The Long Game

As a Raptors fan and writer, I won’t easily forget this core.

The grit and grind era in Memphis appears to be at an end. With the departure of David Fizdale and the team reportedly looking to trade Marc Gasol, it really feels like the Grizzlies have accepted the inevitability of a rebuild. Thinking about this, and the consistency with which they’ve pushed great teams to the edge, brought me to the question of how will the Grizzlies be remembered? History is cruel, and also tends to cut what it can to tell the story it’s looking to tell, forsaking the unremarkable for the surprising. With Memphis, that story that keeps them in history might end up being the 2012-13 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder when Russell Westbrook was out, but more likely it’s their six-game series win over the powerhouse San Antonio Spurs in 2010-11.

Maybe it’s wrong that a seven-year run full of adversity will likely be reduced to those anecdotes, but at least the Grizzlies can claim those moments, those points where they have to be mentioned because they escaped the narrative that was supposed to be told in those seasons. Fans in Memphis will remember more than that, but the general NBA memory doesn’t have space for all of those stories for every team, only for the remarkable.

That brings us to this core of the Toronto Raptors. This team wasn’t supposed to be good, and Raptors fans will likely remember the failed attempt to blow it up when the Knicks changed their minds on trading for Kyle Lowry and the team starting winning when they weren’t supposed to, making the playoffs and forcing the organization to stick with it, see what this team could do. Four winning seasons later, three playoff series wins, six All-Star berths and an All-NBA selection apiece for their backcourt, it’s unquestionably the best run in franchise history and one that will stick in the minds and hearts of Raptors fans for years after this core ages out of relevance.

DeMar DeRozan has improved every year, Kyle Lowry outgrew a reputation as a locker room problem to develop as a leader and one of the best players in the conference. Masai Ujiri has continued to excel at finding gems in the draft and fill the back end of the roster with talent while winning trades with consistency, and Dwane Casey has done an admirable job keeping players ready at the end of the bench and finding ways to win games.

Yet, thus far this is remarkable in Raptors history only. Teams rise and fall, there has to be good teams to offset the great and the bad ones, and that’s not in and of itself impressive. The Raptors playoff series victories were over teams lower in the standings, series that the Raptors were supposed to win. This isn’t a knock on the team either, taking care of business in the postseason is no easy task, but every playoff series has to have both a favorite and a winner, and when those two coincide, that becomes something that’s not mentionable in the course of league history.

Perhaps there is one notable moment belonging uniquely to this core, but it would be the one they’d rather forget. Still, to this point, the only team to be defeated in four games in a first round series as a higher seed is the 2014-15 Raptors, the second season of this team’s success when they collapsed in the playoffs against a game Washington Wizards team that was ready to take advantage of every mistake the Raptors made, and they gave the Wizards no shortage of opportunities. It’s not a moment that Raptors fans want to re-live, but it’s probably the most significant NBA memory they’ve created. Every time a higher seed goes down 0-3 in the first round from now on, there will be a graphic on your television mentioning that series.

The Raptors have decided to keep being good until this core can’t sustain it anymore, and clearly stated that through the extensions of DeRozan, Lowry and Serge Ibaka, which is an understandable decision, because getting to good isn’t easy in this league. It’ll be a fun several years while they maintain that. The challenge for this team isn’t to be good, because the talent can do that. The challenge is, even if you can’t win a title in the age of LeBron and the Warriors, be memorable. Find a way to be remarkable and ensure that no matter what, history cannot forget this core of the Raptors when it’s time comes to an end.

The nature of what that would look like isn’t clear, and it’s not an easy ask. Things that are memorable have to be difficult, have to be rare challenges, or else they aren’t remarkable. It wouldn’t be easy to take down LeBron James in a playoff series, to come out of an Eastern Conference that’s looking suddenly much tougher than was expected to make the NBA Finals. But it would be impressive, and it wouldn’t be something that would be easy to forget.

As a Raptors fan and writer, I won’t easily forget this core. It came out of a tough time in Raptors basketball, and in the organization’s history there isn’t a long list of positive moments to lean on. I don’t think the rest of the league should forget this period either, and that’s up to the team to make sure they don’t. Memphis is showing right now that the end can sometimes be closer than you think, and sometimes you don’t see it coming until it’s there. The Raptors should seize the moments they have in front of them while they can to create those lasting impressions.

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