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RR Roundtable: Looking back on the 2017-18 season

The last time we look back before looking ahead.

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 that was.

The Toronto Raptors won a franchise-record 59 games and the Eastern Conference but wound up exiting at the exact same point in the exact same way. Does this season qualify as progress for you for the franchise?

Tim Chisholm: No, it does not. The Raptors in their current era have consistently excelled in the regular season by doing things that really only work in the regular season. This year, those traits were better hidden, but they were still there (hindsight is an unforgiving perspective). They leaned heavily on a bench that was very young and inexperienced, had no cache of veterans with Playoff experience to turn to in tight situations, and none of their advancements were able to undo the mental vice grip LeBron James had on he franchise. They spent 212 days preparing for exactly this series, and it took just seven days undo all of that work. That is not progress.

Tamberlyn Richardson: As much as the end didn’t justify the means there is no denying the progress. Improved ball/player movement (check), more assists (check), spread the wealth via playing 12 deep (big check with arguably best bench in NBA). Ultimately, each of the other three teams defeated in the semi’s won a single game in their series. Moreover, three of the four Conference Finalists are the same as last season (Rockets are the exception).

Vivek Jacob: It is progress, for sure. The Raptors played their most entertaining brand of basketball yet, and showed signs of continuing to do so through the first round and Game 1 of the second round. 59 wins, the top seed in the East, the numerous individual improvements both from a player and coaching standpoint are too much to ignore because of the way the season ended.

Matt Shantz: I’ve been trying not to let the disappointing end shadow the success of the regular season. After all, 59 wins is a hell of a run and something we would have laughed at as fans just 5 years ago. On the macro the season counts as minimal success due to the improved style of play. On the micro the success is much larger. We saw big development from second year players like Siakam, Poeltl, and VanVleet, while Delon also showed his value on an NBA roster with a mostly healthy season. The debut and potential of OG also helps to make the season a success, as he looks to be a foundational player moving forward.

Cam Dorrett: Not a step forwards, or a step backwards. The Raptors didn’t need to beat arguably the best player ever to earn my praise, but they did need to look like they could. It was one of the most disappointing times I’ve ever had as a follower of this team, and yet I still wouldn’t trade it for some junk tear-it-down alternative.

Shyam Baskaran: It depends on what sort of report card you use as a fan. If you’re the kind that enjoys the regular season ride and are just looking to be consistently relevant every year, this season was a grand success and was fantastic progress. The style of play, the consistent winning, and the growth of the young guys were all amazing developments. But, if you’re like me (as someone who actually used to be that kind of fan), you’re probably starting to get a little frustrated. After 5 years of underwhelming playoff runs, 3 of which included sweeps, and after back-to-back years getting trounced in the second round, the results say that, while there may be some steps in the right direction, there’s no high-level progress.

Joshua Howe: It does qualify as progress for me, because even though the team didn’t end up fairing any better in the postseason than they did last year, they totally flipped the culture of the franchise. The team is no longer just about relying on star power and trying to prop up DeRozan and Lowry with a role player three here and there. The Raptors now play like a complete basketball team, with the stars finding ways to be stars while getting everyone else involved, and the rest of the roster responding positively to that. The team spent more time off the floor together than ever before, and what it is to be a Toronto Raptor has changed to a for-the-many attitude. In this way, the Raptors have made strides to become more Spursian than many thought possible. This is the sort of progress that, while it doesn’t always immediately translate to the on-court product, sets the stage for future players, coaches, and the like.

Mike Nelson: On the surface, suggesting that progress was made is a pretty tough sell, especially since Cleveland’s “overhaul” at the trade deadline essentially ended up as an optical illusion come playoff time. Nearly every impact piece was a familiar face from years past, which makes the Cavs being able to pad their playoff win streak over the Raps all the way to 10 hard to stomach. Games 1 and 3 shouldn’t get a pass, either. However, even with the postseason now acting as this team’s ultimate judge, jury and executioner, all signs point to the regular season being an invaluable year for the youth. The next stage in their respective careers (sans Bebe) can realistically represent more than a few offseason upgrades, they’ve proved that much. Bottom line: This was not a ‘”wasted year” but I still need to “evaluate everything” before I can give a definitive answer.

Anthony Doyle: I think so, as long as the right lessons are learned going forward. Both parts are relevant, the great year and the terrible ending, and both have to be kept in mind with what comes next. The pain is still really fresh, but in the long run this still should be remembered as a great season.

