With the 2022 NBA draft approaching on June 23rd, we want to take a look back at the Raptors draft history; giving a bit of an accounting of the state of the Raptors, what we thought of the pick in the moment and in retrospect. Each day we will examine the Raptors significant pick(s) and additions in each draft, and frame it in the context of what was going on during that year. You can find all the pieces in this draft history project here.
The State of The Raptors Heading Into The Drafts
The 2017-18 season proved to be the pivotal one under Masai’s stewardship. After three straight seasons of regular season success followed by playoff disappointment at the hands of LeBron, this was do or die time. Another excellent regular season, followed by another playoff disappointment was probably going to lead to wholesale changes in the offseason; you could just feel it in the tension and urgency with which Masai would address the media when they could force him into a corner and stick a mic in his face.
The question was never could Lowry and DeMar deliver in the regular; they already proved that with multiple consecutive All-Star appearances, All-NBA selections, Atlantic banners in the rafters, and multiple 50 win seasons. The question was always could they deliver in the playoffs. The tea leaves were saying no, but what choice did we have? Trading stars for better stars wasn’t really a thing in the NBA. You either had to package young assets and picks, take on additional bad salary, or hope you were dealing with the likes of Sacramento who never had anything of value that could put you over the top.
The regular season exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. They finished with 59 wins and the top seed in the east earning them home court all the way to finals — if they got there. The specialness of this season was the seemingly overnight shift in culture without any significant turnover to the roster. What we know now is that Nick Nurse had a louder voice from the bench, which shaped them into the only team in the East with both a top-1o offensive (3rd overall) and defensive (5th overall) rating.
Both Lowry and DeMar were exceptional iso players, but after long looks in the mirror, the team wanted to move to a more fluid offensive system where the ball was being shared and swung around for the best look. To their credit, both Lowry and DeMar embraced this plan which served multiple benefits:
- The reduced usage lessened the load and they weren’t over worked come playoff time
- Which led to our two best players being healthier and able to make deeper playoff runs
- And created an offensive system that relied less on our two stars playing hero ball eliminating points of failure where other teams could focus their defensive scheming on
The result was an exquisite style of play that gave the team the ability to put more defensive effort in (manic switching and rotations) due to the ease of the offence; opposite to say, how Westbrook plays basketball, right? How pronounced was it? The Raptors went from 30th in the league in assist the season before to 6th this season. And from 3-point land, they went from 22nd to 4th. That’s a lot of damn good looks, fam. A lot!
On the defensive end, a big reason for the turnaround could be attributed to OG who was not even expected to play much/at all this season. The team finally — finally! — had the small forward it spent over a decade needing. With Norm going down with injury early(ish) in the season, OG was inserted into the starting lineup, and he was just a man possessed getting the night assignment of manning up the opposing teams best player. With OG starting, the starters net rating went for -3.9 to 11.2, and by seasons end, the starters posted the second-best net rating of any starting unit who played 40 games or more together.
This renewed focus willed the bench mob into existence. Young guys take their lead from their star vets, and when you have guys like Lowry and DeRozan sacrificing their own offence (they still got theirs, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t come at the expense of the offence as a whole, but organically as a result of it) for their brothers, and doing all the necessary things defensively, who are you to say “nah, I’ma get mine!” You’re just not.
As a unit, the bench mob had a net rating of 18.7 which ranked it as the best bench in the league, and ahead of many starting lineups.
Heading into the first round, the Raptors drew the Wizards, and they were out for blood and vengeance. Short of some questionable lineups Casey trotted out their throughout the six game series, the Raptors were deep enough to keep shuffling the lineup to find the right combination against the limited but bruising Wizards. VanVleet’s absence could have turned this series into a gentleman’s sweep (if you could call that Wizards team a collection of gentlemen), but you can only play the hand you were dealt.
