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RR Roundtable: Looking back on the 2016-17 season

With postmortem week coming to a close, we wanted to get a pulse on where all of our writers are at heading into what could be a long, eventful offseason. Part one looks back at the season (and perhaps era) that was.

The Toronto Raptors finished the season with five fewer victories and were knocked out of the playoffs a round earlier. Patrick Patterson said this isn’t a step back, but it’s definitely not a step forward. How do you feel about the outcome?

William Lou: I feel stuck. It’s not a step back for the franchise, but they didn’t move as much progress as they needed and now their time is up. Masai Ujiri said at the trade deadline that it’s still about growth, and he wanted to give this core a chance with two necessary acquisitions, and yet the same problems arose.

Anthony Doyle: It’s closure, in a way. It feels like this is definitively saying that if this supporting cast can’t be even close to enough to beat the Cavaliers, nothing will be. Which is fine, because winning 50+ games and a playoff series is great in historical context of the Raptors franchise, but it also clearly indicates that if the goal is a championship, the core has to change. I’m at ease with the outcome, even if not happy with it.

Matt Shantz: The Raptors stole two games against Cleveland in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals because the Cavs seemingly got bored. Cleveland did not have the same problem this time around. What makes this question hard to answer is that the Raptors appeared to be a better team this year despite fewer wins in both the regular season and the playoffs, but the results don’t show that. Since this year didn’t show forward motion, I guess I have to say they regressed. While they looked to be the East team that could give the Cavs the toughest match-up the gap feels like it’s never been wider.

Tim Chisholm: I think that it’s sort of how life is at this level. Look at a team like Memphis: they’ve been solid and competitive for years, floating more or less around this same place as Toronto has. They aren’t good enough to seriously challenge for a title, but they are competitive every year, in the Playoffs, sometimes a higher seed, sometimes not. Sometimes they manage a deep Playoff run, sometimes not. The season wasn’t a step forward the way that last year was, but it was a step forward in terms of gathering another year of information on this group, developing the youngsters, and that’s sometimes what you have to settle for when you are a very-good-but-not-great team.

Alex Gres: Losing to the presumptive NBA finalist two years in a row (albeit in different rounds) means it’s no step back. But at this point, not taking a step forward has become stale – ah, how quickly we get used to good things. As Masai pointed out, we can’t keep running the same schemes and expect a different result, so a significant change appears to be in the works. Personally, mild disappointment would be the best way to describe the year.

Cameron Dorett: I feel the same way about this outcome as I do about two eggs over-easy, bacon, toast and homefries. It’s a nice breakfast, but also one I’ve grown bored of and the selfish fan in me yearns for some Eggs Benedict damn it.

Vivek Jacob: The regular season was a step forward. The Raptors showed they could win without Lowry over a sizable stretch, and missed Patterson and DeRozan for parts of the year as well. The playoffs were a step back. There was a time when Casey was growing along with the team, but I think they’ve outgrown him now. His lack of adjustments and reactive nature along with Playoff Lowry and others freezing up on the big stage make the playoffs a step back. Overall, when you consider the Raptors were going to be measured by their playoff play, they took a step back.

Louis Zatzman: As happens in most complicated facets of life, I have more than one emotion regarding the end of this Raptors season. I am sad that the Raptors were swept out of the playoffs by a superior opponent, but I suspected they would be bested by another Lebron-led team going into the series. Mostly, I am happy about another season that gave me, a fan, a chance to again watch important playoff basketball with more than an academic interest.

Shyam Baskaran: Steps forward and backward can’t strictly be measured by rounds advanced in the playoffs. That’s especially considering the Raptors likely “overachieved” last year advancing to the ECF the way that they did. Other things to consider include the relative weakness of the conference last year, and some of the misfortunes this year including the Lowry mid-season and playoff injuries, Cleveland essentially tanking to the second seed, and so many other factors. Expecting a steady, linear trend in terms of the number of playoff rounds advanced would be like expecting a stock price to go up steadily every single year, despite all of the inherent chaos involved. So I’ll agree that it’s not a step forward, but to say it’s a step backward would be a bit harsh.

