transcendent, once-in-a-lifetime talent, and the core that’s been built around him is perfectly complementary, at least on the offensive end. The East gets derided for being bad and not giving James a true challenge, but James might be the best basketball player of all time, which confuses the measurement. The Raptors were the biggest threat to Cleveland a year ago, got better, appeared to be an even bigger threat on paper this year, and it hasn’t mattered much at all. That’s on James as much as it’s on the Raptors, and while some will point and laugh at the Raptors ever thinking they almost had the Cavaliers when they never had their car, they didn’t have much choice but to talk themselves into it. (And neither did fans, or analysts inside the city and nationally in the U.S., because the idea of inevitability is a terrible thing to have to accept and the idea this could actually be a challenge made the Raptors, the East, and LeBron James himself all more interesting in theory.)
Again, that’s kind of depressing. But so, too, would have been not trying. Hard things are hard, and the jump the Raptors are now trying to make is the most difficult in sports. Growing from bad to average and average to good are much, much easier steps, and they’re important ones that not everyone successfully manages. The move from that level to being a legitimate contender is arduous, but once you get to the doorstep, simply walking away because it’s locked and trying again a few years down the line isn’t really palatable, either. What if the additions of Tucker and Ibaka worked? What if Lowry and DeRozan played at their absolute peak in a series? What if, and I would never want this but, James got hurt and the window to the NBA Finals suddenly opened up? All of these questions were ones the Raptors have allowed themselves the chance to answer (or be in a position to answer), and if you look around the league, those opportunities are rare.
That’s not to say this year is a rousing success or anything. Repeating last year is a nice step for the franchise in terms of sustaining a winning level of play, and being knocked out, if they are, in the second round isn’t really a meaningful step back since Cleveland, not the playoffs as a whole, are the barometer. That the Raptors shot their shot and are in the process of coming up very short is concerning, and they’ll face some difficult decisions this offseason if the series continues on its course. The reality with James – and the Warriors in the West – is that this is a bit of a Sisyphus situation. The Raptors have been tasked with pushing this giant boulder of mediocrity up a hill, and once they get there, James either kicks it back down the mountain or, even worse, decides to extend the peak even higher (he shouldn’t be able to do that, but with James all things are possible).
The thing is, the journey matters a ton, frustrating though it grows as each year and each meme passes. The work put in, the moments along the way, the entire ordeal of getting good and then trying to find ways to be even better, it’s all rewarding, important stuff. I can’t tell anyone else how to be a fan (or, alternatively, how to cover a team), but I can’t subscribe to the “championship or bust” mentality. I’d be surprised if an organization can, too, especially one in a sports market like Toronto where it’s too easy to fall out of sight and out of mind without sustained success. There is a ton of enjoyable, meaty gray between tanking and winning a title, and there are absolutely no assurances that the former will lead to the latter. If that’s your approach, I can’t fault you. Personally, there’s too much time and emotion invested to hope on not taking a shot. There have been two years in my life where the Raptors were about the only thing that kept me going, for reasons I’ll spare you. One was one of the worst years in franchise history, the other was last season. I can safely say I preferred last year, when the concerns were about what the Raptors could do to be even better rather than what the Raptors could do to sneak into the playoffs or, in some years, what they could do to intentionally be worse. That it’s in the process of failing is disappointing, but I’d rather weigh in and lose than not wrestle at all.
At the end of this series, I’ll leave The Raptor at the foot of LeBron James Mountain. The Raptors might opt to go in a different direction, having judged this core as insufficient to push that boulder one more time and expect another result at the top. Those are columns for after the series actually ends, and I’ll almost certainly lean in the “Okay, you tried, it didn’t work, LeBron is still LeBron, and it’s time to deeply reevaluate the approach” direction. You don’t get to a higher level than this without more talent, there’s no means of adding more of that talent, and this same process of taking your shot will only be rewarding for so long. That won’t change that the Raptors making an honest effort of it was worthwhile, or that they shouldn’t have tried. The struggle itself toward LeBron is enough to fill a man’s heart, or something. They’ll go about retooling or rebuilding or whatever they decide, and they’ll hope to find themselves back in this position again down the line. One always finds one’s burden again, and all that.
For now, I imagine The Raptor happy.