The Cavs series, on the other hand, was a completely different beast. While we were feeling good heading into the series, LeBron was LeBron and was staring straight into our souls. Game 1 saw the Raptors take a five-point lead into the 4th quarter then turn it into a 10-point lead, but a furious comeback quarterbacked by LeBron had them tied heading into the final moments of the game. Multiple missed shots in the dying moments clanked off the rim, but with the game in his hand, and tenths of seconds on the clock, JV bricked a bunny put-back at point blank range without much in the way of the contention from the Cavs’ defence… Overtime. Down a point, DeMar finds VanVleet for a fairly decent look…brick. Game over.
It was about a demoralizing a loss as you could imagine. Plenty of looks, plenty of sharing, just nobody could hit a fucking shot.
Game two wasn’t any better, and while game three saw the Raptors claw and scratch out a competitive game, it ultimately ended in a narrow two-point loss. Game four was over before it began and the Raptors were swept yet again by the Cavs, losing 10 straight games to LeBron over three consecutive playoff matches. Fuck.
After coaching the Raptors to 59 games, and winning coach of the year for his efforts, Masai made the hard decision of firing Casey a day after being swept by the Cavs:
After careful consideration, I have decided this is a very difficult but necessary step the franchise must take. As a team, we are constantly trying to grow and improve in order to get to the next level.
Casey would win coach of the year three days later, and a month after, get signed by the Pistons where he has been ever since tormenting us for four straight years somehow beating the Raptors with crappy teams.
Heading into the summer of 2018, there were more questions than answers. TDot hated DeMar and Lowry was on the same cusp. Can you really blow a 59-win team up? Is it even allowed? Who can we trade Lowry and DeRozan for? Is that wise? What’s going on with the draft? No 1st round pick? Why? Oh, that was the cost to unload DeMarre Carroll’s contract, ok…NO SECOND ROUND PICK? Why? Oh, whatever.
After a month search for a new head coach, where Mike Budenholzer was among those interviewed, Masai promoted Nick Nurse from lead assistant to head coach. Bam, first domino fell.
While some people were scratching their heads a bit, our own Blake Murphy nailed the hiring:
Under Nurse, the Raptors can expect an even greater emphasis on ball movement and off-ball movement, as well as playmaking from every position on the floor. The guess here is that Nurse’s approach will also shift a little more responsibility back to Kyle Lowry at the expense of DeMar DeRozan, finding a bit of a middle ground between their respective usage rates to better leverage the team’s most efficient scorer and Lowry’s immense gravitational pull, which opens up space for everyone else on the floor. DeRozan will still be featured heavily, of course, there just may be more dynamism and versatility in how the team’s All-Stars are used. The bigs can probably expect even more decision-making responsibility, too, as well as some more improvisational touches in the case of Jonas Valanciunas, who figures to see his ability as a roll-man leveraged a bit more. It would seem likely, given the roster construction, that Nurse will continue to lean on dual-point guard looks (if Fred VanVleet is back), and the development of OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam as multi-faceted offensive pieces could go a long way to making further system adjustments effective….
…The Raptors have some interesting defenders developing but also have some stylistic bottlenecks on that end of the floor, and they played a system last year that was great for the bulk of the season and then proved too exploitable in the playoffs. They’ll need to become more matchup-proof in their defensive strategy, however they approach that. Whatever the case, the Raptors want to emphasize defensive accountability under the new regime, and Nurse will be tasked with fostering buy-in from the stars amidst a new system and hierarchy.
This is perhaps where going with an internal candidate makes the most sense. There is a continuity and stability there in a tumultuous offseason, and several Raptors speak highly of Nurse (so, too, does Royce White, who played under Nurse at Iowa State). The team generally thinks of him as a bright and creative thinker, and so long as there’s an element of fairness in that consistency, the transition could be seamless. Obviously, the optics are a little weird with letting Casey go and hiring one of his assistants after a long search rather than a fresh voice like Ettore Messina, Sarunas Jasikevicius, or any number of other candidates, but optics can’t dictate Ujiri’s decision-making, and he clearly took his time landing on Nurse as his first-ever head-coaching hire.
The second domino, was a nuclear bomb…a month after the hiring of Nurse, Raptors traded Traded DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Pöltl and a 2019 first-round draft pick (Keldon Johnson was later selected) to the Spurs for Danny Green, cash ($5m), and….