Katie Heindl: Absolutely. The way the Raptors played this year was different than any iteration we’d seen before. The fundamentals themselves had shifted. What made the change feel that much more real was the honesty some players showed in the difficulty they were having adjusting. Lowry, for example, really had to get used to less minutes with the ball and grow into his role as a distributor, where he eventually flourished. Change is hard and proof of change is supposed to come with set-backs and snags. I’m not saying the final outcome doesn’t dampen all that, but you can’t look at the playoffs as ultimate cumulative proof of a team’s progress.

William Lou: It’s undeniable that the Raptors made progress in terms of modernizing their offense and developing young pieces, but none of it mattered toward the end result. Is that progress? That’s more of a question of perspective. They definitely improved since 2014, but they have also hit a clearly defined ceiling that falls well short of championship contention.

What is your favorite moment/memory from the 2017-18 season?

Tim Chisholm: Funnily enough, it was the belief that they could really do it this year. Like I said earlier, we had a very long stretch where it seemed entirely possible that the Raptors were going to be able to make the NBA Finals. Sure, that collapsed very quickly, but there were months when it seemed possible, and those months were highly enjoyable.

Tamberlyn Richardson: Although DeMar DeRozan’s performance in Detroit stands out (both in terms of the dunk plus the pass to VanVleet for the game winner) I was more enamored by the play of our bench and by rookie OG Anunoby. After seasons of isoball getting to witness ball and player movement at a premium combined with solid defense was a joy.

Vivek Jacob: Covering the 905 at the G League Showcase during the day before heading to a bar to watch the Raptors blow out the Cavs by 34 with William Lou and Harsh Dave. Then, recording a podcast in my car.

Matt Shantz: November 14th, 2017 – the first start of OG Anunoby’s career. Playing just under 30 minutes, OG went 6-of-8 from the field, 3-of-4 from three, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal, but showed his immense potential in how he defended James Harden. Don’t let Harden’s 38 points fool you into thinking OG didn’t have an impact. Harden scored 15 points with OG on the court and shot a pitiful 13.3 perfect. This was a master class game from OG, and was the highlight of the year for me.

Josh Weinstein: OG Anunoby. The Raptors have finally found their long-term answer at small forward. It only took two decades or so for us to reach this point, but regardless, we’re here now. Being able to watch OG develop, especially in the postseason, was a sight to behold.

Cam Dorrett: The growth and stability of OG. I know this is more of a collection of moments than one breathtaking experience, but my goodness is he going to be fun to watch for years.

Shyam Baskaran: There were so many great moments – DeMar’s 52 point game against the Bucks, the thrashing of the Cavs on national TV in January, and of course, demolishing the Celtics at the ACC in February. But, in terms of a favourite, I’d have to go with DeMar’s dunk on Anthony Tolliver, and then his overtime pass to Fred VanVleet to seal that early March win against the Pistons. Those were the simpler days…ah, the regular season.

Joshua Howe: For me, personally, I think it was DeRozan’s 52-point game against Milwaukee. It wasn’t just about the fact that he finally broke the record that up until that point was owned by two players (it’s weird to me when a franchise record is a tie), it was about how he did it. DeRozan was obviously on fire that game, shooting well and attacking the rim, but he also showed off his new and improved game, making smart passes in the pick-and-roll, and finding guys late when the Bucks sent traps at him. It was perhaps as complete of a game as I’ve ever seen him play, and the thrill of it will stick with me forever.

Mike Nelson: It was only fitting that it happened on the same floor so I’m tempted to go with “I cocked that joint back” 2.0. Nothing got me out of my seat more than DeRozan putting his own spin on James Johnson’s original nastiness down in Detroit, especially with the game hanging in the balance. On that same night, though, it was Fred Van Vleet’s heroics that ultimately came to the rescue. His game-winning corner jumper was just one example of his season-long mission to prove his critics wrong. It’s a close call but each and every memory of FVV’s undrafted revenge wins by a nose.

Anthony Doyle: March 9th. Ending Houston’s win streak was such an impressive game, and showed the potential of this roster so clearly. They put it together at both ends of the floor, got a KLOE performance, and beat one of the league’s best at the height of their powers.

Katie Heindl: Blowing out Cleveland in January. That win came when the team was firing on all cylinders, I thought, and the feeling of it was like winning a playoff game, maybe even what the final playoff game in the Cleveland series could have looked like had it all gone our way. It was gross, how happy we all were. Beyond that the whole season sort of feels like a beautiful haze now, like a dreamy summer that goes by in a blur and you can’t pin down many of the specifics once it’s past except for you are under-slept, have a wide array of mysterious scrapes and bruises and a really killer tan.