Katie Heindl: But it was a big step. The start of the season was arguably the strongest we’d had in the last four years. Everyone came back strong and ready, clearly having gone to work in the off-season. It was the first time it felt effortless, to win games. Obviously the wheels came off about ¾ of the way through the season but I still feel good about the whole thing. Whatever happens this summer the team isn’t coming back the same, so the season, for all its faults, was a culmination in seeing what we could be capable of. It was still worth something.

Spencer Redmond: I would say the regular season was a success, despite a tough injury year compared to years past, and a seamless transition of new pieces in the middle of the season, the Raptors were still able to walk away with a 50 win season. The playoffs weren’t as successful as last year. It’s not that they got knocked out a round earlier, it’s the Bucks series wasn’t easy at all, and even with a better roster on paper, the Raptors weren’t competitive against the Cavaliers at all. The Raptors are a good team, they aren’t on the same level as the Cavaliers and Warriors, but overall the Raptors were going to be judged by their ability to compete in the playoffs.

What’s your favorite moment/memory from the 2016-17 season?

William Lou: Tied between beating the Bulls and the comeback win over the Hornets. That both wins were so unnecessarily difficult underscores just how the season went. The Hornets win was exhilarating because we saw young players (Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright) in a new light picking up for the slack left behind by failing veterans. The Bulls win was just such a fun game and then you factor in the history there.

Anthony Doyle: I think for me it was the 44-point win over Atlanta. It felt like, in that brief moment, everything came together and we got to see the potential of the roster, on both ends of the floor. It didn’t last, but it showed what the team was capable of if they did put everything together.

Matt Shantz: The single moment that stands out in my memory is DeMar DeRozan blocking in the comeback win against the Chicago Bulls. That game helped shed a lot of Bulls demons and was one of the more fun games to watch. It’s also not a play you see DeMar make often. Felt like watching a unicorn majestically run through the forest.

Tim Chisholm: The trade deadline. It was another example of how Masai Ujiri is able to assess the landscape of the league and put his teams into the best position possible to take advantage of the market. Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker may not have to pushed Toronto past Cleveland, or even made them much of a threat against them, but the fact that he got both of those guys at all is a reminder of how far this team has come organizationally.

Alex Gres: BEATING THE BULLS. And the Powell and DeRozan dunk exhibitions late in the series against the Bucks were awesome too.

Cameron Dorett: Watching the Raptors climb back to beat Chicago in overtime after Ibaka and Lopez traded haymakers (that fortunately?) didn’t land. The atmosphere was electric in the building for one of the few times I remember during this season and it felt like the toughness the playoffs require had arrived.

Vivek Jacob: DeRozan’s dunk on Tristan Thompson in the early season. His early run that had him mentioned alongside MJ was a fun ride.

Louis Zatzman: It was a cold winter’s day at the end of February (24th), when the Raptors and their new acquisitions faced the streaking Celtics. DeMar DeRozan brought warmth to my blackened, frozen heart with his fourth quarter heroics (12 points in the last 5 minutes) to steal the game at home.

Shyam Baskaran: Had to be the trade-deadline acquisitions, especially the way it was capped off with the Tucker acquisition at the buzzer. It’s kind of sad that my favourite memory didn’t include any in-game moments, but I don’t think this year was capped off with the big wins like last year (like big wins against the Cavs in the regular season and playoffs, and a game 7 destruction of the Heat in the second round). As successful as a year as it was, there were a lot of ugly wins. The trade deadline acquisition of Ibaka was easily one of the most memorable in franchise history, and on paper seemed to put the team on the highest and deepest level. So, for the way it made me feel at that very moment, it was definitely my favourite memory of the season.

Katie Heindl: I really love Fred Van Vleet. When he started to get his first minutes in the season I was like, my heart was too full. I basically wrote a long-form poem about it. I also got tickets to the next Orlando game the day after Ross got traded, knowing there would be an ovation and a montage and it nearly killed me. I had goosebumps the whole home opener, it was electric in there. And Game 5 of the Bucks series I was in a row with Bucks fans and watching them wither and eventually flee—resplendent. Basically any time I can cry and honestly I usually get choked up at the flame gouts during the team intro, so.

