Searching for Meaning

There is a broad spectrum of possible outcomes for any NBA season. Many things that can go wrong, and just as many that can go right, and in the course of this season for the Raptors far more things broke in their direction than the other. The young players developed well, the culture change largely worked, at least for the regular season, they remained mostly healthy. It’s hard to keep this all in perspective right now, but this Raptors squad was one of the best, and, yes, most fun, teams in the league for most of the year. The season should be regarded, for the most part, as a success.

The bench mob will go down as one of the best parts of my life as a Raptors fan. Watching Siakam and Poeltl execute the two-man game in the post to create buckets for each other, or Delon and Pascal in transition. Watching them engage as a five-man unit defensively and give no quarter to even good offenses, and that stretch of the season in February where they allowed the starters to rest nearly every fourth quarter was incredible. There’s a lot of talent among the group, and the future for the Raptors past the Lowry and DeRozan core is starting to come into view, and it’s not nearly as bad as it looked a year ago.

OG Anunoby is a star in the making, he didn’t wilt at all in the face of incredible playoff pressure playing tough opponents and taking brutal assignments. LeBron scored on him, undoubtedly, but he’s a tough assignment for anyone in the league, and has made the best defenders look silly at times. OG showed signs of brilliance at both ends of the floor this season, and fit seamlessly with both the bench to begin the year, as well as with the starters once placed there. His first NBA start, back in November, he guarded James Harden admirably and was a huge part of a big Raptors win over the Houston Rockets. He reads defenses with ease and makes solid cuts to find seams where his teammates can hit him for easy baskets, his jump shot has looked better than expected, and he’s had some great moments creating for himself, which he wasn’t often asked to do. Whatever comes next for him, it’s hard not to be excited about his career to come, especially with a real summer under his belt this year, after missing both summer league and training camp a year ago due to injury.

The Raptors found rest for Kyle Lowry for the first time in his Raptors career, his minutes were down, he went into the playoffs healthy, and despite the ending, had a solid postseason. His backcourt mate, DeMar DeRozan, gave us the best season of his career, embracing the culture change, becoming a willing passer, and helping to open up the offensive end of the floor for his teammates.

Also, however, that playoff series against Cleveland happened, and it can’t be reduced to simply the brilliance of LeBron James. The regular season can’t be erased, and for six months, the Raptors were better than the Cavaliers. Because of that enjoyable and impressive season, the disaster that was this series can’t be reduced to the Raptors running into a juggernaut, because they were supposed to be that juggernaut. The series wasn’t the unmitigated disaster it looks like on the surface, either, with games 1 and 3 both coming down to the end before being lost. Those two games easily could have swung the other way and ended up as victories, but, that feels somewhat moot in the face of the sweep it ended up being.

Against Cleveland, throughout the series, the Raptors struggled at both ends of the floor. Whether it was losing shooters and letting Kyle Korver, Kevin Love, JR Smith, Jeff Green and George Hill have far too much space to knock down shots and reduce the offensive burden on James. The Raptors also struggled closing out on those same shooters, frequently getting caught biting on pump-fakes and either ending up giving up a foul, or giving up an open shot after a wild close-out.

At the offensive end, the struggles start with DeRozan, who didn’t have a good series. His own numbers aren’t terrible, but his tendency to slow down the defense frequently cost the team, and it can’t be ignored that they had a 133.6 offensive rating when he was on the bench, against a 100.3 rating when he played, a far bigger difference than any other Raptors player had. This isn’t to put the series simply on his shoulders, but when the margin between a 2-2 series and a 0-4 series is as slim as it was, it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that his struggles were.

At the same time, the rotations were a mess. Despite his success with adjustments at times during the regular season and against the Washington Wizards in the first round, Dwane Casey simply didn’t have the answers in this series. Whether it was adjusting the starting lineup by removing Jonas Valanciunas, as the team did in game 4, ostensibly to improve the perimeter defense, despite the fact that Valanciunas’ defensive numbers were excellent in the series, or having CJ Miles being the one to join the starters when Miles and DeRozan had struggled defensively when played together throughout the playoffs, the adjustments didn’t fit the needs of the team. Benching DeRozan for the second half of game 3 was the right call, but if it was one made just a little bit earlier, perhaps that game turns in the favor of the Raptors.

At the end of the day though, all of this defines the Raptors season, in many ways. They were good in broad strokes, the offense was generally impressive, as was the defense, due to a talent advantage over many teams in the league. The roster is well-built and deep, and they simply had too many weapons for most opponents. That led to the best season the franchise has ever had, and a team worth remembering for how impressive they were for large stretches. On the other hand, however, throughout the year, the Raptors showed signs of struggling when it came to the smaller details, seemingly small rotational issues that cost them games, or execution in the clutch that took games away. They won enough, despite that, that it was possible to look past them, but all of those things were brought to light in the playoffs.

Putting all of this in perspective is hard though, especially with the game 4 beatdown this fresh in the memory. Were the Raptors simply the fatally flawed team they looked against Cleveland, hiding their warts due to their depth throughout the season, or were they the dominant team they looked for months, and simply struggled at the wrong point, against the wrong team? It might very well be some combination of both, but the series shouldn’t erase the season, and the season shouldn’t be used to erase the series. Both should be used to evaluate the season, and that leaves no easy answers.

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