It’s Sunday, the weekend’s winding down, and we’re smack dab in the middle of a three-day break. It’s moments like these that call for a deep breath. In other words: a deep dive into the grand scheme of things.
For starters, how bout a little local perspective. Note: I fully realize that this community spreads far outside the city of Toronto, but also considering how hardcore this community is, something tells me the following will be relatable no matter where you reside.
Now, it may seem trivial to some (mainly if your fandom is new), but as far as where the Raptors rank in Toronto’s sports scene, oh, it matters. Especially to those who have been around since the Raps suited up on the Sky Dome floor. And what’s the verdict, you ask? Well, this might be a good time to pour that Sunday morning cup of coffee.
Needless to say, it’s a conversation that has many layers. In the forefront, though (at least in my mind), is just how much this team’s spot in the city’s hierarchy has evolved. To paraphrase a line from the movie Steve Jobs: “Coach now arrives on the runway at the exact same time as first class.”
If you haven’t followed this squad since its inception, I’m referring to the shift in fandom from years past. Better yet, the historical precedence of the Raps playing third-fiddle to the Leafs and Jays has essentially become history in itself. I’ll never forget those Sky Dome glory days, though, even if in this case the definition of “glory” might be in the eye of the beholder.
As for the reasons behind the shift, here’s my personal list. Feel free to agree, disagree or add to the discussion with something I’ve overlooked. Like I eluded to before, this topic tends to take on a life of its own:
1. With the influx of the younger generation’s overwhelming level of enthusiasm, the Raps have soared to an even playing field. Just an FYI to cable companies: Those “rating shares” don’t exactly paint a proper picture these days. I mean, how many people are currently loading up their cord-cutting alternative as we speak?
2. Staying with the new generation (but it’s also a way of life that’s creeping into the older crowd as well), the fact that a single NBA game only takes up 2 hours and 30 minutes of a person’s time, fits right in with the way attention spans wants to consume it. For example, I wrote this article on a desktop but how many people are actually reading it on one? And while NBA Social Media is a highly entertaining force on its own (most of the time), it only makes sense that the shortest sport going has become part of pop culture’s elite.
3. The rise (slowly but surely) of Raptors 905. Not only has the D/G-League played an important role in grooming much of the Raps’ roster, it also offers something tangible fans can sink their teeth into when it comes to minor league affiliates — a face to the future, if you will. Sure, the Leafs have the Marlies to serve that purpose, but the birth of 905 couldn’t have come at a better time in order to capitalize on the Dino’s spiking popularity.
4. Last but certainly not least, the Raps took full advantage of becoming successful (even if luck played a part) when other options continued to scuffle. With the business side of all five Toronto teams currently booming at optimum levels, it’s easy to forget how the Raps were recently the only franchise keeping this city relevant in the sports world conversation. Alright, the Argos still need to rebuild their brand but winning the whole damn thing cuts them some slack.
However, can there be a conversation about Toronto’s sports scene without a few flip sides? The answers to that question are a) Hell and b) No.
With that said, the Raps’ status in this city is rather unique. Cause along with the shift in mainstream love, there’s also been an uptick in dissension among this fan base that has come along for the ride. When compared to the rest, it’s really not even close, albeit it’s probably just the nature of the beast. Hear me out:
When a franchise loses for so long, fans are just happy to cheer for something again. And I’m betting that most Leafs fans remain in homer mode for the foreseeable future, as most aren’t exactly ready to hold players accountable for any extended stretch of poor play. The success is too fresh.
In addition, when a franchise is relatively speaking “the new kid on the block”, one that will forever battle a three-headed monster for attention (yes, I understand TFC has a cult-like following), there’s little room for a negative narrative. And at the other end of the spectrum (AKA: The Argos), a consistent audience (not just people who threw a Grey Cup Party) is needed before it can even enter the discussion either way.
The Jays are the closest thing to the Raps in this scenario. Their recent success called for one and all to hop on a bandwagon where criticism was few and far between. But once cracks in their short-lived resurgence began to surface, and then manifested into failure, that bandwagon took on a whole new meaning. It’s a domino effect that no team is immune from.