KAWHI FUCKING LEONARD!!!!!!!
Holy mother of god. While bittersweet for me (big DeMar Stan here), everyone was losing their minds at our fortune. Not only did we upgrade our best player (second best?) for one of the top 5-8 players in the league, we also added a solid 3-and-D wing in Danny Green. While losing Poeltl hurt our frontcourt depth, the league was in a small-ball-shoot-as-many-three-as-possible mode, and this trade immediately catapulted us into the championship conversation. A top trade in NBA history, and exactly the type of move we have come to expect from Masai and Webster.
The attention immediately turned to Kawhi’s health, but we were assured it would be fine, especially with some load management. Didn’t expect the load management to be so…aggressive, but a schedule was immediately created where Kawhi would sit one game of a back-to-back, plus key games throughout the season that would maximize his rest, and minimize on-court impact against good vs bad teams throughout the season. When it was all said and done, Kawhi sat out 22 games. Manageable stuff.
The regular season was incredible. While we’ve had All Stars and All-NBA players (Lowry was once again an All Star during this season) in Toronto, having a top 5-8 player in the league was a special treat. Kawhi was all business all the time, displaying elite offense, defense, and decision making. We fully expected the team to win every game, and had it not been for the load management and injuries, this team could have easily won like 65 games.
As it was, they finished with 58 wins, one less than the team record set the previous season, 1st in the Atlantic, 2nd in the East, and 2nd in the league sporting the fifth-best offense and third-best defense in the entire league.
Nurse put on a coaching master class integrating new key pieces into the team, with load management, managing injuries, managing expectations, and Kawhi, who was an impending free agent, didn’t become an issue at all during the entire season.
As the season wound down, the whispers of a championship run, what we were all afraid to say out loud, started to be said out loud and with real money being laid down to back the conviction. The Raptors were a contender in a way they had never been before.
Round 1 – The Magic
Even if we had a peak LeBron, the Raptors would always lose the first game of a playoff series. It’s written in some religious text somewhere. It’s a curse whispered through the halls of the institution, no matter who’s wearing the jersey, who’s in the stands, or even what building the stanchions are in. So the Raptors lost Game 1 as Lowry scored zero points and DJ Augustin went berserk. Call it a gentleman’s sweep of some kind.
Round 2 – The Sixers
The Raptors were supposed to win coming into the series, but in hindsight a team with Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler was always going to be an outrageous playoff performer. But then the Sixers won Game 3 by more than 20 points, going up 2-1 in the series, and to call it hopeless was an insult to hopelessness. It was devastating. Every Raptor was struggling against Philly’s ridiculous length, and Embiid was in some ways the best player of the series. Then Game 4 happened. It was one of the greatest individual performances of all time. Leonard took over, scoring 39 and looking just completely unfazed by the concept of defense. He was so in control that hope was allowed to sneak back into the series. The Raptors cruise in Game 5 as the rest of the team came alive, and Leonard did some more single-handed carrying in Game 7. He scored 41, including The Shot. It was different from Game 4, which was on cruise control, whereas Game 7 was a battle, fought on one leg, blood streaming, propriety tossed to the wind. This was, in many ways, Toronto’s championship.
Round 3 – The Bucks
So the Bucks were statistically one of the greatest teams of all time that regular season. And then they went up 2-0. Again, the brunt of the fan base said, “you know what, that’s okay! The Sixers series was enough.” Leonard didn’t say that. He scored 36 in double overtime of Game 3, as Lowry fouled out, and Fred VanVleet was forced to play his way through his bad streak. It paid off, as he went bananas in the rest of the series. Toronto won four straight, and Leonard’s transition dunk on Giannis in Game 6, after the Lowry pitch back, was a moment to match The Shot from the Sixers series. The loudest Scotiabank has ever been.
