Not all Raptors fans know this, but their team has traditionally been a very narrative-rich team. They’ve always been a fun team to write about because there was always something _to_ write about.
Well, there used be, anyway. While there is still no shortage of writers offering their opinions on the Raptors’ upcoming season, I defy you to stay awake reading more than a couple of these ‘previews’ (including this one). The Raptors have entered a narrative lull: too consistently good to blow-up and too consistently not-good-enough to win it all. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Lowry and Ibaka re-signed in July, as expected. The team’s biggest free agent import is role player C.J. Miles, and their biggest export was DeMarre Carroll’s contract — neither move has particularly earth-shaking ramifications in terms of on-court play. The same guy is patrolling the sidelines. The same guy is running the front office. The Raptors are still almost assuredly going to finish top-four in the East, and will almost assuredly not reach the NBA Finals, just like the last four years.
In fairness to the Raptors, it would have been hard to make a move that would have garnered much attention in an NBA summer that saw All-Stars traded around like baseball cards while others made a sport of calling out the U.S. president. Still, even within this tempest of an offseason, the Raptors flew well above the storm. That’s been the calming influence of Masai Ujiri’s entire tenure as the head of the organization. Nothing mind-blowing happens (at least not since he got a lottery pick for Andrea Bargnani), just steady, solid stewardship of a highly-functional team that is still trying to find a way to the top without bottoming-out first.
To that end, Ujiri did a commendable job this summer. The highlight was managing to get Lowry and Ibaka back on three-year deals, as opposed to the four or five year pacts that Lowry, at least, was expected to command. Ujiri read the market and saw the he had a ton of negotiating power that many — including Lowry — did not anticipate that he would have when free agency rolled around. Ibaka‘ s deal was pretty “wink-wink complete” before the trade from Orlando, but getting Lowry that far from the max would have been unthinkable when the Raptors were swept out of the Playoffs in early May. For a team that needs to remain flexible in order to have a shot at crashing the NBA Finals in the next couple of years, those deals were a godsend to Toronto’s cap sheet.
The Carroll-Joseph-Miles-Wright situation, and how it affects the team, is really wholly dependent on the mythical new offense that is supposedly in the offing for the Raptors this season. There has been a lot of waffling on exactly how extreme this is going to be from the powers that be, but the intention is that the ball will move more and, presumably, the players without the ball will move more, too.
I’m always skeptical when a team brings bring their coaching staff and core players and says that a new offense is coming. Breaking habits is terrifically hard. Keep in mind, for all of the aesthetic unpleasantness (and Playoff ugliness), the Raptors were a top-six offense in the regular season last year, powered by an abundance of iso-ball from Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. These are two players that have become All-Stars and Olympic gold medalists playing a certain way for the Raptors, and they’ve won a lot of games doing it. The hard part about installing a new offense is that when things get tough, or when a game feels uncomfortable, as a player it is only natural to revert back to what has worked. You can’t even really fault either Lowry or DeRozan if that happens this season. They’ve spent the last five years designing their games to play a certain way, and while it sounds nice to tell them to stop isolating the ball so much, if that’s what they do best (and it is) and they have had success doing it (which they have), switching off the instinct to go one-on-one won’t be as easy as spending two weeks in training camp drilling a new offensive scheme.
One thing that might have helped is if the Raptors could start Ibaka at centre to open up the court, changing up the defense the Lowry and DeRozan see on drives, but the Raptors lost their two best forwards in free agency this summer (Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker) and didn’t replace them with equally adept variants. Sure, you could start Ibaka at centre, but if you play Pascal Siakam next to him in the starting five, you get the same net effect on offense as if you just leave the post-bound Jonas Valanciunas standing under the basket. Defenses will shrink, Lowry and DeRozan will see the same coverages as always, and their instincts will kick in and they’ll be doing the same things they’ve always done to be successful in the past and that will be that. Breaking habits is hard, but it’s fantastically harder when the environment that incubated those habits remains exactly the same.
Of course, maybe this is the year DeMar DeRozan shoots the three consistently…..
That’s why it’s hard to evaluate the nips and tucks on the fringes of the roster. Miles is meant to space the floor more consistently than Carroll, which he may do. However, if the offense does change, we don’t yet know what kind of looks he’s going to get, nor how frequently he’s going to get them.
Something similar could be said about Delon Wright inheriting Joseph’s backup minutes. He’s been productive in that spot in the past, but it’s hard to say going forward exactly how the Raptors plan to deploy him. It’s one thing to run schemes designed for other people, it’s another thing to have schemes designed with you in mind. Either way, Miles and Wright aren’t tipping the scales of the season one way or the other, and it’s probably just best to assume a lateral move from last year’s guys to this year’s guys.
The truth is, the Raptors are in a stasis mode. They aren’t expected to suddenly be better this year, that would be a ludicrous assumption given that they’ve shed quality players and replaced them with whatever youngsters they had lying around (the youngsters are good, fine, but still have a lot to prove). What Ujiri is doing is keeping the team competitive while he waits to see if a chance comes along to make the team meaningfully better. One thing this summer should have taught everyone is the value of stability as an organization. Players are getting wise to the game. They know a chaotic situation when they see one. Stability has value now. Consistency has value. Teams that have demonstrated a willingness to win have value to good players looking to improve their situation. It’s still up to Ujiri to cash in on that scenario, but he’s keeping his roster flexible to do just that in the years ahead.
The Raptors have been bad many many times and that has never turned them into world-beaters, so taking the alternate route of trying to be good while they figure things out is wonderfully refreshing. Giving viewers and attendees value for the money and time they are investing in the team is likewise invigorating. Does it also make the team somewhat narratively bereft? Sure. But after so many years of interesting narratives trying to find value in a valueless team, I’m happy that this fanbase is getting a steady diet of Playoffs and winning basketball, even if that may not be that interesting for me to write about.