(photo courtesy of kingbluecondos.com)
Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. It could also be defined as the current rendition of the Toronto Raptors. While these past few years have been the best Raptors run in franchise history, there’s only one Eastern Conference Finals appearance to show for it.
There are two big factors that play into this state of mediocrity. The first is that they happen to play in the same conference as the best player to ever hold a basketball in his hands, LeBron James. The second, and the more troubling factor, is that this roster isn’t build to contend in the playoffs. Since Kyle Lowry joined the team in the 2012-13 season (when this run started) here are the Raptors’ results:
2012-13: 34-48. Missed playoffs.
2013-14: 48-34. Lost to Nets in first round, 4-3.
2014-15: 49-33. Lost to Wizards in first round, 4-0.
2015-16: 56-26. Lost to Cavaliers in Eastern Conference Finals, 4-2.
2016-17: 51-31. Lost to Cavaliers in Eastern Conference Semifinals, 4-0.
Lowry and Demar Derozan are great regular season guys. With those two on the floor the Raptors can win against any team on any given night, which they’ve proven while playing together. In the playoffs, it’s a different story. The two man game of Lowry and Derozan is easy to pick apart and the supporting cast of the Raptors is not good enough nor experienced enough to go out and win a playoff basketball game better yet a series.
Last season, the Raptors traded for Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker in hopes that that would propel them past the almighty Cavs. At the time, the moves made that Raptors team better than the 2015-16 team that made the Conference Finals. As we all saw that clearly wasn’t the case and the Raptors got blown off the floor. Some of that can be attributed to Lowry’s health in that series but a lot of it is on the supporting cast.
Before Lowry and Ibaka re-signed, I came up with a plan for the Raptors to potentially build a team that would actually be able to contend in the East.
Let Lowry Walk
Kyle Lowry is a fan favorite in Toronto and has brought this team further than any other Raptor in history. He’s also very close with Derozan. The Raptors have a bunch of young pieces that won’t see any playing time with Lowry on the roster. This team peaked in the 2015-16 season. Re-signing Lowry plugs up a bunch of cap that could be used to acquire pieces that would fill holes on the roster. Let the young guys play and see what you have moving forward three to four years down the road.
Go Into A Semi Tank
I’m not here to raise a “Trust the Process” flag for the Raptors. They don’t need it and while Masai Ujiri could certainly make it work, it just doesn’t make sense when you have Derozan in his prime. I propose that, with Lowry off the roster, the Raptors stay competent enough to be a fringe playoff team. Staying competent at least leaves the door open for potential free agents to look at Toronto as a potential landing spot.
Going into the semi tank would involve getting lottery to just outside the lottery picks. This is where you build your team. Guys like Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were guys drafted later in the lottery. Those guys don’t come around very often but getting those types of picks opens the door for a potential guy to fall into your lap. Look at this years draft. Malik Monk, who I think is going to be the best player in this draft when it’s all said and done, dropped to 11. That’s tremendous value. If you have a pick in that range, you also allow yourself to be in the position to snag a Malik Monk if he were to fall.
The reason for this type of procedure is to essentially wait out the Warriors and Cavs. Unless the Raptors put Thompson, Leonard and George on this team they’re not beating those teams. The Celtics and 76ers, two teams in their division, are expected to be loaded for the foreseeable future as well. However, we don’t know how those two teams’ assets will pan out. The smart play for the Raptors is be good enough to attract free agents but bad enough to get lottery picks. That’s a tough line to walk but one that could potentially pay off long term. The Celtics and 76ers could have injuries or guys who walk because they think they deserve more than they’re being paid. You just never know.
Play The Young Guys
Toronto has a plethora of young guys who aren’t getting NBA minutes because the team keeps trying to run it back in hopes of somehow breaking through to the Finals. Remember, insanity. Playing the young talent in the Raptors organization will show you where exactly you stand. If guys like OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, Norm Powell, Bruno “2 years away from being 2 years away” Caboclo, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and pick your other favorite youngin’ get on the floor and show you what they are, it’ll be easier to develop a plan (like semi tank).
What does it hurt to play these guys? You’re not competing for title in the foreseeable future. If they don’t turn out, they don’t turn out and you get a good pick. But if even just one of those guys turns out to have staying power, then you have something to build on. You can show free agents that in addition to Derozan, you have a great young core that you can play with for three to four years.
Essentially, the Raptors need to play the waiting game. Take some pages from the Celtics and 76ers. Acquire assets. Pull the trigger on trades. Trade assets for more assets. Play the long game because we are living in a Warriors world for the next four to five years if everyone stays healthy. Wait for the perfect moment to strike and be prepared with your roster to execute.