For the third time in Masai Ujiri’s tenure, the Toronto Raptors mostly stood pat at the trade deadline.
Not a single deal was made. Not even a wholly superfluous swap of Austin Daye for Nando de Colo. After weeks of reports sounding off on the bold intentions of the ordinarily dormant Raptors, Ujiri stuck to his guns and stayed dormant.
Making sense of standing still (again)
I was rather vocal about the Raptors’ need for a win-now trade. And while I completely understand Ujiri’s decision to not force a move for the sake of forcing a move, I’m still disappointed.
Those same problems that plagued the Raptors still exist. The power forward spot, even if Dwane Casey flips Luis Scola and Patrick Patterson, remains a gigantic weakness, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will still be counted upon to log heavy minutes, the Raptors are short on 3-point shooters, and the rotation is still rather thin.
All those problems bore themselves out in Friday’s 116-106 letdown against a severely shorthanded Chicago Bulls squad playing on the second night of a back-to-back.
I acknowledge that these are first-world problems. The Raptors are second in the East, having won more than two-thirds of their games and within striking distance of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the first seed. This is the best team in franchise history (or, at least the 12 iterations of the Raptors that I’ve followed), and they should be fine.
Should Ujiri have overpaid for a Thaddeus Young or Ryan Anderson? No. Swapping out both Patrick Patterson and their NYK/DEN pick for a marginal upgrade would have been a massive overpay, and the Raptors aren’t nearly that desperate.
Should Ujiri have took a gamble on Markieff Morris? It’s certainly tempting, and Morris on a good day is exactly what the Raptors need, but no. But put yourself in Ujiri’s shoes: would you roll the dice with a noted malcontent who’s having the worst year of his career while basically playing (or sitting disgruntled on the bench) in open defiance of management? Desperate teams opt for desperate measures. That’s why he’s with the Wizards.
But did this team need an upgrade? Yes. Did Ujiri and his staff try their best to push for a deal? Yes. And does coming up empty handed rank as a failure? Yes.
I’m disappointed as a Raptors fan that there wasn’t a good deal to be made.
Twenty years of Raptors history has tried, in vain, to teach fans to be cautious, but it’s done nothing to temper expectations or to calm a fervent and undying love for the franchise.
Twenty years of futility has at least whipped the fanbase into a defensive, “show me” default. They have one playoff series win in two decades. It’s hard to fault fans for being defensive, even if we can’t help but love the team irrationally.
We want to believe in this team, but a few wins in the regular season won’t change anything to erase the memory of Paul Pierce’s block and Washington’s sweep. Only winning a round or two might finally allow for confidence, instead of the empty bravado that comes so easily to Raptors fans.
I think most people understand how good this team is. They’re one of just five teams to rank top-10 on offense and defense, they can play fast, they excel while playing slow, they have a strong 10-man rotation when everyone’s healthy, and they’re second in the East for a reason – they’re pretty good.
But does anyone believe with full confidence that the Raptors are a lock to win at least a round in the playoffs? With full confidence against a healthy Chicago Bulls team? With full confidence against the Charlotte Hornets, who practically exist to break the hearts of Raptors fans?
They should probably win in the first round, but it’s not a guarantee, or even anything close to it.
The Raptors would moonwalk into the Eastern Conference Finals if games were played on paper. But how did things work out in each of the last two seasons? Sure, this team is the best out of the three and the roster is deeper in every regard, but it’s still the same core of Lowry, DeRozan, and Valanciunas. The book is out on how to solve that trio in the postseason.
We know what this team should be capable of. But until we see it, we’ll forever feel insecure. And while I fully acknowledge that playing to quell the mentality of irrationally squirrelly fans isn’t Ujiri’s job, an upgrade of some kind would have at least helped.
Two years ago, I was excited what this team would show me. This year, I’m utterly terrified as to what I’ll see. I know that’s irrational. But that’s where we are as fans.
The floor matters
Let’s say the Raptors catch a bad matchup, and lose in the first round again. What then?
First off, is re-signing DeRozan to a max contract and keeping the Raptors’ roster more or less fixed such a smart idea? The Raptors would be capped out after dishing off $125 million to DeRozan this summer, and any improvements would have to come through trades.
