10 Things I Dig and Don’t Dig about the Toronto Raptors’ Offseason

There are merely 28 days until the 2021/22 NBA season, so before all the shemozzle begins, let's chat 10 things I dig and don't dig about the Toronto Raptors' offseason.

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The summer’s come and gone – yay(?), boo(?) – and it was anything but restful: fires, floods, and the follies of fandom (I joke with their parity; seriously, fuck Climate Change).

Us Toronto Raptors folk, though, we really needed this past summer to decompress after all that 2020-21 guck.

Maybe some of you did.

Me, barely.

Between

  • draft bonanza;
  • free agency mediocrity;
  • summer league splendour;
  • Raptors Twitter melodrama;
  • the loss of one Raptor Patriarc
  • the re-signing of another Raptor Patriarch;
  • trade conjecture;
  • much-too-early-mid-season speculation; and
  • too many Aperol Spritzes

my emotional portfolio vacillated like a Coinbase account.

For some much-needed personal therapy, let’s share 10 things I dig and don’t dig about the Toronto Raptors’ offseason.

     1. Living it up Long

You can’t get mad for teams trying something…anything…differently.

Each offseason, there’s a chunk of the same uninspiring signings. It’s as though every General Manager’s arrogance/ignorance/laziness/optimism has them truly believing that this time it’s going to be different(!).

We’re not privy to decision-making algorithms, but you watch Tristan Thompson and Moe Harkless go to Sacramento or the entire draft class of 2004-09 go to Los Angeles, or Cory Joseph to Detroit, or Ish Smith to Charlotte, or Robin Lopez to Orlando or Torrey Craig to the Pacers, or, like, the Bulls digging deep into the Toronto Raptors bullpen and doing this:

this:

and this:

in a matter of three hours and you can’t help but wonder if Masai Ujiri is the lone human among 29 Cylons.

I mean, sometimes it works out. Craig went from mid-season discount to post-season bonus; Jeff Green [maybe] finally transitioned from perennial disappointment to playoff lynchpin.

But for the most part, veteran presence aside, the upside of those kinds of acquisitions are grim. And I know there are only so many “NBA players” around to fill out rosters, but it takes one Playoffs experience to be reminded of how inconsequential so many of these guys become.

If you’re rounding out a Playoff-destined team, fine; otherwise, why not get a little spicy?

It’s why Toronto’s fringe additions, at least, give you a few heart flutters. Each, however unexciting, were at least something new.

Yes, Sam Dekker, Ishmail Wainright, Isaac Bonga, Justin Champagnie, and Svi Mykhailiuk are objectively worse than the aforementioned free agents – though their potential for growth is much greater – but it’s less about individual tactic and more about overall strategy.

They, like the Scottie Barnes, Dalano Banton, and David Johnson picks and Khem Birch and Gary Trent Jr. re-ups, demonstrate Toronto’s new diabolical intentions as an outlier.

Find the trend:

Easy, right?

Masai and Bobby have gone full double-baked potato on Length + Strength.

BREAKING NEWS: you can add the Rubberband Man, Alex Antetokounmpo – 6’8, 214 lbs, and 7’2 wing span – to the list of lean and long Raptor training camp recruits.

David Johnson’s short but he’s also longer than an HBO intro. Svi and GTJ are like two pints of Guinness, stout, but imposing and burlier than most opposing them. The rest are a bunch of Daddy Long Legs.

The whole roster’s like that. Not a soul surpasses 6’9. Only Fred VanVleet and Malachi Flynn are small-small; everyone else, Goran Dragić included, has long-ass arms. They’re the NBA page in Where’s Waldo.

Will it all work? Depends.

They are, of course, nowhere near carbon copies of each other. The success of this team falls squarely on the shoulders of a few, particularly, on the offensive end.

Defensively, though, having spiderman after spiderman after spiderman at your disposal surely helps. Passing and driving lanes alike will be crowded and short-lived. We saw the Summer League Raps harangue unsuspecting guards with some full-court swarms. This poor dude got it from both Scottie and Dalano.

I’d lovvveee to see some of that end-to-end Bench Mob brutality this season. At best, they’ll force turnovers; at worst, they’ll exhaust depth charts. Chaos is my kind of bball.

They also now have an arsenal of wide receivers, which, for a team where the half-court is not so vundabar an experience, is quite important. Force misses at one end and sprint down to the other. It’s not a really a proven Playoff formula, but one step at a time shall we?

Regardless of success – ready yourself for a measured amount – we’ll find both tranquillity and thrill in cheering for a team that’s taking a clear and novel approach to the game. As a devoted zealot to the 7-Seconds-or-Less-Steve-Nash-Suns way of basketball, I can attest to the fun in experimentation and innovation!

Last year was the opposite. We were mired in a sludgy transition between the Champions and Next Gen eras; the glass ceiling was suffocatingly low and predictable – though I remained futilely hopeful!

This year won’t be any less challenging: it’s going to be ugly and awkward as the new-look Raptors discover themselves.

And that’s exactly how Masai wants it to be.

     2. Long-Term Masaigning

On that note, buckle up folks.

Masai is here for the long haul. Bobby Webster is here for the long haul. Nick Nurse is, probably, here for the long haul.

So if you don’t like what we got, you’re shit outta luck.

Masai’s the master of this league now. There’s truly no denying it.

He’s out-maneuvered most of his contemporaries and, repeatedly, excelled in nearly everything he’s set out to do.

But he’s no cutthroat, as many in this line of work turn out to be. He’s loyal (most of the time), compassionate, and an unwavering leader who transcends well beyond the NBA.

We feel all of that watching the passion (and vulgarity) in his press conferences and we see all of that looking at what he’s done not just for this team, but for the NBA, and for basketball in the whole of Africa.

Prior to his re-signing, I said to a friend that I would not be surprised if he went overseas into footy or into something entirely unrelated to sports. Lo’ and behold, it was reported that NBA teams were not the only professional franchises pursuing Masai.

Despite the chance for greater fame and opportunity, he chose Toronto.

We’re lucky to have him.

     3. Losing Lowry

This is no place to eulogize our indomitable leader.

Oren Weisfeld already did.

Samesies with Manny Rao.

All I’ll say is I’m going to miss when a dumbass foul is called by Tony Brothers and I’m yelling at the TV asking rhetorically in my underwear how issss THAT a foul? only to look over in the corner of the screen and see #7 already with his hands out pleading to the other two refs, with those ingratiating, pursed lips to the one side of his mouth, as he advocates convincingly for the make-up call he knows he’s going to get one or two plays later.

My belly lurches thinking that’s gone.

It’s going to be damn hard to watch next season without the charges, the last-stand post defence, that effortless two-handed Tyrannosaurus-arm passes perfectly lofted to a cherry-picker running down court, and the timely threes or boulder-chasing-Indiana-Jones drives to the tin.

He made the grit and meticulousness of the game glorious.

I’m going to miss that.

I’m going to miss him.

     4. Losing Lowry (with returns)

On the flip side – my how these first three topics so nicely lead up to the fourth – Masai still got value for Kyle’s departure.

(More on Goran the Incorrigible later).

I’m talking Precious Achiuwa here (also check the video by the RR team on Precious).

There will be the kvetchers who lament what we could have had at the trade deadline last year – and I hear your grumbles loud and clear – but it is what it is. Besides, Achiuwa is a lovely second place in the beauty contest.

This year, his second in the NBA, we’re going to mostly see the basics: the fast-break dunks, the emphatic put-back crams, the lobs and collect-pivot-and-lay-up off pick and rolls, the high-motor intensity, and, hopefully, the odd look-over-at-your-pal-with-surprised-eyes creation.

Nothing to exactly write home about, but (A) his combination of size, athleticism, and motor was something Toronto desperately needed last year and is even more than what Khem Birch brings; and (B) his upside.

In Miami – no complaints from me – you got a lot of this, and I anticipate more of the same this year:

Recall last year’s woes – if you can bear it. That screener was either Aron Baynes (no more mockery, he’s a great Gent and with a career-jeopardizing injury at the moment) who lacked the versatility or Chris Boucher who lacked the frame. Now, with Precious, Pascal, Malachi, and Freddy have a guy with the hands, the [some] footwork, and the hops to provide a variety of rolling alternatives.

What he does not provide, that Chris and, to a sliver of a degree, Aron provided was the pick and pop. Precious made only four jumpers beyond 10 ft all year and they weren’t all that pretty.

There is some skeleton of a form there, and he has the confidence to try it, which, as we know with the Ben Simmons drama, means something. That was last year, anyways.

Thus far, in the Olympics and Summer League, Precious has begun to exploit the gifted space indifferent defenders provide him by shooting when open or employing some ball-handling when that room contracts.

That kind of half-court aggression along with his newfound interest in pushin’ coast-to-coast – something Nurse encouraged Khem Birch to also do last season – means we’re talking more than just a P&R lob threat.