Spencer Redmond: A lot of games stick out in my mind. The rivalry against the Celtics was a lot of fun, the DeRozan game winner in Madison Square Garden, and Lowry single handily winning a game in Utah.

This four-year period has unquestionably been one of the best in Raptors history. It’s the first four-year playoff run, has included the most postseason victories, and has had the highest heights. If this is it for this particular core, what will you remember most about this stretch?

William Lou: My favorite memory of this stretch will still be the image of a grinning Amir Johnson laid spent on the court surrounded by his teammates on the road in Dallas back in December of 2013 (I wrote about it here). The Mavericks were one of the best teams in the league to start that season, and that this rag-tag band of Raptors on the brink of being blown up was able to storm into Dallas and come away with an OT win felt like winning a championship in relative terms. That’s when I first started to believe.

Anthony Doyle: I hope I’ll remember how great it was to be hopeful. Despite never quite getting over the hump against Cleveland, it was great to believe this much in a team and something that’s sorely lacking in Raptors history. I’d like to take that forward whenever this core ends, to help me get through the likely rougher times ahead.

Matt Shantz: The last four years have largely been the most fun I’ve had as a sports fan. That says a lot about the teams I’ve chosen to adopt as mine, but it also speaks to who this Raptors’ team was. They were an accident. They were an underdog. And they were an afterthought. There were hard moments of defeat (plenty), but I found this group inspiring. They were never supposed to be anything and yet they found an identity as one of the league’s top teams. I will remember simply being thankful for that opportunity.

Tim Chisholm: I have two, one positive, one negative. The positive is the Raptors winning 56 games and it not seeming like it was a massive surprise or herculean effort. They simply went out and earned a 56-win season to very little fanfare. For someone that has been covering this team since its inception, I never would have imagined that they could have done that without it seeming like a mind-blowing event. That said, I think that the defining part of this run for me was the Raps being swept by Washington in the Playoffs two years ago. It was such a sharp slap in the face as to how the top-line of the this team performs when their backs are against the wall in the post-season, and it really felt like the tone was set for this group of a post-season threat. They never truly recovered from that series.

Alex Gres: A most unique group of guys with chips on their shoulders – dudes who needed to be motivated by being counted out, not just in pre-season and postseason predictions, but also by seeing how large they can make their deficits within games while still recovering to win. This era exemplified the personalities of their two stars: “Oh, you think you got me figured out?” as they’re down 15 in the first quarter, before unleashing payback time the rest of the way. While not aesthetically pleasing, I am going to remember that fun B-movie entertainment factor. And the fact that every game night felt winnable if they just lock in.

Cameron Dorett: I’ll remember winning. It may not seem like the Raptors accomplished all that much with Cleveland’s sweep so fresh in our memories, but this team won a lot of games. It’s such a basic thing to look back on but also regardless of how this team looks next season it will always be easy to recall some downright dominant stretches of basketball. That’s awesome.

Vivek Jacob: Playoff Lowry. From the Paul Pierce rejection in Game 7, to breaking down against Washington, to his elbow last year, and another sub-par playoffs this time around, it’s unfortunate that we can only wonder, “What if Lowry elevated his game instead of disintegrating in the playoffs?”

Louis Zatzman: If this is it, I will look back at this core with nothing but love. My most allegorical memory of the team is Lowry’s sneaky fake timeout play, during which he’d scoot in for a layup while everyone meandered to the benches. It featured all the best hallmarks of this Raptors team: fun, guile, and playing above their talent level.

Shyam Baskaran: Our resiliency. It’s a bit cliché, but if there’s one trait this team had, at least for the most part of their 4-year run, it was an undying resiliency that made us hopeful as much as it made us insane. Bad games were almost always followed up by good games and so many times, bad starts were followed up with good finishes. The Raptors led the league this year in 10-plus and 15-plus point comeback wins, and throughout the past 4 years, were known for their ability to bounce back in playoff games following disappointing losses. From rough Game 1’s, to close-out Game 6 woes, it’s been a tough stretch that made the ride crazy, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Katie Heindl: I can’t abide by the cruelty of this question but I will try to answer it. This core meant so much because they were relatable. They were just a rag tag bunch of castoffs and every one we felt lucky to get. It was like a microcosm of basketball, sometimes it even got a bit cabin fever-y being at such close quarters, watching these guys react to being the lone participants for a whole country. It was always clear—ad campaign not withstanding—we were outliers and it made everything feel personal. The frustrations, clutch shots, actual anguish, wins and losses, it just seemed like everything mattered because how long could it last? Getting better every year and it not being a fluke, it was like a crazy ride and everyone just said fuck it, let’s go. This core sustained all that for four years, taught all new fans, maybe new generations of fans, a whole new kind of Toronto basketball. I hope everyone can remember that feeling.