Round 4 – The Warriors
The Warriors could have been as healthy as they wanted, and they weren’t beating this Raptors team. Toronto was banged up as hell, with Leonard playing on one knee for half the playoffs, and Lowry’s thumb suffering for the whole stretch. Anunoby wasn’t playing. The injuries were real. Whereas the Warriors actually had Klay Thompson for the vast majority of the Finals, in whose minutes Toronto beat them up and down, black and blue. It was very one-sided. The Warriors were the third-best team the Raptors played in the playoffs. That it went six was only due to the eerie, ghostlike trance of Game 5 after the Durant injury, as the Raptors clearly didn’t have any interest in playing. Toronto was the vastly superior team, and it showed from jump street. Fuck that, let’s get both. Toronto closed down Oracle for good.
From a roster perspective, notable moves over these two seasons included:
July 13, 2017
Traded DeMarre Carroll, a 2018 first-round draft pick (Džanan Musa was later selected) and a 2018 second-round draft pick (Rodions Kurucs was later selected) to the Brooklyn Nets for Justin Hamilton.
- This was straight salary dump that cost us a 1st rounder. Was hard to swallow after the disappointment of the 2018 season, but needed to be done.
July 14, 2017
Traded Cory Joseph to the Indiana Pacers for Emir Preldžić.
October 8, 2017
Signed Norman Powell to a multi-year contract.
- Playoff Norm earned it. Norm felt immense pressure to live up to this contracts expectations, but he provided a lot of value throughout his time in Toronto. He was a consummate pro and critical for stretches of the championship run.
July 6, 2018
Signed Fred VanVleet as a free agent.
- I love Freddie, but anyone else sick of hearing “bet on yourself” yet?
July 18, 2018
Traded DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Pöltl and a 2019 first-round draft pick (Keldon Johnson was later selected) to the San Antonio Spurs for Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and cash. (2019 1st-rd pick is top-20 protected.) $5MM
- BEST. TRADE. EVER!
July 20, 2018
Signed Chris Boucher to an Exhibit-10 contract.
- The front office had the foresight to have a Canadian on the championship team
February 7, 2019
Traded C.J. Miles, Jonas Valančiūnas, Delon Wright and a 2024 second-round draft pick to the Memphis Grizzlies for Marc Gasol.
- JV didn’t fit the run-and-gun offence as well as was needed, and with potential dates with Embiid and Giannis in the Eastern playoffs, we needed a defensive anchor who could also facilitate from the high post on offence that could match up with those guys. Interestingly enough, this trade was also a playing-on-Trade-Machine-dream that came true for many Raptors fans.
Okay, we’re already pretty deep into this thing, so let’s keep this brief. The Raptors didn’t have a pick in 2018 and chose Dewan Hernandez in 2019 with the 59th pick, and he’s no longer on the team. Realistically, these drafts were not about the draft for the Raptors. They had ascended to championship contender, and they made good on that promise. It’s okay to punt on a few draft years in exchange for that.
In The Moment
Not much attention being paid here, frankly. Did you even watch? Zion Williamson highlights were exceptional, and Luka Doncic was polarizing, but really the Raptors had their sights had a little higher. Not much during the draft to pay attention to. These seasons were about the basketball.
What It Meant for the Raptors
A championship is opaque. It’s a black box. What does it mean to a franchise? It’s a mark of legitimacy, one that blankets as far back as you want to go, and extends as far forward as — well, we don’t know yet. Toronto’s moves from the 90s can be justified by saying, “well, it led to the championship, so it’s okay.” The same with some losing seasons afterwards. The championship is the purpose of the whole thing, the reason the Raptors compete, and arguably the reason why you’re a fan.
But it’s so much more than even that. I will have — we all will — the memories from that championship run forever. Every time I see a friend, we can talk about the Kawhi dunk in Game 6 against the Bucks, or the Lowry start in Game 6 against the Warriors, or The Shot, or any number of unbelievable moments. The Ibaka 3. The VanVleet explosion. Gasol continuing to own Embiid. The run had everything, so much that we can throw a game on a decade from now and be brought to tears with the beauty of the basketball. That is made by the championship, but it’s more than a championship. It’s fandom realized. It made all the dark days brighter. It made all the Colangelo and Babcock and other nonsense moments make some sense, unraveled the thread, and justified the whole ordeal. Toronto won. That will last forever.