Second, the problem doesn’t get any easier the following summer, when Lowry becomes a free agent as a 31-year-old. Go ahead, look up the history of sub-six-foot guards in their thirties. It’s not pretty. But still, Lowry is this whole team, so he’d probably have to sign a maximum too (the cap is jumping again in 2017), and once again, the Raptors would be capped out.
If the Raptors are bounced in the first round for a third-straight time, then you have to question the wisdom of devoting half the cap to the two-man core of Lowry and DeRozan. And if you decide against that, then where is this team really going?
This is doomsday thinking, but it’s not wholly unreasonable. Fans deny it now, but half the franchise was out on Lowry after how he played in the playoffs last season. Sentiments soured, too, on what to do with DeRozan’s expiring contract. The two went on to have career years to quiet those feelings, but there isn’t some unshakeable faith in the core.
Hell will be raised if they fail a third time.
The stretch run
There are three things I’d like to see over the last 29 games.
A. Find a way to sneak Lowry and DeRozan some rest
So, Lowry has played the fourth-most minutes in the league. DeRozan has the sixth-highest total. The Raptors’ playoff hopes rests squarely in their hands.
Anyone queasy yet?
Here’s the problem: the Raptors can’t really find a way to rest those two in games. Dwane Casey has tried occasionally to stir a wholly unprepared Delon Wright into the rotation, but he’s looked like a deer in headlights every time. The Raptors have been successful by trotting out four lineups, all four of which includes at least one of DeRozan and Lowry.
- Starting lineup (Lowry + DeRozan)
- DeRozan and bench
- Lowry and bench
- Crunch time crew (Lowry + DeRozan)
Casey’s not comfortable with having both of them on the bench for any significant stretch, and in all fairness, the Raptors really don’t have that third scorer who can buoy the team in their absence.
This is where an upgrade could have been made if only to create a viable lineup that could allow them to rest, but alas, the equation remains unchanged.
In lieu of finding rest in games, the Raptors should sit them out of games entirely down the stretch. That second game of a back-to-back against the Bucks after (probably) another loss to the Bulls a month from now? Hold one of Lowry or DeRozan out. Those three games against the Knicks, Sixers, and Nets? Both of them should get at least two games off. I don’t care if the Raptors have to start Delon Wright and Norman Powell for that final game of the year.
Lowry and DeRozan’s health is the no. 1 priority, because we aren’t doing shit in the playoffs without them.
B. Solve the power forward position
Watching the Scola-Valanciunas frontcourt has been an especially excruciating kind of torture. It’s an inevitable death – these two hopelessly plodding bigs desperately dancing to catch the tempo (one step behind at all times) while sinking in quicksand. It’s the NBA’s slowest frontcourt in an era hooked on pace and space.
It’s time to put Patrick Patterson into the starting lineup. He has almost every quality you would want out of a frontcourt pairing alongside Valanciunas. Patterson’s mobile, he can stretch the floor, he’s a willing help defender, and he can take the matchup against teams who love to pick on Valanciunas with a multi-dimensional big.
The bench might suffer, but when rotations shorten in the playoffs, I’m not sure how much that would even matter. Patterson should draw the bulk of the minutes, and when he has to sit, the Raptors need to get creative with some mix of Scola, James Johnson, and DeMarre Carroll.
Power forward is definitely the biggest weakness on the roster. That’s why the Raptors were linked to every available four in the league. And now that they’re stuck with what they had, it’s on Casey to find a palatable arrangement.
C. DeMarre Carroll’s place
Carroll’s return should bring some more stability. He’s a strong spot-up shooter, a tremendous defender, and would (mercifully) knock James Johnson out of the rotation.
But it’s hard to count on all that when he’s been on the shelf for half the year. And even when he was healthy, he fit awkwardly into the Raptors’ schemes. Again, it’s on Casey to find a way to optimize Carroll in the context of the team’s construct.
No matter who the Raptors play in the playoffs, Carroll will be expected to play a significant role. He’ll be asked to guard Paul George in a potential matchup with the Pacers. If the Raptors draw Detroit, the Raptors will need Carroll to combat Stan Van Gundy’s endless line of 3/4 types. If the Raptors get Chicago, Carroll needs to keep a lid on Jimmy Butler. If it’s the Hornets, Carroll needs to neutralize their smallball looks and stand up to Nic Batum.
The Raptors have enjoyed a beautiful run. Now the stakes are about to get real.