Spencer Redmond: The 2015-2016 Raptors were probably my favorite team in franchise history. From DeRozan and Lowry growing their games, All-Star Weekend, 56 wins, to the very successful playoff run. I really hope this isn’t the end, this Raptors era has been a lot of fun, and if a few things bounce their way this offseason the window of winning could stay open for a few more seasons.

In retrospect, do you think the Raptors were right in running last year’s team back and fortifying at the trade deadline?

William Lou: Definitely. In the words of PJ Tucker, “hindsight is a mother.” Who wouldn’t run back the 56-win team that went to the ECF? And when the team started leaking oil in January, they deserved a chance to see how far they could go with the proper pieces in place. There’s no shame in taking a swing, and what did we really lose? Terrence Ross, two terrible seconds and the 25th pick. It was worth the gamble.

Anthony Doyle: Yes, I think that was correct. If they hadn’t done it, we’d have always asked questions over whether they could’ve gone farther with an elite power forward like Ibaka, or questions of whether another body to throw at LeBron could’ve made a difference. Whether or not it worked, it had to happen to fully convey that this wasn’t going to work. It ended the “What ifs?”.

Matt Shantz: I have no complaints about any move that Masai and staff made in the last 12 months. Returning a core that was two wins (albeit the gap was much bigger) away from an appearance in the Finals is a no-brainer. Weird things can happen. Love and/or Irving could be banged up, JR Smith could revert to his Knicks self and disappear or something, or LeBron could have had a software malfunction. Hoping for some luck was worth the try.

Tim Chisholm: Yes, 100%. That group earned the chance to prove that they were for real, and had learned from their experiences last year. They identified needs that were addressed at the deadline, and I don’t think that there was a more palatable way to handle business than they way that they did.

Alex Gres: Yes, absolutely. There was talk last year about ‘what if JV was healthy,’ ‘what if we had someone to guard LeBron better,’ ‘what if we had a legitimate power forward instead of Scola,’ etc. Now, as the gulf between us and the Cavs was exposed without those excuses (granted, Lowry was injured for the last two, but still), there are no longer what if’s haunting the season’s end. Masai’s evaluations have to be complete, and a new path forward can be charted.
Plus, if we had tanked this season we might have ended up with Lava-mouth (err, Lonzo) Ball… no thanks.

Cameron Dorett: How could they not be? Masai put this team in a unique situation in that it gets to build through young talent while staying competitive with core guys. We’ll see if he continues to walk that tightrope or pick another direction but his only choice was to at least try something this season. The Raptors did the most with what they had and the result was pretty much expected. Seeing “Ibaka headed to Toronto for Terrence Ross” won’t ever get old.

Vivek Jacob: Absolutely, yes. Shoot your shot. I believe there would be no chance of re-signing Lowry this off-season, and now we’re talking about the possibility of re-signing Lowry, Ibaka, and Tucker. No debate here.

Louis Zatzman: Absolutely running it back was the right choice. When you have a chance at post-season success, you have to take it. It didn’t work, but so what? The Raps gave us another rare (for the franchise) stretch of postseason memories. If the Raps didn’t shoot their shots, what would they be? The team embodiment of Lebron’s pass to Donyell Marshall in 2007 against the Pistons? (He didn’t shoot his shot).

Shyam Baskaran: Absolutely. What would’ve been the alternative? Tearing this thing apart after last year would’ve been a sin and disrespectful to a fan-base that’s clearly been re-awakened after more than a decade of mediocrity. As has been discussed so many times, there’s value to winning even if it doesn’t result in a championship. The Raptors have built a level of brand equity in the league, have made Toronto a relevant and attractive destination for free agents, and Masai owed it to the fans to run this thing back and go all-in on the roster at the deadline. The way things were going leading up to the deadline, I would’ve made those moves a hundred times over, and I’m pretty sure that any Raptor fan would agree that at the time, those moves pushed the needle just a bit further.