The good news is that even though the Cavs and Celtics represent another uphill climb for the Raps to surpass what they’ve already accomplished, they’re built with longevity in mind. On the other hand, there is a line fans tend to draw in the sand. A team can only exist in a league’s top tier for so long until that aforementioned dissension turns into overwhelming demands. Becoming somewhat stagnant has its ups and downs. Case in point: the Raps current way of life. Toronto is no different than any other major sports town, though, so I’ll let a White Men Can’t Jump quote sum up that familiar cluster you-know-what:
“Sometimes when you win, you really lose. And sometimes when you lose, you really win. And sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie. And sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose.”
Indeed, Gloria, indeed. Perhaps one day we’ll all be able to “hear Jimi.”
Still, how bout an outside the box exercise? As a number of events represent what could have been. Realistically speaking, this team could have looked a hell of a lot different right about now, for better or for worse. Let’s indulge in that butterfly effect, shall we. Again, feel free to add anything I’ve overlooked. There’s plenty of alternate universes out there.
In order of impact:
1. The fact that Kyle Lowry was a last minute decision away (James Dolan) from becoming a New York Knick. And with Bargnani’s contract unloaded on the same organization who passed on T.O.’s future leader, talk about a couple game-changing moments.
2. We don’t know the details in terms of just how plausible either storyline was, but the potential impact of each makes the list by default. I don’t think anyone would consider Marc Stein as anything less than a credible source so those 2013 trade rumours that involved Eric Bledsoe coming in return could have changed the entire vibe of this organization. One also has to think that DeRozan jumping ship in Free Agency was more than just a possibility.
Word had it that it was the Clippers who turned down that trade so I can’t exactly commend Masai for his restraint, but on the other hand, DeRozan’s decision to stay put and see things through in an era of “super teams or bust” can and should be applauded. Well, at least until $28 Million a year reminds me not to go overboard.
3. The trade that sparked the movement. Masai didn’t intend to build a new foundation so quickly, so he likely would have made that Sacramento deal regrardless. But what if he didn’t pull the trigger? The margin between a new-found identity and a complete tear down was slim at best.
4. Just think, where would OG Anunoby be right now if he didn’t tear his ACL in college? The slept on Kyle Kuzma would have still been on the board, but it’s safe to say that divine intervention had the Raps best interests in mind on draft night.
5. Delon Wright vs. Bobby Portis. At the time, and perhaps there’s still some who would have preferred a Portis selection, the Delon draft pick was treated in prime fan base fashion: a 50/50 split. If Portis came to Toronto, would his Bulls baggage have come with him? A different atmosphere can breed a different attitude but there’s no denying there’s now a hindsight factor of risk to be added to the Wright vs. Portis debate. Not to mention how the following draft could have drastically changed:
6. As a result, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam could very well be suiting up for different teams. Which leads to a bunch of names to sort through to fill in the blanks. With a point guard and another frontcourt option likely on the wanted list, along with the probability of the same draft slots, we could have been watching and dissecting Domantas Sabonis, Skal Labissiere, Tauren Prince or Dejounte Murray this entire time. All offer ample upside, mind you, but the past three drafts might be one the very few things there’s now a consensus on.
7. Whether the inconsistencies of both Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell are temporary or not, does either Orlando or Milwaukee say no to a time machine to up their asking price?
8. The cutting of Hassan Whiteside from the 2014 Summer League squad. I can picture it now: three years worth of Jonas Valanciunas arguments wouldn’t haven’t been nearly as heated if the Raps thought more of Whiteside at the time.
Ok, let’s take another deep breath…
Attempting to quantify how every alternate direction would have ultimately shaped this team is inevitably impossible. But overall, the majority lend themselves to an appreciation for the dominoes that actually fell in reality. And whether you think of Masai Ujiri as a calculated strategist or more of a benefactor of luck, accomplishing the rarity of being all-in and building towards the future at the same time (at least for now) deserves kudos. Especially amidst the usual mixed bag of optimism one day, cynicism the next. Hell, even though I’m still holding on to the thought (also known as losing my grip), this squad’s even built to eventually make the need for JV to evolve a thing of the past.
So, where does all this leave us? I’ve come up with a handy equation: