The Raptors are lost without Fred VanVleet.

Once upon a time, running it back was courageous. Not anymore.

One of my most powerful beliefs — fantasies, really — is that the Toronto Raptors would have won the 2019-20 championship were it not for the world breaking. They were one of the best teams in the league, with multiple stars, and an elite defense. Of course, the world did break, and Pascal Siakam had to find himself as a player again, and the team lost in seven to a great Boston Celtics team. It was still, for my money, as tough and hard-nosed a championship defense as you could have asked for after the Finals MVP up and left. Maybe the grittiest component of that team was saying ‘fuck you’ to reality, with Kawhi Leonard leaving, and fighting anyway. Alamo style. We cannot defeat them but we shall meet them in battle nonetheless, style.

You can overdose on that kind of machismo.

Fred VanVleet, as he always said he would, chased the bag all the way to Houston. He found a payday larger than anyone could have expected, and good for him for carpeing that diem. I could not be happier for him and his family.

But without him, the Raptors are in dire straights in the short-term future. He was crucial to their offense last season, love it or not. He was one of the team’s only shooters, even if he did regress there, and he was one of the only organizers and drivers on the team, too. It turns out you need point guards in the modern NBA, and even if the Raptors only had one, he was a pretty good one. Now he’s gone.

Running it back with Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam was courageous. Running it back with Dennis Schroder is lunacy.

Schroder is a non-shooter, averaging 33.7 percent from deep over his career. A team without shooters just lost its best, arguably, for another player against whom defenders will sink into the paint. If Toronto starts the same fivesome as last season, with Schroder in place of VanVleet, it would be a dire misuse of its players’ talents, with virtually no spacing available whatsoever for the huge wings. The league is going one way and the Raptors another.

And Schroder is a very good player! He’s a solid defender and capable driver. He is far from a negative. But he will not bring what the Raptors need to continue running it back.

It has been four seasons now since the Raptors won a championship. Running it back in 2019-20 resulted in one of my favourite seasons of all time. Running it back in 2020-21 was so horrid we don’t speak of it. Running it back in 2021-22 was a surprising delight — given the backdrop of expectations created by Tampa. Running it back in 2022-23 was misery. Continuing on this path — with talent leaking from the boat as it runs aground — makes little sense. Toronto had chances to get off this train, to shift the track. Those opportunities look more painful now.

Masai Ujiri has always asserted his goal is a championship, nothing less. He deserves to be taken at his word, considering he actually delivered one. But gathering talent — and Toronto currently employs a whole lot of talent! — without a workable context around that talent is hard to watch. And it’s also hard to fix, seemingly, as the Raptors have tried to trade their players again and again only to find markets cooler than expected.

The Raptors have made some moves that make plenty of sense. Gradey Dick will be a wonderful complement to Scottie Barnes. But that pairing won’t win a whole lot of basketball games with Schroder as the team’s starting point guard. Toronto continues taking one step forward and one step back, box dancing its way further and further from the championship.

At this point, there are few options left to Toronto. Perhaps the team can force its way to the bottom of the standings by trading Siakam, but it just re-signed Jakob Poeltl to a longterm deal. He would also need to go, and that would hurt after trading a first-round pick for him, and then re-signing him. More likely, Siakam and Poeltl remain on the team, at least for another season. Toronto is good but not great, with little hope of becoming great because it sports a roster that doesn’t entirely make sense.

It takes machismo to lace ’em up and take your knocks, fighting for a win that’s unlikely to come. That’s a Rocky movie. It might take even more machismo to recognize you’re down and out and embrace the gutter. That’s a Guy Ritchie movie — fun to watch, but maybe not fun to live in. It’s not entirely clear embracing the gutter is even a possible route for Toronto to take at the moment, showing how tenuous this path they’ve taken truly is.

Toronto was a buyer last trade deadline, and Ujiri insisted that the trade deadline was not the right time to make franchise-altering moves. He wanted to wait until the offseason. But because of that choice, the Raptors were left with one hand tied behind their back, negotiating with Gary Trent jr. and Poeltl and VanVleet at the same time, requiring all three players to see reality the same way. Two out of three doesn’t cut it. And so Toronto is left in the middle, watching VanVleet go and wondering if all the trades over the last few seasons — for Trent, for Thad Young, for Poeltl — make any sense at all. Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s fair to wonder if Toronto should have gambled a little less, or known a little more when it came to VanVleet’s future.

VanVleet’s future is certain now. He’s a Rocket, and he’ll make a fuckload of money to babysit and run in transition and try to convince 20-year-olds to try to win basketball games. Their are worse jobs. Like Schroder’s, for example, who will now be forced to try to be a player who he is not. (And for considerably less money than VanVleet.)

Toronto’s future is wavering, flickering, gone. The team needs to recalculate and figure out the best way forward. The past is entirely vanished, the championship a memory shared only by Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, and Chris Boucher. Running it back right now, again, for the fifth year in a row, is just about the furthest thing from brave. But unfortunately for everyone involved, after last season’s trade deadline, and this free agency, it’s still probably going to happen.