William Lou: There’s so many to choose from. DeMar DeRozan dropping 52 on the Bucks in OT and his coast-to-coast dunk on Spotify premium Patrick Patterson was great, but those were regular season games. I guess I’ll go with Fred VanVleet returning from his bum shoulder to close out Game 4 of the Wizards series. It’s silly to say this in retrospect, but that performance felt like it confirmed all of the changes that the Raptors had implemented during the regular season.

If the best five-year stretch in franchise history is coming to a close, or at least a hard pivot, this summer, what will you appreciate most from the last half decade of largely successful basketball?

Tim Chisholm: Before this stretch, the franchise really had no clue what direction it was going in. It had managed to draft two superstars, and failed miserably in surrounding them with complimentary talent or giving them a reason to believe in the franchise’s future. However, the steady improvements over the last five years, from the string of Playoff appearances to the superb development of the youth corps., proved that the organization had finally started to understand how to create an enviable outfit in the NBA. Years built on each other, and we stopped focusing on micro-developments from guys like Joey Graham and started looking at readiness for long Playoff runs. It’s hard to overstate how much muck separates those two realities.

Tamberlyn Richardson: It may sound simplistic, but winning and constant growth. Witnessing ‘Kyle Lowry over everything’ moments also stand out. Likewise, after years of Toronto’s “star players” darting as soon as they could there was a sense of pride that DeRozan not only wanted to come back but didn’t even consider another option. That said, my greatest joy occurred this season as the bench unit provided some of the most entertaining ball since the Vince and TMac era.

Vivek Jacob: Winning. This franchise was in the gutter when Dwane Casey and, eventually, Masai Ujiri took over, I will never forget that and I will never not be appreciative of where this franchise is now.

Matt Shantz: While it hasn’t all been good, these last five years have been the most fun I’ve had as a Raptors fan. From largely likeable personalities throughout the roster, to having at least a punchers chance against most teams, and getting to still enjoy the development of young guys like Delon, Pascal, and OG, I will think back fondly to these iterations of Raptors basketball. I’m thankful to have been a witness, even during the disappointments.

Cam Dorrett: I’ll appreciate the culture this team developed. Masai Ujiri had some downright beautiful words about this team and more importantly this city. The Raptors are a bigger part of our collective consciousness than ever before and that makes me so happy.

Shyam Baskaran: Being the underdog. It was clear that the Raptors got more publicility and coverage this year than ever before. Both in Toronto and south of the border. But I think there was always a feeling of “underdog” when it came to the Raptors a few years ago. The pioneers of the “We the North” era (Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, JV, and Coach Casey) are still part of the core, and so I think the underdog narrative has become a little stale. The weight of NBA finals expectations are upon us now, and going forward, the lens with which we view this team will be a little different. I’ll miss having those low expectations and surprise moments the most.

Joshua Howe: The value of having a successful team to root for. Look, for a long time, the Raptors sucked. Cheering for them was hard, and made even harder by the fact that management blew a lot of first round picks (yes, they got some right, too), to the point that one wondered whether or not the franchise was a lost cause. Then, Ujiri came in, and Casey grew as a coach, and Lowry and DeRozan grew as players, and after one seemingly mundane trade with the Kings led to a whacky, triumphant season, the Raptors became relevant in the playoff picture. That’s something. To be able to cheer for a winning team every season is something. Sure, they haven’t gotten as far as we’d have liked them to in the postseason, but only one team wins a title every year. The enjoyment of watching a good basketball team matters, and I think that’s something that gets taken for granted just a little too often.

Mike Nelson: I’ll always appreciate the early stages of the past five years the most. The second half of the 2013-14 season set the stage, and the playoff series with Brooklyn sparked a movement. Throw in the timing of the Leafs and Jays being stuck in mediocre limbo, and it was Basketball that brought this city back to life. And at least on a personal level, it was inspiring enough to start writing about. I even remember the headline of one of my very first articles, right after a game against the Cavs who were playing the role of spoilers (go figure): “Toronto Raptors must be held accountable after poor performance.”

Anthony Doyle: That they did it their own way. They didn’t tank, they didn’t trade for a bunch of lottery picks. This wasn’t a traditionally built team, it was homegrown talent combined with brilliant management to keep building value through trades and free agency in order to keep a team going. That and the fact that it was an accident, which will never not amuse me.