Katie Heindl: Yes. How could you know something on paper isn’t going to shake out the way you wanted it to, especially with so many variables ? That adding just the right pieces wouldn’t solve a bigger problem. In a way, keeping the team and getting Tucker and Ibaka at the deadline, was the only way to know for certain that there was a larger problem.

Spencer Redmond: I think so. The team was very competitive last season, and at the beginning of the season I thought with continued development and a healthy Carroll, maybe they could take the next step. The development was similar, and Carroll actually probably made the Raptors worse at times, so it was time to make moves. The players they acquired at the deadline were the perfect pieces for the right prices. A lot less for what they would have gotten them in the previous offseason. I think the way the Raptors went about restructuring their roster mid year was perfect.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the _ and _ best Raptors of all-time following this run?

William Lou: Second and third. Vince Carter will always be No. 1 because he established the culture. DeRozan and Lowry also had a positive impact on that end, but they were never relevant like how Vince was relevant.

Anthony Doyle: Yes, I think so. I think I’d have it Lowry, then DeRozan, then Carter, personally. I know some would have DeRozan over Lowry, and I understand that given that he came up in the Raptors system and Lowry didn’t, but at this point in time, it was Lowry who had the higher heights for the team.

Matt Shantz: I got back-and-forth on the order of these two themselves, but they are the second and third best Raptors of all time. Only Vince exceeds them for skill. The difference though is that DeMar and Kyle will go down as the two most loved Raptors’ of all time due to the unceremonious way Vince ended his tenure. Many people may not like DeRozan’s style/skillset, and some are even turning on Lowry as of recently, but when the dust settles Raptor fans will look back on this era of Toronto basketball with the utmost fondness.

Tim Chisholm: es, ultimately that is true, but their legacies are going to tarnished by how poorly their teams have performed in the postseason. While Vince Carter and Chris Bosh did no better, it feels like Kyle and DeMar had the best chance to really make noise in the playoffs, given their supporting casts, and I think that they were as responsible as anyone for the repeated failures, and that makes this a tepid endorsement.

Alex Gres: Co-second place. There is no escaping the fact that Vince Carter was still the most exciting Raptor to watch, and the one who put the club on the map. Though Lowry and DeMar eclipsed him in terms of raw achievements and wins, they were still not Vince. DeMar’s career is still young though, and with how he’s improving, the jury is still out on whether he outshines Carter in the long run. We can’t know what the future holds…

Cameron Dorett: 4th and 2nd. Carter, DeRozan, McGrady, Lowry, Bosh.

Vivek Jacob: 2nd and 3rd. Vince #1. No other Raptor has been EASILY a Top 10 player (Top 5 maybe) and had a playoff series like Vince had against the Sixers.

Louis Zatzman: 4th and 2nd. Vince Carter (1st) and Chris Bosh (3rd).

Shyam Baskaran: 2nd and 3rd – right now. I’m a bit of a Vince Carter fanboy to be honest. The immeasurable impact Carter’s play had on and off of the court makes him the best Raptor of all time in my mind. I’m a firm believer that without him, this franchise could honestly be in another American city right now. Having said that, when it’s all said and done several years from now, on numbers and longetivity alone, DeMar will probably claim the throne as the best all-time. It’s obviously really tough not to put Kyle first given he’s basically been the centrepiece around the past 4-year run, but second place is still highly respectable. The dude was the heart and soul of the team, a three-time all-star, and was the biggest cog in a 50-win machine for multiple seasons. That’s big time.

Katie Heindl: 1 and 2? If not 1 and 3?

Spencer Redmond: I do put a lot of emphasis on team success during the time period. Lowry is number one, DeMar is probably number three right behind Vince Carter. DeMar is really close to taking over Carter’s spot, after another year of improving his already impressive offensive numbers. Chris Bosh is fourth, I think we underrate his time in Toronto, but I also consider that he only won three playoff games in his time here.

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