Is there any point to the rest of the Raptors season?
I’m not usually quite so cynical, but I find myself wondering this with every uninspired loss. Most of the time when it comes to the Raptors (historically, I mean, not this season) you watch for seedlings of promise. You watch young players take their lumps and improve — or not. You watch a fresh roster find cohesion as a group — or not. You watch as the losses pile up with visions of a top draft pick in your eyes. Even as a pathetic, losing season winds down, you find a reason for the team to play out each and every game.
There have even been a few rare years when you watched a young team hit its stride and glide into the postseason and saw the seedlings of glories that (you imagine) the future holds.
This season is different, though. To get to this point we’ve played the ‘young and fun to watch develop’ season(s) and we’ve had the ‘watch a young team hit its stride and glide into the postseason’ season. This was about improvement and building, and I’m not sure that there is all that much of either going on anymore.
Let’s put it another way: what is there left to learn about this season’s Toronto Raptors? Regular season or postseason, what is there left to learn? This team is flawed, and is arguably deeply flawed. They lack defensive stopping power on the perimeter, having dropped into the bottom-third of the league in defensive rating. Their offence, which is rated third-best in the NBA, is nonetheless prone to crippling droughts, and they still lack an anchoring identity that they can rely on to when the going gets tough. If the team ripped off a five-game win streak over the last five weeks of the season or knock-out a round in the Playoffs, do any of those flaws cease to exist? Would you believe, unequivocally, that Terrence Ross had turned a corner if he was the difference-maker in a single Playoff series? Would you feel comfortable about the team’s makeup if they managed to pump their defence up to middle-of-the-road by season’s end?
More importantly, if your mind was changed by any of those occurrences, would that be a good thing?
After all, isn’t there a danger in overvaluing a spike in the face of a season-long trend? For instance, this team has been a mess on the defensive glass all season long, ranking 24th in the NBA in defensive rebound percentage on the season and dead-last since the All-Star break. If they were to suddenly buckle-down and vault up the rankings over the last five weeks, would you believe that this front court (or team as a whole) could sustain that trend without alterations to the roster?
The point is, I think we’ve reached the point in the season where we know certain things to be true, and we’re now playing out the string in a way that either a) validates those assumptions or b) creates brief outliers that would be hard to buy into with so little season left to play with.
I know that a long, athletic defender can shut down DeMar DeRozan. I know that Jonas Valanciunas is a defensive liability (even if his defence at the rim merits praise, it is negated by dozens of other defensive issues that he brings to the table). I know that Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams are streaky players. I know James Johnson brings much-needed driving and passing skills to the roster. I know that Bruno and Bebe won’t see a second of meaningful court time.
More important than that, though, I know that Masai Ujiri knows all of this, too. Heck, he at least had an inkling about it last summer, which is why he inked everyone not named Kyle Lowry to short deals. He didn’t go all-in on this roster because he knew there was a perfectly good chance that they were exactly what they’ve proven themselves to be. Kudos to him for allowing them the chance to prove themselves, and kudos to him again for not mortgaging the team’s future to give them that chance.
This will not be the lineup that the Raptors trot out next season. I don’t imagine that a demolition crew is going to be run through the roster, but there are significant structural flaws that need to be addressed and the Raptors have some options to address those flaws once the season concludes. That being the case, doesn’t the rest of the season feel sort of pointless?
I mean, of course a run through the first round will feel important to the sports fan inside. I, like everyone else that follows this team, will get caught up in the excitement and the momentum of the Playoffs. The irrational exuberance of sports hasn’t been switched off, but the logical part of the brain that comes alive during desultory stretches like this one can’t help but try to kill that exuberant viewer inside. The emotionless automaton that watches the losses pile up understands that this team, as assembled, has reached it’s sell-by date and now we have to watch for six-to-eight more weeks of a roster we know can’t win a Championship and won’t be left to grow together for another season. This is the end-of-the-line for this particular assemblage, all that’s left to be decided is how many parts are cast aside or replaced.
It’s one of the unfortunate parts about the Raptors playing in the east. Out west, no one would ever get excited about this team, they just aren’t good enough. They don’t have enough star power, they don’t have enough versatility, they don’t have enough, period, to make a dent in that conference. This team would never be allowed to exist out west. They are too middling, they’d be fodder for the top teams but too good to secure a decent lottery pick.
In the east, though, they are good enough to spend the season near the top of the conference. That breeds false confidence. That breeds malaise. That breeds the kind of play that this club has been demonstrating since the calendar flipped to 2015. Is this team good? Yes, they are. Are good enough? No. Out west that would have been clear ages ago, in the east things aren’t so obvious. The east is mediocre enough that flawed teams can put together great stretches, deceptive stretches, and even win a playoff series. That can make a good team look very good. That can make a good team start to think that they are something more than what they are. The Raptors are a good team, but they aren’t what they (and we, and I) thought they were back in December. We know that now.
For Raptors fans, though, the rest of the season is not like most other seasons for this club. Fans will watch, because watching games is what fans do, but there will be a shallowness to it. This season was an experiment. Some parts succeeded, other parts failed. With six-to-eight weeks to go, though, we already know what parts succeeded and failed, so I ask again: is there any point to the rest of the Raptors season?