Ultimately, Precious showed offensive growth this summer, which is all you want to see from a young player joining THE developmental team of the NBA and who has this kind of relationship with Masaister Splinter.

Then, of course, there’s the defence. We all saw the block Precious had on Kevin Durant this summer. No? Please, enjoy.

It’s one play, but, again, that’s where his potential and versatility is so delectably refreshing for Toronto. His lateral quickness, verticality, and strength is the exact spell I was trying to cast last year in conjuring a hybrid Raptors centre like Qyborn reanimating The Mountain. I wanted to call it La Boucharon. Alas, Bulk Barn was outta figwort.

I’ll save you the analysis, but suffice it to say, Precious’ athleticism translates defensively. If you kept watching the Olympics, you’d see him switch on to and stay with guards effortlessly. His low centre of gravity and solid frame also makes up for his height disparity; don’t forget he loves to vault over for the odd help-side smash.

He overplays and over-anticipates at times, as many eager, young athletic bigs tend to do, but with experience and guidance, those mistakes will lessen over time.

     5. Toronto’s Own

There’s a decent documentary produced by LeBron James and…yes, Drake…called The Carter Effect on Netflix outlining the impact Vince Carter had on basketball culture in Toronto, and, to some degree, Canada at large. (I’d argue Steve Nash had just as profound impact, but, hey, let’s give one to Drake, shall we?).

The point is, and, maybe what we sometimes forget, is how much of a sociological effect professional sports can have on future generations. The talent influx in the WNBA and its continued growth and success is no better a demonstration of what exposure to younger humans can do for a sport.

Heck, we saw 19-year-old tennis prodigy, Leylah Fernandez, attribute inspiration to Steve Nash for her sudden rise at the US Open. There’s NO QUESTION that the success of players like Leylah and Bianca Andreescu will have major future implications for tennis in Canada.

Canada was a hockey/lacrosse country. But basketball’s putting up a fight. The Canadian content right now is outta control with its golden generation of NBA talent cresting. Yet, it feels like Canada’s best is still to come.

With Toronto drafting Dalano Banton 46th overall in the 2021 NBA draft, he becomes the first Toronto native to be drafted by the Raptors. And, while the game of basketball already flourishes in Toronto and, really, the country, having a local from the heart of the city will only further the generational shifts towards the game.

Years from now we may have to study The Banton Effect and see how transformative an impact his success had for Canada and the game of basketball.

     6. The Emotions: “ROARRRRRR”

Give me this kind of intensity ALL FRIGGIN’ DAY.

Peeps [and listen] to him after the block too. Love it.

It’s rare to see such spirit in a regular-season game – unless you’re a cranky-pants like DeMarcus Cousins or a stubborn know-it-all like Draymond Green –  let alone Summer League!

And, then, you get this cute stuff on the backend. I mean it doesn’t really get any better than this.

https://twitter.com/Raptors/status/1424511486995558401?s=20

Media’s having a feeding frenzy and so they should.

Scottie’s neither fiend nor cherub. He’s an empath with supreme emotional intelligence, according to Eric Koreen of The Athletic, who profiled Scottie last week. That explains the on-court intensity and off-court lightheartedness. He gets when and how to act.

Exhibit A: Scottie’s barely been a Raptor for more than two months and he’s already got a The Player’s Tribune article effusing his love for the T-dot. It takes athletes years to ingratiate themselves with a city and its fans. It’s taken Scottie all of a few months and a few paragraphs:

Exhibit B: Like the Arsenalist said a couple weeks back, this kind of intensity is contagious; it’s the lifeblood of strong team morale and successful roster development. When a lottery pick is unabashedly bellowing on the court days into his nascent NBA career, you know you have something special.

     7. The Emotions: *tear*

Take your VR goggles off for a second. We’re about to get real.

We forget how much of a goddamn grind this game is. So many sacrifice so much just to even get a sniff of a crumb of a chance of playing in the W/NBA.

We often forget the humanity behind the player and the psychological and physical toll demanded of them. To the fan, players are an input and their statistics and team record an output. We talk about less productive players disparagingly saying “they stink” or whatever. It’s utterly inhumane to do so and wrong anyway.

They don’t stink. We are just spoiled by seeing W/NBA superstars on a nightly basis. But they are the very, very few. We should also honour the very, very many who face the daily struggle and never make it.

Ish reminds us that this just might only be a game to us, but it’s a life and a passion for them. One in which there’s no guarantee of anything in return.