Katie Heindl: Pride, camaraderie, the swelling spirit of basketball culture in Toronto (in Canada), is it gauche to say fun?

William Lou: Seeing the Raptors be a competent and legitimate organization. Seriously, I never seen that before. Not only were they a successful product on the court, but the Raptors also carried themselves with class off the court.

In retrospect, do you think the Raptors were right to run it back with this core in 2017-18?

Tim Chisholm: Absolutely. Finishing with the best record in the East and a real belief that they could unseat the Cavs was not nothing. It didn’t work out like anyone had hoped, but it at the very least validated that running it back and giving it one more go with this group was a worthwhile experiment.

Tamberlyn Richardson: I keep asking myself how much Fred VanVleet’s injury affected the postseason. The bench unit and clutch time group suffered (timing thrown off) without him. Damn Bam Adebayo. Lesson: do not have a core contributor on the court in closing minutes of season’s last game, especially when winning the game was a nice to have – not ‘need to have’. My point is, I wonder if something as simple as VanVleet’s injury had a greater overall impact than we’ve considered and if the Raptors would’ve been better prepared for the semis if he was healthy.

Vivek Jacob: I think so. The previous offense sort of diminished the true value of players outside of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan — save for Patrick Patterson — and what Ujiri had to give up to get rid of DeMarre Carroll shows that. The changes this year will, I think, give Ujiri more flexibility — save for Serge Ibaka — in making deals because of the expanded roles throughout the roster.

Matt Shantz: I advocated for further changes last summer, and I was 100 percent wrong. The one argument that I might make is that the Ibaka contract in retrospect looks worse than it already could have. Otherwise, they maintained their biggest assets and focused on winning in a different way. Masai, like usual, made the right decision in my eyes.

Shyam Baskaran: I think so. It’s easy to forget that Masai sort of stumbled upon success a few years ago, and with the winning seasons that followed (especially for a franchise that had seen so little), it created some expectation in the fanbase. Given all of those factors, I don’t think tanking or blowing it up was really a prudent option for Masai last summer. It’The only way we could put ourselves in the mix once again was by bringing it back, making adustments in the back-end of the roster, and tweaking the overall way we play. It’s hard to pivot out of all of that now, but for all this franchise has been through, it’s important to sustain the winning as long as possible, The belief should be that their time will come. I’ll trust Masai to figure the rest out.

Joshua Howe: I don’t blame them at all, considering most of what occurred in 2017–18 was unexpected. Management couldn’t have known that the Bench Mob would become a thing, or that the core players would take kindly to moving to a new offensive system, or that DeRozan would improve his passing ability so much that he’d become a primary playmaker. The original idea was to stick to the three-year timeline and run this core until, essentially, their contracts expired and a new era dawned for the franchise. Playing as well as the team did in the regular season suddenly fast-tracked the group to the role of title contender, and expectations shifted. Realistically, I think if you went back in time and told management that this would be the outcome of the season, they’d still take it. Overall, it was the most season of Raptors basketball in a long, long time.

Anthony Doyle: Yes, because I think even if this is the pathway to the next Raptors core, this season had to happen to transition over. The young guys weren’t quite ready yet this year, and they’ll benefit in the long run from the experience of being on a good team this year.

Katie Heindl: Yes and no. Most everyone excelled at some point, the problem was that they didn’t all do it together or when it counted in the post-season. DeRozan and Lowry both had career years and JV showed an entirely new level of depth and skill. In retrospect, there’s always an opportunity to change something but the crux is that if some of the key pieces did change, and the result looked the same, would we be wondering what if we had just hung onto X?

William Lou: What was the alternative? Tear everything down and pivot to a bunch of young players to compete for a lottery pick with 10 other franchises and end up with Collin Sexton or something? How is that any better?

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the _ and _ -best Raptors of all time at this point. Jonas Valanciunas is top-___.

Tim Chisholm: This question is very hard to answer, and it’s Vince Carter that makes it hard. He still presided over the most polished and professional Playoff run in Raptors history (even if it wasn’t the longest), and while most of his records are broken, what he did for this franchise isn’t measurable with stats. I’ll say first and third for Lowry and DeRozan, slotting Vince in at second, because I think Lowry’s personality and play did a lot to legitimize this club, and he never quit on the team. Valanciunas is top-ten, but where depends on where you want to slot guys like Alvin Williams, Antonio Davis, Damon Stoudemire, Amir Johnson, and Hedo Turkoglu (just kidding).

