While last night’s loss to the Philadelphia Trusted Processes might not have everyone in Raptor’s land waking up feeling all sunshine and buttercups, the reality is that the Raptors are in the most competitive place they’ve ever been. But their first loss to Philadelphia in four full years got me thinking. There isn’t a single player left on Philadelphia from 3 or 4 years ago. The Raptors have been beating a kaleidoscope of rotating 76ers rosters with what has been the same core of players. Each team took a very different journey to where they’ve now arrived.
The Sixers present is fun to watch with Embiid, but it’s their long term outlook that really looks rosy. For the Raptors, their expectations and ceiling is the highest that the franchise has ever seen. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the heart of the team and unquestionably their two best players. Continuity has played a big role in this team’s ascension, as the core and head coach are now in their fifth season together. It’s taken those full five years for the younger players like Terrence Ross to develop, pieces like DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson to be brought in and Lowry and DeRozan to make unexpected leaps in the improvement of their game for the team to reach this point. It’s a very good present to live in. I’m left wondering though, where is the longer-term outlook of the team headed? Five years from now, who is the best player on the team?
Kyle Lowry? You can make an argument over who is the best player on the team right now between Lowry and DeMar. I think it’s Lowry, but for the sake of this particular thought experiement the answer is irrelevant. Five years from now, Lowry will probably be going into the final year of the max contract he’s again probably going to sign this summer. He’ll be 36 years old. While I don’t think that his age is a reason to be discouraged from signing Lowry to the previously mentioned hypothetical five-year extension, it is a valid reason to conclude that Lowry in 2022 is not going to be the player we’re watching now. If he continues to shoot 44% from 3 then he can continue to contribute, but father time comes calling for us all, and for players who play as hard, physical and without regard for their body as Lowry especially. If a 36 year-old point guard is your best player, you’re in trouble.
DeMar DeRozan? DeRozan has gotten legitimately better in every season of his career. It’s been remarkable. He’s broken through levels that many of us did not expect him to reach. At this point, it seems foolish to bet against his game continuing to improve. Five years from now DeMar will be 32 years old; old, but not ancient. However, the decline for slashing guards who battle their way to the rim and don’t have a 3-point shot has been traditionally precipitous. Between injury and the inevitable decline of peak athleticism, players like Iverson, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose. You could still be a decent team with an aging Wade as your best player. And DeRozan’s footwork will allow him to continue schooling players like old man Andre Miller did near the basket. At 32, with modern nutrition and training it’s conceivable that the drop might not be that precipitous. DeMar has been extremely lucky with injuries thus far in his career so far, which is good, but he’s been amongst the league leaders in minutes and usage for a few years now. Those miles eventually add up. It’s hard to imagine DeMar having the same level of athleticism in five years and being able to get to the rim and the foul line at the same rate. He’s probably the best player on the team five years from now, but what does that mean? I love aging Dwyane Wade, but the second round of the playoffs felt like it was about as far as Wade could carry a team last year.
Jonas Valanciunas? The answer is no. Look, I’ve been in the pro-Jonas corner since time. I’m a day one itty-bitty baller. And since Casey called out Val’s need to dominate or not play, he’s been a beast. But a traditional big man who has slow feet on defense simply can’t be your best player in the modern NBA. That team is in the lottery, without question.
DeMarre Carroll? At current pace, if DeMarre Carroll is able to get out of bed and make it down the stairs of his house to breakfast without help or one of those infomercial seats that carry old ladies down the stairs, he’ll be lucky. His string of constant injuries has been incredibly unlucky for him, but with his peak already looking more and more likely to have been in the past, 35 year-old Carroll will not be the best player on any NBA team.
Terrence Ross? Do you think that Ross can make a leap in his game over the next few season like Lowry and DeRozan have? I’m a big fan of Ross, but I don’t see him making the jump to superstar. Part of his improvement this year has been as finding and accepting a role as a bench gunner who gets extended minutes when his shot is dropping or the Raptors need spacing. He’s become a very valuable contributor to the team. But it’s tied in part to that role. Perhaps someone else will sign him when his contract comes up to bring him in as a primary scorer and we’ll all be surprised. But in that scenario he’s not on the team anyways. Terrence Ross, good NBA player is a nice thing. But Terrence Ross, star? Easy, now.
Patrick Patterson? Patterson is arguably the third most important player on the team. He’s essential to most of the raptors top lineups, their defense and spacing. But between pending free agency and the fact that we’re still arguing (even if it’s a stupid argument) about if he should start at this point in his career, it’s safe to assume that even though he could still easily be a very good player five years from now, he’s unlikely to be a best player on whatever team he plays for.
Norm Powell? NORM! This is probably the name that many of you jumped to when thinking about the answer here. The most optimistic argument for Norm being the Raptors best player five years from now is hard to make more vehemently than “maybe?” though. There is a lot to like about Norm. He’s made leaps above expectations already, works hard and projects to be a good player when given the regular chance. Will that ever happen with DeRozan and Lowry here? With interest in Norm around the league, will he be on the team in five years? Norm is definitely the most interesting piece in this conversation. But predicting that he’ll become a star is pure speculation. And if other teams value him as much as they do, will his tenure with the raptors survive trade options and, more likely, restricted free agency? Clouded, his future is.
Bruno Cabolco? Hahaha, just kidding.
As for the rest of the roster, Joseph, Wright, Poetl and so on, if any one of them is your best player then you’re probably in full tank mode. That isn’t meant as a knock on any of them—Joseph especially is a very solid player. But none of them logically project to be anything remotely close to a star player a half decade from now. The reality is, when you look five years down the road, a roster that currently boasts two superstars is only likely/hopefully going to have most of just a star player left. This thought experiment isn’t meant to be depressing when looking to the future. But it is telling as to what kind of window this Raptors team is looking at. For the last few seasons the core was young enough that it didn’t make sense to make big win now moves. But realistically, the team is now looking at a window of a year or two when their potential will never be higher. It probably isn’t going to be anyone on the roster right now that the Raptors are going to be building around five years from now. They will either be on the steady decline with the guys who are their best players right now or in full tank mode. If that’s the case, it seems hard to not argue for the Raptors doing everything they can on the trade market to improve this team as much as possible in the immediate future to maximize this run before bottoming out to rebuild. Trust Lowry and trust DeMar, and then, when their run is done, trust the process.