Raptors’ season ends in disappointment amid high expectations

Did the Raptors burn goodwill with a burgeoning fan base with their first-round loss?

Well, that sucked. With their season on the line, down three games to nothing on the road against the Washington Wizards, with the validity of everything they’ve accomplished over the last 16 months on the line, the Toronto Raptors failed to show up. They didn’t just lose, they got embarrassed, to the point that 37-year-old dudes were out here dropping memes on the Raptors after the game.

It was incredibly disappointing, and there’s no way around that. Even the most flexible mental gymnast isn’t avoiding negative feelings from this one. It was disappointing as a singular, gutless effort. It was disappointing as a frustrating, craven series. And it was disappointing as a conclusion to a season that had much higher expectations.

This column, by the way, was supposed to be one of our usual Breaking It Down pieces, focusing on the Xs & Os of the game. I figured absolutely nobody would want to see a dozen GIFs of the team’s pick-and-roll defense faltering, or a half-dozen screen caps of blown offensive opportunities. I could have torn up my notes two minutes into the game – the normally bland Raptors offense ran two nice plays early on, freeing DeMar DeRozan beneath the basket for a layup and Kyle Lowry in the corner for an open three. When neither look dropped – DeRozan’s shot was erased by an out-of-nowhere Paul Pierce block and Lowry waited 10 seconds before bricking the clear triple – the writing was on the wall: They were going to resort to their archaic style of play, and they were going to lose. 

It’s at least fitting that archaeologists in northeastern British Columbia recently discovered dinosaur footprints resembling the Raptors logo that appear to be 100 million years old. This “dinosaur highway,” it turns out, is where head coach Dwane Casey found his offensive playbook this preseason. 

This column was then going to be a look at how to move forward for the franchise, what Masai Ujiri may do with the roster, and so on. Matt did a nice job of that for earlier, and I want to take a day or two to process before taking a strategic look at this disappointing finish. My instinct would suggest that even though MLSE would probably like assurances the team will be competitive with the Maple Leafs set to be bad and the All-Star Game coming to The North (if Paul Pierce of House Truth allows it), but that Ujiri will want to make major changes. And he should. This was never his core, Casey isn’t his coach, and the current pieces don’t fit well together.

And I guess that’s the most frustrating thing about how the last four months have played out: The pieces don’t fit well. This same Raptors core spent the 2014 calendar year excelling out of nowhere, first preventing Ujiri from blowing Bryan Colangelo’s squad up in earnest, then convincing him to bet on sustained chemistry this offseason, and then getting us all to buy in on 2014-15.

But it never made sense that the Raptors actually became good out of nowhere. They have talented offensive players, but the complete lack of a coherent offensive system, complete with finishing dead last in percentage of field goal attempts that came from a potential assist, made the offensive success tenuous. It was pretty clear that if they gave a good defensive team the time to scout and prepare and adjust, the Raptors’ offense could be solved. Solved it was, and part of it was due to the shooting struggles of Kyle Lowry and Lou Williams, but they really could have helped themselves by not finishing dead last in playoff passes per game.

This is just an incredibly selfish, one-dimensional roster, and that caught up with them.

It’s hard to complain about the regular season success of the offense given it’s standing as one of the league’s most effective. I guess. I’ll complain anyway. Much as we may love Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and 6 Man like Lou Williams, watching such an aesthetically displeasing and frustrating offense has grown boring. “They’re good, they’ll just make their shots!” is not a scheme or playbook, and it’s ridiculous to imagine what this team may have looked like had Williams not been resurrected, completely unexpectedly.

Defensively, well, damn. They were never very good. Last year’s No. 10 finish in defensive efficiency – 12th when adjusting for opponent – was almost surely a mirage. Casey has a reputation as a strong defensive coach, but the results don’t back that up. He’s had the Raptors finish 14th, 22nd, 10th and 25th in defense the last four seasons, and while a good portion of the struggles are due simply to personnel – it’s difficult to craft a good defense without good defenders – system-based defenses aren’t supposed to fluctuate so wildly and regress so hard. His hyper-aggressive scheme doesn’t fit the roster, because the team lacks any semblance of perimeter defense when Lowry’s not right, and Jonas Valanciunas just isn’t quick or smart enough to defend the back end the way Casey’s system asks.

And yet somehow, this team succeeded for a full calendar year. People really sold themselves on the idea that last year’s core, which set a franchise record with 48 regular season wins and nearly made the second round of the playoffs, with the additions only of Williams and James Johnson, would take a major step forward. I predicted 47 wins and was summarily called far too negative, with 47 wins ranking as one of the lowest totals a blogger or scribe penciled the Raptors in for here in Toronto. I thought they’d have a good chance at a first-round series win in a bad Eastern Conference, and said basically that making the second round of the playoffs would be considered a successful season.

Those preseason expectations really got out of hand for most when the Raptors started the year 13-2 against a ridiculously easy schedule. They were playing great, of course, and absolutely smashing teams, so it was hard not to get caught up in the excitement, especially as the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers struggled. It was beginning to look like a “good chance at the second round” was turning into a “decent shot at the Eastern Conference Finals” or “a puncher’s chance at the NBA Finals.”

I never really bought in on that, holding close to my Bayesian priors and feeling justified as the team fell back down to earth. Hooray for me, except that I also stuck by those priors as the team floundered for months and began looking nothing like the team that had been so fun and so successful for months. When things went (we the) south, I kind of just shrugged and said they’d figure it out, or they wouldn’t. I keep coming back to what I tweeted in late January, which basically amounts to that same shrug:

We could never really grasp why this team was as good as it was at its peak or as bad as it was at its valley. That doesn’t change the fact that they were really fucking good for a while, though, and that caused a lot of people to raise their expectations for the team to lofty heights.

Basketball in Canada is unquestionably growing, as is the popularity of the Raptors. I’m not sure this ugly sweep does anything to change that, much as everyone’s surely disappointed that the city’s perceived best chance at success just left made us all feel the fool. There should still be enthusiasm around a team that won 97 games over the last two seasons and has a well-respected, aggressive general manager who will likely shake things up. They’re probably going to take a step back before taking a step forward, which I understand will be disappointing, but it’s probably be the prudent move and a necessary building step in pushing this franchise to the next level. Casey may not even lose his job, to the chagrin of fans, because internal expectations were reportedly tempered even amid the hot start.

Fan expectations weren’t, and the scene on Raptors Twitter last night was quite something. The organization has to hope that a few good moves and a few months to heal are enough that voices like that of William Lou, who crushed this depressing diatribe about the loss of his fan innocence and blind optimism, don’t become the majority.

The 2014-15 Raptors season will be remembered almost entirely for its disappointing conclusion. That’s probably fair given the heights expectations ultimately rose to. It should also stand as a reminder in future seasons that if you can’t justify or explain or fathom why a team is so good, they’re probably not. It’s unfortunate that the season’s primary lesson is to never fully give in, a lesson we all should have learned by now.

But hey, exciting changes are probably coming, and if we’re being honest, we’ll all be right back here in October convincing ourselves to buy back in.