Tamberlyn Richardson: Here:

  • Five consecutive playoff appearances
  • First 50-win season
  • First trip to Eastern Conference Finals
  • First time winning 7-Game series
  • First time winning Game 1 at home in playoffs
  • Improvement in win totals in 4 of 5 seasons
  • One of only three teams (Warriors/Cavaliers) to move onto second round in last three seasons
  • These three players are the only Raptors (other than Dwane Casey) who were here for all these accomplishments.
  • Winningest EC team in past 5 seasons

Although Vince Carter (6), Damon Stoudamire (2.6), Tracy McGrady (3), Antonio Davis (4) and Chris Bosh (6) can all be debated as belonging in the top three All-Time, none accomplished what this Raptors core did. Davis played in three postseasons while Carter and Bosh each played in two. Carter probably has the best argument to crack the top three, but at this point Lowry and DeRozan are cemented first and second with JV no lower than fourth given their collective accomplishments both personally and for the franchise.

Vivek Jacob: So, I’ve always defined best and greatest differently. To me, greatest weighs more of the intangibles while best is purely about a player’s ability on the court. With that cleared up, Lowry is the second-best Raptor of all-time after Vince Carter and DeMar DeRozan is third. Jonas Valanciunas is fifth after Chris Bosh. Tracy McGrady wasn’t a Raptor for long enough and wasn’t an all-star before he left.

Matt Shantz: I’m bad at rankings, but DeMar and Kyle clearly join Vince Carter in the top-3 for all time Raptors. I’d likely give Carter the edge as to what he meant for the culture of basketball in the city at a time it was much needed, with DeMar likely 2nd (longevity) and Kyle 3rd. As for Jonas, I’d say he’s top 7, as a rough estimation.

Cam Dorrett: 1A and 1B. JV is TOP-15

Shyam Baskaran: 3rd and 2nd. JV is top 10 I think. I still got Vince at the top not only because of the talent at his peak, but because of the societal impact and all of those other things. DeMar is 2nd because of the longetivy, the franchise records, the loyalty, etc. and Lowry a close 3rd. These guys oversaw the greatest era in the franchise’s history, and while they aren’t exactly A-list guys in terms of all-NBA talent, they’re still amazing. JV is certainly in the conversation when it comes to historically significant Raptors, but more so as a supplementary piece.

Joshua Howe: Okay, I made it a point this season to let it be known that I think DeRozan is the greatest Raptor of all-time. However, “greatest” is different than “best.” The word “best” implies to me sheer basketball talent and ability. So, then, where do DeRozan and Lowry rank within those parameters? I will put DeRozan fourth, and Lowry third, respectively (Vince is first, Bosh is second). I would say that Valanciunas is a top-10 best Raptor.

Mike Nelson: Can the criteria to determine this team’s all-time rankings really be concrete yet, though? The bar is subjective which also means there’s room for the list to fluctuate. I mean, when does talent take a backseat to tenure, and vice versa? One can surely argue that both Lowry and DeMar have tasted the top spot in the past, not to mention slotting JV as high as the top five. But I would ask anybody this: How can either remain at the all-time helm when three series sweeps in the last four years have taken place on their watch? Which only translates to treating JV (guilty by both association and his own inconsistencies) the same way. All three have taken this franchise to heights never seen before them, however, so while they need to slide down by default, they will forever be considered Raptors’ royalty. Current top 10: Vince, Lowry, DeRozan, Bosh, Calderon, Davis, Stoudamire, McGrady, Valanciunas, Mo Pete. Feel free to disagree.

Anthony Doyle: Lowry is first, DeRozan is 3rd, and Jonas is top-10 for me. Lowry was the best player on the team for the best stretch in franchise history, so he has to be at the top of the list. DeRozan is just below him and Vince, because although he was critical to this stretch, he’s never been the best player on the team for a full season. Jonas is top-10, at least in part because it falls off pretty hard after the top-5, but also because he’s been really good.It’s undeniable that the Raptors made progress in terms of modernizing their offense and developing young pieces, but none of it mattered toward the end result. Is that progress? That’s more of a question of perspective. They definitely improved since 2014, but they have also hit a clearly defined ceiling that falls well short of championship contention.

William Lou: Lowry is third, DeRozan is fourth. Valanciunas is top-10.