The Bridge to the River Giannis

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In the 90s and 2000s my father used to say that the Raptors needed to make a team entirely of foreigners and outcasts in order to compete as no American player would sign long-term in Toronto. I scoffed at the old man. What did he know? In my arrogance it didn’t occur to me that we both started following basketball around the same time, and he followed the game just as passionately as me. I was a reckless teenager and he was a man trying to earn a living as an underpaid new immigrant. In the evenings Raptors basketball took over. He was tired after a strenuous day of outdoor work and while working on finishing his second pack of Marlboros, we watched basketball. My mom, more of a Dunhill girl, didn’t chime in as much, but was an equally big fan and only made comments in the extreme. “He’s so horrible”, she once said of Reggie Miller because he made a clutch three against the Raptors.

My dad was right in many ways. His firm belief that Toronto was a destination where superstars could either be drafted or traded, not signed on the open market, held true. It’s what made the Vince Carter re-signing such a big deal – he could have gone elsewhere but didn’t. More than two decades needed to pass before the Raptors won a title and scanning the title roster we ended up with two Spaniards, one Cameroonian and a British-Nigerian bloke. Our two best players were rejects. Kyle Lowry was dumped by Houston and Memphis before finding a home in Toronto, and Kawhi Leonard was booted out of San Antonio for not being a team guy. 

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free…the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door”. Those are words penned by Emma Lazarus in her 1883 sonnet “The New Colossus”, which appears in stone underneath the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island. Though the extrapolation is extreme, I like to think of the Raptors much like she did of the immigrants. We’ll take you and make something of you.

As a franchise we now arrive at another crossroads – a tipping point of sorts. There are three paths we can take: stagnation, ascension or regression. Stagnation is what we are most familiar with, as it amounts to a prolonged period of what can best be classified as mediocrity. We know what this looks like all too well – it’s the Chris Bosh and DeMar DeRozan eras. Enjoyable regular seasons with no end product. Ascension could be achieved through winning the Giannis sweepstakes which would set up a potentially lethal combination of players that could dominate the East for the foreseeable future. And finally, regression. This is where our chips lose value and even probable outcomes of our roster become unachievable. 

Who doesn’t like to think that they’re a realist and I’m no different, though an audit would likely reveal that I’m a cynic. Except right now I’m neither. I can confidently classify myself as an optimist because I have a feeling (and I know how silly that sounds), that the Raptors do truly have a shot at signing Giannis Antetokounmpo. The reasons for my optimism are no different than anyone else’s. 

The Raptors did not want to hand out multi-year deals to players they highly valued in Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. They structured the Fred VanVleet contract to take a dip in the second year. They will likely not sign OG Anunoby to an extension before next summer. All these pave the way to make a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo, even though it is not evidence that they’ll actually do that. 

When gossip becomes reflected in decisions and informs contract clauses, then we move from the realm of hearsay to reality. One such reality that has struck the Bucks is all too familiar to Raptors fans – their main guy not signing a maximum money extension when there’s an opportunity to do so. That signals intent. It does not signal that there is interest to sign with the Raptors, but it does convey the desire to test the market. For the Raptors it is a matter of due diligence to be in a position to be part of that test. Anything else would border on neglect, especially given the history between Masai Ujiri and Giannis Antetokounmpo which makes the Raptors well-positioned to have a talk. Giannis signing an extension to give the Bucks a return would only hinder acquiring him, not make it impossible. The Raptors have enough assets in picks and players to compete on the market without giving up Siakam.

There is a debate whether Giannis is even the right target. This thinking goes against common sense because why would you not have an MVP-level player on your team? His playoff shortcomings and failures to elevate his team are strikes against him, but there’s an inclination to chalk those off to team construction, not his personal limitations. Masai Ujiri’s reputation of having the right complementary players around his main players may be the idea that moves the needle. Like with any team – sports or otherwise – trust is key and Ujiri is a trustworthy builder (except don’t say that to DeMar).

The Giannis pursuit along with surveying if Pascal Siakam can bounce back will consume this season. Subplots include OG Anunoby’s development, Fred VanVleet trying to move up a tier, and the young Raptors core, which now includes Malachi Flynn, making a name. All this adds up to what is loosely being called a “bridge year”. A bridge to what remains to be seen. Consensus appears to be that even in this transitory year the Raptors will be able to pursue a top four spot in the East and have themselves some spring fun. So I suppose regression, stagnation and ascension aren’t the only three options. This year might just be the precursor to ascension, whatever that phase is called.

If the Raptors end up getting Giannis it would be the first instance where a top tier free agent signed with the Raptors on the open market. That would only partially prove my Dad wrong because he is technically a foreigner as well.

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