The Raptors search for identity

I’m a firm believer in the idea that when someone shows you who they are, you should believe them. This applies to life in general, to how one handles relationships, and it’s a rule of thumb that has served me well. With basketball teams, it also followed generally. If you looked at the development of the team identity, the end result was never truly shocking. An identity, once established, is a hard thing to shake, and often requires forceful change to truly modify in a meaningful way.

When it came to this year’s Raptors, however defining that identity hasn’t been an easy thing. After all, before believing that they are who they’ve showed us to be, we needed to find out who they were showing us that they were. To start the season the results were overwhelmingly positive, at least in terms of wins. While they weren’t always as easy as they should’ve been, and the margin of victory wasn’t where it might’ve seemed it should be, the wins kept coming. There were mitigating factors, too. A rookie head coach, a team coming off a major trade defining themselves, a star player coming off a season where he barely played, and a few scattered injuries combined with Kawhi sitting out the second nights of back to backs. There were games being played, but when the struggles came, the argument was made that the Raptors hadn’t shown us who they were, yet.

As the season has moved on, the wins have kept on coming, and they haven’t always been pretty. Sometimes huge leads where they let opponents back into the game, sometimes early struggles where they managed to find a way back in and pull off the victory, and the occasional loss when they weren’t able to get back there, mostly against good teams though. Even the losses, mostly, couldn’t be called bad losses, because they were to good opponents or with the team heavily shorthanded.

Yet, despite that, the Raptors haven’t really had many, if any, games that you could point to and say that it was an example of the Raptors’ oft-discussed ceiling. Almost every game came with a quarter, or a half, or more where they weren’t that team, where they struggled to find an answer to that night’s opponent. Great games just haven’t happened for this team, all season long, and this was easily brushed off earlier in the year, but the longer this trend goes, the harder it becomes to ignore.

Through it all, there has been plenty of concern raised, whether about the struggles of the bench, which hasn’t been able to define itself as it’s been constantly shifting due to the injuries and guys trying to find their role, or about Kyle Lowry, who has maintained his impact in many areas of the game despite poor shooting this season. But this idea has persisted, that the identity of the team hasn’t been fully discerned yet, because they keep finding ways to win more often than not, they haven’t been fully healthy, and they have an abundance of talent.

It’s not that any of those mitigating factors are false, either, really. The team hasn’t been healthy, having missed Jonas Valanciunas, who is critical to this roster in many ways, for nearly two months now and Kyle Lowry for a significant portion of that time as well. The record, at 37-16, is still strong, and should carry the Raptors to a good playoff seed, especially with a weak remaining schedule. Also, this is a very talented roster despite the fact that their shooters have almost universally had a poor season shooting the ball, and that carries them through a lot of rough games where they simply have too much talent to fail.

To go back to where we started though, when the Raptors show us who they are, we should believe them. Which leaves the question, have we seen who the Raptors are yet this season? Has Nick Nurse been given enough time to evaluate him in the first season of his coaching, and have a picture of who he is at the helm of a team? Have they, despite all of the injuries and missed time, retained enough of a healthy roster for enough time for us to piece together a picture of who they are as a team, and who they will be going forward?

At some point, Jonas Valanciunas will return to the roster, and barring a trade in the next week prior to the deadline, or yet another injury, this will be the intact roster that the team planned on having at the outset of the season. There is certainly an argument to be made that simply having that team in place for a stretch of time will fix some of the problems, with the Raptors often looking like a team that just doesn’t know how to play with each other, a team that’s full of unfamiliarity due to the constantly changing rotation as they adjust to injury. It’s not unthinkable that having that brings some level of unity that nothing else this season has seemed to for the Raptors, and the pieces begin to fit into place.

However, we’re now 53 games into an 82 game season, and this is, in all likelihood, a singular season for this team. With Kyle Lowry showing signs of age this year, and Kawhi Leonard an impending free agent next summer, it’s worth assuming that even should Leonard return, this will not be the same team a season from now, and there will be additional changes to come as the adjust to the realities of a roster getting older. This team was built for the playoffs, not for the regular season, Raptors fans and media like to remind themselves during the tougher games of the season, but the season is needed to prepare for what comes after.

At this point in the season, a team should have an identity, and these Raptors still haven’t established that. The record is slipping of late, the point differential has fallen off, and the starting lineup is struggling while the bench still hasn’t found their footing. All of this is fixable, given the depth that this squad has, but all of this is dependent on the team establishing a real identity. As the season starts, everyone is still looking for that, but the Raptors are starting to run into opponents who have found their groove, who are on a path towards a playoff run based on who they want to be as a team. The Raptors, for whatever reason, and there are plenty to choose from, haven’t yet found that. It’s certainly possible that they still do.

There is another possibility though, and it’s not a comfortable one, but it’s one that has to be considered at some point. Perhaps this is who the Raptors are, a team that’s ceiling always seems just out of reach, a team that’s perpetually almost, but not quite there. Maybe the fact that the Raptors are struggling to find their identity isn’t the process, but the identity that they’re showing us. With a week left to go to decide whether to make changes, that’s a possibility the Raptors front office might have to confront.

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