Respect to that.

     8.  The Rancour for Goran

I don’t get it.

I know the Raptors’ history with Goran Dragić is a bit…violent.

And I know he’s $19.4 million this year.

And I know he, supposedly, doesn’t even want to be in Toronto.

But all that aside, we need Goran Dragić.

Guard depth is gaunt. We’re piling a load of hopes and dreams on the shoulders of Malachi Flynn. With Dragić, Nurse has someone to turn to in those inevitable moments where young Malachi is in over his head.

He’s also interchangeable. Like in Miami, Dragić can take command of the offence when needed or reliably spot-up when superfluous. Making him bluetoothable to any of FVV, GTJ, or Flynn.

Dragić’s production has been down over the last two years (he averaged roughly 14 points a game and 4 assists on 55% true shooting), but if there’s any juice left he can get you a bucket in iso in a squeeze – something Toronto is loath to have to do.

He’s pesky and that’s annoying when your enemy, but much-loved when your ally (wait till you have to watch Lowry weasel his way into every call this season for Miami – you’ll be torn).

However you feeeeel about him, Dragić’s also a legitimate winner and leader. His fledgling years were under the tutelage of Skipper Nash and he’s paid that mentorship forward to guys like Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson.

He looks to be doing the same in Toronto too.

He and his [non-biological] lil’ bro, Luka Dončić, also led the very small nation of Slovenia to its first international championship, winning the 2017 EURO Cup, and, in 2020, he, alongside Jimmy Buckets and Bam Adebayo, dragged the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals.

If there’s any juice left, Dragić will be a welcomed supplement to the Toronto Raptors core. If not, a $20 million expiring isn’t the worst thing for Masai to have come trade deadline.

     9. Riding the Hype Cycle

You know Adam Silver and his henchmen are winning the North American Sports Wars when, at the height of the NBA offseason, I’m still scraping HoopsHype like a Cambridge Analytica AI-bot.

Luckily, there are plenty of pick-up videos to satisfy my craving for NBA content.

They have a bit of a reality-TV-meets-professional-sports-feel where you get to (A) see which players run together (I like to try and piece together the inter-relational dynamics of who gets invited and why); (B) check what they’re wearing (Hoodie Melo and sweatpants FVV come to mind – wait until you see Andre Drummond’s tight look); and, (C) scout players.

The runs are even more tantalizing when you get to preview your franchise’s Crown Jewel. Scottie Barnes ran with some NBA notables the other day and, mannnn, did it get me hyped.

Before I gush over Scottie’s pick-up play, a note on hype. The Hype Cycle – as seen below in the very professional graph – describes the irrationality of fandom.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the roller coaster ride. First, we get way too excited about a prospect; then, after a few crud games, we regret our foolish optimism; until finally, once time and wisdom sober us up, we reach a nice balance of moderate expectations.

As you can see, I’m ascending the peak of inflated expectations right now. The highlights below are just more candy to my Scottie Barnes hype-erglycemia (see what I did there?).

In the montage, Scottie locks up Donovan Mitchell and Tim Hardaway Jr. on the perimeter, denies several dudes driving to the rim, and bodies up Andre Drummond in the post. At the other end, he’s less commanding but finds ways to contribute by rolling on P&R’s, finding space near the rim, ripping swift passes, filling lanes in transition, and grabbing O-rebs.

I know it’s just an 8-minute clip of a series of pick-up games, but let me enjoy my voyage through the Hype Cycle. Okayyyy!?

Am I to crash? Inevitably. You’re likely to find me sometime in March trudging through the trough of disillusionment as Scottie endures his rookie hiccups. But until that day is nigh, I shall ride that sweet, sweet high of anticipation.

     10. Podcastination

Just a little public relations material here to end.

If you like what you hear or you’re masochistic and enjoy the misery of hating what you hear, you’ll be happy to know that I am joining Sahal Abdi and Oren Weisfeld on The Rap Up this coming season. After e’ry Raptors game we’ll give you the breakdowns, the shakedowns, and the takedowns (not sure what any of that really means) and who knows what else…

Also, I recently joined Jamal Hinds, Zarar Siddiqi, Kristian Cuaresma and Manny Rao on Mac’s podcast, Runnin’ Off The Screen, last Thursday to draft our All-Time Raptors teams. Let’s just say, my team would not be an enjoyable experience for fans eager for a high-flying affair – just the way I like it.

Keep an eye out for that video on Tuesday.

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