The thing I love most about the NBA offseason is seeing what everybody gets up to on their summer vacations. Somewhere in between trolling players Instagram accounts and picturing a clandestine reunion of the banana boat crew—in the turquoise waters of the Bahamas at midnight—trades will happen. But with free agency almost over my attention has begrudgingly shifted from beach photos to the state of the Raptors, who aren’t enjoying the water so much as they might soon be taking it on.
With the departure of PJ Tucker and Patrick Patterson, the Raptors roster is left who two pretty sizeable defensive holes.
Picture a boat with two size 15 shoe-shaped holes gouged in the sides, and two more holes for whatever size PJ Tucker’s shoes are. I won’t guess because I only speculate with the facts. Now picture the remaining Raptors roster sitting in the boat. Kyle Lowry is valiantly trying to paddle forward, JV is uncomfortable because he can’t figure out the rhythm of paddling but he’s trying, Bruno is looking forlornly over the side, Carroll is using his hands to bail water and DeMar is tasked with plotting a course for this sinking thing. The point of this vivid, alarmingly reminiscent to Watson and the Shark metaphor is all to say the Raptors aren’t going to be able to focus on what they need this season—a solid on-court rapport between Lowry and Ibaka, giving DeMar the tools he needs to continue down the improved defensive path he was starting on at the end of this past season, and better, more substantial minutes for our rookies—and move forward if they continually have to bail proverbial water, or right a franchise in desperate need of defensive ballast.
Lowry and Ibaka both coming back next season is a gift no Raptor fan was sure they were going to get. That can’t really be overstated. But the loss of Tucker to the Rockets for a paltry (in NBA money) 8 million, and the defensive price we’ll pay for it on the court, makes it seem even more like something management should have coughed up. Beyond that, the confidence Tucker instilled in the team, the hustle and toughness and emphasis on work, turned the tide in games that looked like sure losses later in the season. I remain hopeful that the lessons Tucker brought to Toronto didn’t leave with him, and that DeRozan will step comfortably into his spot as the team’s leader and continue to mature. But I also know the penchant this team can have for becoming human head cases when it counts, instead of getting in front of a bad game and working together.
And as far as glue guys who could bring the team together, Patrick Patterson was always the one quietly supporting however he could. When he was on, he could be counted on to make clutch shots and good, sometimes stealthy defensive decisions. When he was off, well, he still managed to make the team 10 points better per 100 possessions over the last two seasons when he was on the floor. Like Amir Johnson, he could be underappreciated for the subtle alchemy he brought to the team and to city. He wanted to be here. Try to look at this picture and not choke up (a Co-op cab and a Beck Taxi). He’ll do well in OKC, even if it was highway robbery for how cheap they got him, but you can’t think that the Raptors are only facing a defensive deficit—we’re facing a personality one too.
Based on the free agents still available, it seems unlikely that any could be a good fit in Toronto. I’m relieved that walking human hairball Kelly Olynyk has signed with the Heat. I’m all for dumping a bunch of money on thoughtful defense, the team is already into luxury tax so what’s another few mill, but this guy is going the Zaza way and would not have been a fit with Raptors team culture. C.J. Miles, Mareese Speights and Vince Carter’s names were thrown around. Whatever state of disrepair your feelings might still be in over Carter leaving Toronto, you have to admit it would have been cool, though not a long-term solution to the ongoing defensive problem.
Summer League will be a good boost for Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and most dependable man alive, Fred VanVleet. Poeltl and VanVleet showed huge improvement during the playoff stretch and Siakam did a complete 180 with Raptors 905. Norman Powell has reliably come back better every season and while OG Anunoby is a big question mark, he’s still a hopeful one.
Three other big question marks—Cory Joseph, JV, DeMarre Carroll—find themselves in a kind of offseason stasis period. JV and Carroll are both being shopped around with Joseph to sweeten any potential deal. Valančiūnas has always been frustrating because he improves during each regular season and then basically gets body snatched in the playoffs. So with fine tuning and management showing him some confidence, JV could certainly help in making next season’s defensive strategy less bleak, but he really needs a plan.
I don’t begrudge Ujiri his job this summer, and he’s always managed to work magic in desperate times, but without a better defensive look the Raptors will be floundering at the start of next season. I hate to go pure Popovich but good defense is like one big banana boat for the whole entire team. Good defense means not drowning.