LeBron James pointed to the backboard long enough for Kyrie Irving to spot him out of the corner of his eye. The ball left the Cleveland point guard’s hand and ricocheted off the glass before the best player in the NBA slammed it home. There was nothing new about the feat, or the result. The controlled chaos that Raptors fans have become so accustomed to witnessing affirmed a simple truth that was known before the opening tip: Toronto can’t hang.
There were no expectations of an upset, and when Kyle Lowry rolled his ankle and his calendar over to the summer the expectations of competition went out the window as well. The Raptors were beat, easily. That the loss happened in the second round as opposed to the vaulted Eastern Conference Finals added an element of anguish but did nothing more than delay the inevitable. The foe this team was built to beat did not budge when faced with their new challenger.
Now Toronto has some decisions to make. Zach Lowe outlined them brilliantly in his “Toronto Drakes” obituary and the choices are as difficult as they are plentiful. Re-sign Lowry and as many other free agents as you can to make another run? Let everyone walk and try and trade DeRozan for a chance at the lottery? Let just KLOE go but rebuild on the cheap? The choices go on, and so do the headaches.
For a second though, consider how it feels to win. Look back on a four year stretch with averages of 48 wins a season. Recall Atlantic Division banners and Game 7 victories. If the positives don’t work for you, feel free to drum up images of Bargnani, Araujo, Fields and Humphries. Prior to taking over Maple Leaf Square and making hockey an afterthought the Raptors were an obscure Canadian cousin that showed up at barbecues an hour late with nothing to offer and no one to talk to. They just didn’t belong.
Now they do, and in a major way. They have a respected and proven General Manager, the NBA’s 5th leading scorer signed long-term and most importantly, a fervent and knowledgeable fanbase. That fanbase is important to hold on to and regardless of how you feel about bandwagon riders and Toronto’s penchant for birthing them, those fans are what keeps this team alive. Selling hope is not a fruitless enterprise and the Raptors have the chance to become experts at it. Masai Ujiri has placed this team in a unique situation that many owners would salivate over. Toronto is a regular season juggernaut capable of winning playoff series. They are a LeBron James injury or season of decline away from a chance at the NBA Finals and while both of things are set to happen later rather than sooner it’s important to be around for when they do.
That’s why, if nothing else, Toronto needs to stay relative both to their competitors and their fans. Winning begets more winning and Toronto is in danger of losing a lot more than just basketball games. We watched this city turn into hockey-crazed zealots when the Leafs pushed the Capitals to six games. The Jays average 37,989 fans a game despite being 11-20 to start the season. Even Toronto FC averaged 26,583 in attendance last year and 2011 wasn’t far enough back to forget when the Raptors averaged just 16,566 fans a night to finish 19th in league attendance. Regardless of adjusting for arena size the reality is that this is only a basketball city right now.. Vince Carter helped. The All-Star game Helped. Even Drake helped, but winning helped the most.
Challenging LeBron James at the height of his powers may be out of the question for the Raptors or any team in the East for a few more years to come, but it’s damn fun when this city tries.