Who are the Toronto Raptors?

The Raptors are lost in a variety of ways.

Dwane Casey may not have been the most modern basketball coach, even in 2018, but he made damn sure the Raptors knew who they were. Nick Nurse may not have been the most personable basketball coach, but he made damn sure the Raptors made the best out of what they had. And both coaches won a whole lot of basketball games in Toronto. Sometimes that meant elite regular-season teams that lost to LeBron James. Sometimes that meant middling regular-season teams that couldn’t shoot a lick. One time that meant a championship. But for the vast majority of a decade, the Raptors were a unique and continually successful team in the NBA.

There were thru-lines for most of those years. The Raptors developed their young players into the next generation of leaders. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan left the team to OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet. The Raptors played defense. In the decade following 2013-14, the Raptors were an above-average defense in eight of 10 seasons. They were top-five in three straight years.

And for all that, who are they now?

They sure don’t develop their young players. Some, yes. Scottie Barnes is the truth. But Dalano Banton is on another team, Jalen Harris and Dewan Hernandez gone from the NBA entirely. Malachi Flynn is earning new trust this year, but he has not lived up to the expectations of a first-round pick, even one from late in the round. You can’t expect teams to hit on all non-lottery picks, but it would behoove them to hit on one at least. Other players who weren’t drafted by Toronto but were in-house for stretches like Yuta Watanabe, Gary Payton II, and Oshae Brissett have found careers elsewhere. No, development in Toronto is patchwork at best.

They sure don’t play defense. To be fair, the Raptors are currently an average defensive squad, ranking 15th. But they have the potential to be a top-five squad this year, and they just conceded 136 points to the New York Knicks. (They were 11th before their pitiful performance against New York.) And before that 119 to the Charlotte Hornets. Before that 112, and before that 119. Toronto is not going to stay above average on that end for long at this rate. The team is giving up straight-line drives, not playing with much physicality, not rebounding, not closing out with effort, and not helping one another in the paint.

There’s an old parable about blind men and an elephant. They all grope at the thing as it passes, and then they all talk about what they felt. One thought it was a snake. One thought it was a wall. Another a tree trunk, another a rope. They were all wrong, of course.

The Raptors used to be an elephant. Now they’re just a snake and a wall, a tree trunk and a rope, stitched together by the world’s laziest tailor.

This season would be worthwhile if the Raptors had time on their side. Development is never linear, yada yada yada. But Toronto just lost one of its best players for nothing last free agency, and it is currently heading into another free agency with OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam as unrestricted free agents. Time is decidedly not on Toronto’s side.

The front office has evaluated itself into a contorted position, unable to win games because the basketball team just isn’t very good and unwilling to lose games because it doesn’t own its own first-round pick this upcoming draft. The team is unable to sign its stars and unwilling to trade them — largely because as expiring contracts, their value on the open market just isn’t what it was last year. Or the year before. And Toronto didn’t think it was offered enough last year for Anunoby. It surely won’t be offered an equal amount this year, let alone more.

So where are you when you can’t win games and have no reason to lose them? When you won’t commit to your best players and can’t get rid of them? You exist in limbo, in liminal space. Toronto is Schrodinger’s basketball team, both alive and dead. It doesn’t know who it is as a front office or as a playing unit. There is an identity crisis that begins on the basketball court and echoes all the way out. Masai Ujiri latched onto selfishness as a lifeline to explain last season, and then he guaranteed the team would not be selfish this year, and now the Raptors are … this. They may not be selfish, whatever that means, but they surely aren’t good.

This can all be saved, of course. Don’t bet on it, but the Raptors could theoretically start to win games again, leaving this start to the season like a bad dream. Or Toronto can trade Siakam and perhaps Anunoby and start again. It can lose enough games and pick enough rookies that it will have a bright future. Because the NBA always offers hope to its worst teams. But from now until that happens, the Raptors exist in a state where nothing really matters that much on the court. Barnes is fantastic, and everything else is in stasis. Why should fans care about that, let alone pay exorbitant ticket prices to listen to too-loud music and piped-in crowd noise that replace what was once an excellent crowd environment?

It’s hard to care about stasis. And fandom requires more than a one-way relationship. You need something that truly impacts your emotions, something to spend money on, to compel you to give up your nights and evenings and live or die based on what happens on the court. The Raptors don’t seem to care much about what’s happening on the court. So why should you?

The Raptors need an identity on the basketball court. They should have one, and it should be based on their defense, but that just hasn’t happened this season, not with any consistency. And the Raptors need a plan off the basketball court. I’m sure the front office has one, but it’s increasingly unclear as to what it is. (Building a good offense that will eventually work for players that aren’t on the team yet isn’t enough.) Eventually, the choices will be made for Toronto. Something will change. Either at the trade deadline this season or during free agency immediately afterwards.

But something needs to happen before then. For everyone’s sake. Or else fans might stop watching, players might stop caring, and front office members might stop being employed by the Raptors. It’s a long season. And we need more than the trade deadline to look forward to.