Alright, it happened. This is not a drill.
LeBron James has agreed to 4-year, $154M deal with Lakers, Klutch Sports says.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 2, 2018
So, with the Raptors biggest deterrent, in Lebron James, out of the east for the foreseeable future, where do they go from here? Well, as TSN’s Josh Lewenberg reported in a series of tweets, it appears as though the Raptors plan on keeping the band together for at least one more kick at the can, and personally, I think it’s a no-brainer. Here’s my case:
The East Will Never Be This Poor Again
While the complaints have grown louder this offseason about how the Raptors will never get over the hump relying on second-tier stars in Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, fans need to keep one thing in mind: the east is a second-tier conference. And now more than ever.
With Lebron’s departure, 13 of the top 14 on ESPN’s NBA player rankings prior to this season now reside in the west. The lone wolf remaining in the east is Giannis Antetokounmpo, with John Wall being the only other player in the top 15 (that hasn’t aged well). In fact, the lack of competitive balance this year had Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated referring to the east as “triple A” and the west as “the show,” and that was before number 23’s move.
Many would point to the up and coming Sixers, and Celtics as the argument against keeping the current core together, but the lack of continuity as well as the injury risk for each of those teams must be considered.
For the Sixers, although this year looked like the start of a long run of deep playoff appearances, there is no guarantee they will be as fortunate from a health standpoint as they were this year. Relying on injury-prone stars such as Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid runs the risk of losing out on playoff success should even one go down with yet another long-term injury at any point past Christmas. Additionally, their youth relative to the rest of the league was on full display in their second-round series against the Celtics. Despite being favored (heavily, at that) by virtually all projections before the series, the Sixers looked outclassed by the undermanned Celtics as coach Brad Stevens made them pay for seemingly every miscue on either end of the floor.
Unless the Sixers manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat and land Kawhi Leonard this summer, there’s no reason to believe the Raptors couldn’t take them down in a seven-game series this coming season; especially when you consider that they took the season series 3-1 this past year, outscoring the Sixers by an average of 12.75 points through those four games. However, as Brett Brown made clear when he kept it real with the media after the draft this year, the Sixers are “star hunting” so it may not be long before they are the team in the east. The Raptors best chance at taking down this sleeping giant is clearly this season before they can make a splash in free agency, and before their young stars truly learn how to coexist.
For the Celtics, many of the same questions apply despite most perceiving them as the inevitable eastern champion this upcoming season. While the injury concerns surrounding the Sixers are largely theoretical as of now, the Celtics’ risks are far more concrete. Namely, their two biggest stars, in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, are coming off of major injuries.
While many assume that Hayward will be able to return to form based on Paul George’s recovery to within spitting distance of his prior self following the same injury, there’s no way to know for sure. To enlarge the sample size to greater than one, former Louisville player Kevin Ware infamously suffered the same injury years ago and returned a shell of former self, eventually transferring out to a mid-major due to his vastly reduced impact.
For Irving, his injury concerns might be as concerning considering how chronic his issues seem. After missing the last third of this season due to a bacterial infection in his kneecap, Kyrie has now played above sixty games in only three of his seven seasons and has been unable to finish the year in two of the last four. Although his most recent procedure should supposedly be the end of issues with that troublesome left knee, that’s what is said about virtually any surgery undergone by a star— there are no guarantees.
The question also remains as to how the suddenly star-studded Celtics will gel. The young guys (Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier) are far more talented than their expected roles will allow them to be, and their established veterans (Al Horford, and the aforementioned Irving and Hayward) have yet to register a single full game together. It seems unlikely that there will be any sort of “too many cooks in the kitchen” issues considering Stevens’ ability to stagger lineups and maximize his players but as I said before: there are no guarantees.
Additionally, considering the Raptors handily dismantled the C’s in their lone matchup with all hands on deck– save for Hayward– this past season, it begs the question of whether the Celtics really are more talented (at least right now). Both Brown and Tatum will become terrors in this league but the consistency isn’t there yet, and the rest of their stars, while sensational, fall closer to the DeRozan and Lowry’s of the world than the Durant and Curry’s. The decline is coming for both Horford and Hayward as they age, and Irving is still yet to make a first or second All-NBA team despite all of his playoff heroics. In a few years the Celtics will almost certainly be the class of the east (especially once they get Anthony Davis, but they can’t talk about that yet), but for now, the playing field is far more even than most analysts are willing to admit.
Lastly, while not near as threatening, both the Wizards and Bucks will likely be spinning their tires for yet another year based on their recent moves. For the Wizards, a trade for Demarcus Cousins seems less likely by the day, and with Alex Len supposedly on pace to become their man in the middle this year, the ever-present dysfunction may get worse (if that’s possible). For the Bucks, fit concerns remain amongst their core and their recent signing of Ersan Ilyasova means that a meaningful upgrade at any position seems unlikely. So, unless Antetokounmpo can make yet another leap this year then the Bucks (and Wizards) will likely be among the middle class yet again.
While no one enjoys looking at players as pieces on a chess board, it is difficult not to considering how successful moves of that nature tend to play out. For example, as painful as it was for Celtic’s general manager to trade Isaiah Thomas last summer there is no doubt that he maximized Thomas’ value in that deal. As heartless as those types of moves are in the moment they consistently set franchises up for continued success, so long as they have a solid culture in place.
As previously mentioned, many have made the case for pulling the plug on the Raptors core this offseason, but it needs to be considered that the value of that core took a meaningful hit after they were undone four straight times by the Cavaliers. Therefore, as much as some fans would like it, this summer would not have been the best time to sell their largest assets.
If the Raptors manage to replicate a large part of their regular season success this past season and make a deep run in next year’s comically poor east playoffs then it stands to reason that the value of the Raptors most tradeable assets will noticeably rise. Additionally, considering Masai Ujiri has purposely planned to cap the life of this team at two years from now, all the Raptors key players will be far more sought-after next offseason when teams would only need to commit a single year to their inflated salaries. If the Raptors can get back some coveted young pieces in those deals then it sets them up as a player in 2020 free agency when the Greek Freak comes off Milwaukee’s books (but we can’t talk about that yet either, so shh).
For the Sake of Legacy
Over recent years many a comparison has been drawn between this Raptors team and previous east teams that were consistently embarrassed by James in May. However, with James out of the picture, a more favorable comparison is within their grasp: the early 2000’s Nets.
While they were never close to winning either of the finals they appeared in, making the finals was an accomplishment in and of itself for those Nets teams. Despite only winning low 50’s in games each of the two years, the Nets managed to run the table in the playoffs against a mediocre east field and be forever enshrined as a finals team. The competitive balance between conferences at the time was arguably worse than the current iteration the league is experiencing as in 2002 four teams in the west won 57 games or more, while the Nets were the only team in the east to surpass the 50 win threshold (and barely did). Although many remember the infamous Kings of that season fondly, the other non-finals western powers of that year (Mavericks and Spurs) have largely been forgotten, while those Nets teams are still discussed and remembered affectionately today. In fact, many would argue that those Nets teams were Jason Kidd’s greatest achievement, despite a storied career outside a New Jersey uniform.
If the Raptors manage to come out of the east this year, even if they get smashed in the finals, they can take some solace in knowing they won’t fade to black like so many east teams have the last decade because of James. It may not be the legacy Raptors fan’s dreamed of when DeRozan and Lowry were at peak of powers, but it’s a legacy all the same. I’m sure the early 2010’s Pacers, Bulls, and Hawks would have relished at such a chance.