Well, the end-of-season articles started early this year, and after a valiant effort Sunday at the ACC, the campaign can be officially eulogized. With the final buzzer sounding, it’s difficult to avoid the thought that we’ve seen the last of the current core as constructed, with Ujiri adamant that ownership will only pay a heavy tax if they deem the roster good enough to contend for the championship. And as good an era as this has been, that aspiration always seemed to elude the North.
So what have we learned this year?
A Tale of Two Stars
A man that appears forever-bound to remain a polarizing figure among Raptor fans is DeMar DeRozan. Mr. Toronto once again flashed his playmaking with 8 assists in game 4 against the Cavs, but also forced his game a number of times when things didn’t go his way. Still, it’s important to remember the Cavaliers zeroed in on him as the key to beating the Raptors whether Lowry was in the lineup or not – he has earned that level of respect for a reason. The lack of a 3-point shot remains his Achilles-heel in the postseason, and forces Ujiri to construct the team with 3-4 defensively-capable shooters on the floor beside him at all times if DeMar is to remain the franchise’s cornerstone. A problematic proposition, though not an impossible one.
Completing the bromance is Toronto’s other 3-time All-Star. Kyle Lowry once again looked like a top-15 player in the NBA in stretches during the regular season; he once again headed into the playoffs hobbled and injured; he once again played below the level expected of a star in the postseason.
The unfortunate fact – Lowry never brought KLOE to the playoffs consistently these last four years. He showed up in spurts, contributed in any way he could, but ultimately not to the quality that’s required if the Raptors are to take it to the next level. His partnership with DeRozan has brought us many amusing moments off the court, and a host of magical plays on it. But rarely did that happen in the postseason. With DeRozan looking like a Raptors lifer, the potential breakup of the current core likely means an exit for Lowry this offseason.
The Storm is Over, Lithuanian Lightning is No More
Jonas Valanciunas came to the NBA at the wrong time, the melancholy dusk of the era of the traditional big. We should have seen it coming with the disappearance of Dwight Howard, with Cousins and the Gasol brothers developing reliable three point shots, and with Karl-Anthony Towns winning the All-Star skills contest. Exceptions still exist – namely the likes of Gobert, Drummond and Jordan. But the physical non-shooting centers become unplayable in key fourth quarter stretches, whether they are important defensive anchors or not.
As a center in the modern NBA, if you don’t bring shooting at that position, you need to bring defensive-anchor capabilities. Without explosive athleticism, that means being quick-footed enough and possess ample defensive awareness to stick with guards on pick and rolls, make the right reads, and communicate forcefully from the backline. Sadly, Valanciunas brings none of those qualities, checking only the size and rebounding boxes. Can the Raptors go far in the playoffs with him as a key performer? Though he wasn’t the worst offender in the Cavs series, the answer appears to be negative. As friendly as the contract is, nearly every team has tried to target him on pick and rolls in the last few seasons, and they are all aware of his weaknesses – while not as bad as Carroll’s, it will not be an easy contract to move.
The February Epinephrine Dose
Boy oh boy, can Serge Ibaka be a difference maker at times. And a lethargic black hole at others. Seeing the confusion on his face after defensive breakdowns makes me think the lack of training camp familiarity with the squad was a massive hindrance to what this blocking-machine can bring to the table. As inconsistent as he has been in the postseason, it’s difficult to see the Raptors bring in anyone else of comparable quality, so if tanking is not on the agenda, Serge needs to be resigned.
The other half of Ujiri’s mid-season splash played the best game he could have against the Cavaliers in game 4. P.J. Tucker showed fight, high basketball IQ and enough positives to be a prime candidate for returning next fall. It’s too bad he didn’t get a chance to start earlier in the series, but let’s be honest – would it really have made up the massive gulf between the teams in each of the losses? Even with his stellar defense, LeBron’s stat line remained monstrously efficient. Still, if it was up to me, this man gets a 12:01 call July 1.
The Role Player RollerCoaster Tycoon
Ontario-native Cory Joseph had a forgettable regular season except when drawing the start for the injured Lowry. The story was repeated in the playoffs – Cory proved mostly inconsequential off the bench, but performed admirably as a starter. Unfortunately, he remains a flawed option as a legitimate starter next to DeRozan due to an unreliable three point shot.
With Lowry’s offseason status up in the air and Wright’s emergence, it’s difficult to know what CoJo’s role will be next year. But I’m certain there will be plenty of demand for his services in a trade if need be.
Meanwhile, in as fair a representation of the ups and downs of Toronto’s role players stands the tale of Patrick Patterson: from the third most important player in Dwane Casey’s rotation to averaging fewer than 20 minutes per contest in this season’s playoffs, a far cry from the 26.5+ he has been averaging in each of the last 3 postseasons. One cannot avoid the fact that he brought it on himself though, hesitating and missing open shots at every turn.
Patrick proved to be unusable as the lone big man in ultra-small lineups, being unable to secure rebounds consistently. Whichever way Toronto’s management steers the ship, Patman appears to have played his last game for the club. Hopefully the history books will remember him as one of the cogs that turned the Raptors’ fortunes around in 2013, and not as the tentative non-factor that wore his jersey in the 2017 playoffs.
The deepest plunge yet belongs to a man who has seen nothing but an unending drop since his two peak years in Georgia – one DeMarre Carroll. It brings me no joy to see his career fizzle out slowly over the course of the last two seasons. It appears to be an especially-difficult contract to move in the offseason, though could become a bit more attractive as an expiring the following year. In terms of basketball contribution, expectations will be non-existent.
There Is A Future
Norman Powell still needs to work on his decision making and smooth out his shooting stroke, but once again showed he needs to be in the rotation for the Raps to have success. Most definitely one of the building blocks going forward.
Delon Wright showed flashes, but still needs to develop a three point shot to be efficient offensively, as well as prove he can stick with quicker guards on defense. A lot to like about him, and I was surprised he did not get much of a chance against Cleveland.
Jakob Poeltl is an intriguing prospect – he looks unimposing at first glance, but has proved to be quick-footed, disruptive with his hands, and defensively aware. If he can become a respectable shooting threat, the young man very much figures to be in the team’s plans in the coming decade.
The Boulder That Never Cracked
Dwane Casey has done many things right throughout his Raptors tenure, establishing himself as a more-than-legitimate NBA head coach. He and Ujiri have combined to change the culture of the Raptors – despite two sweeps in the last two postseasons, Toronto has become a winning team. The fact that we the fans have been able to talk ourselves into challenging the most dominant player of the generation this season is a testament to the transformation our Canadian franchise has experienced. That the club has grown from the league’s laughing stock to a second-round mainstay without a top 15 player is a testament to Dwane Casey’s efforts.
However, the fact that the Raptors have looked essentially lost on offense in every single postseason since he has been in charge looms large over his tenure, and if he ends up getting the axe, that flaw will likely have proved his downfall.
The Big Picture
At the end of the day, with the playoff bracket set as it was, the chips fell where most presumed they would (though few had a sweep in mind, and I foolishly called for the Raptors to progress), and Ujiri’s evaluation period regarding the key cogs of this era has likely come to its conclusion. It wasn’t always pretty (understatement), but this team gave us the hope of victory each and every night they came to play. And I for one, am thankful to have experienced it. We witnessed a squad unite around two talented and determined but imperfect players that willed themselves to become legitimate All-Stars, and their franchise to two straight 50+ win seasons.
Where do we go from here? We The North don’t have to worry about testing the free-agent market ourselves, our loyalties are known. And so we’ll discuss, demand and hope for a better future as we always have. We’ll be back next season, and I’m excited to see what will be in store.