Lowry’s excellence, DeRozan the mountain mover, Scola’s veteranship, Biyombo is the monk you can’t punk.

Let’s just come right out with it: Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, the 2015-16 Raptors are the best team in franchise history.

(That’s not saying a lot for a team that’s never once topped the 50-win mark, and has just one playoff series win in 21 years of existence, but I argue that only makes this year more special, not less.)

Here’s a quick summary of where the team stands heading into Monday’s games:

  • 27 games above .500
  • On pace for 57 wins
  • Locked into the second or first seed
  • Fourth-best record in the league
  • One game back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for first in the East
  • They hold the tiebreaker against Cleveland since they won the season series 2-1
  • They’re 7-1 against the 1, 3, 4 seeds in the East
  • They’re 4-0 against the 2, 3, 4 seeds in the West and only lost to the Warriors twice by a combined eight points
  • They’re 0.2 points per 100 possessions on defense away from ranking in the top-10 in both offense and defensive efficiency

That’s pretty good for any franchise belonging to any universe that concerns mere mortals (the Spurs and Warriors are playing in a league of their own). And unlike other top teams, there isn’t a pointed controversy that’s being scrutinized. There isn’t the LeBron-Kyrie-Love rift, or passive-aggressive social media quips. The Raptors aren’t facing a huge deadline like the Thunder are with Durant (and Westbrook to follow), or collapsing repeatedly in crunch time. As far as we know, nobody on the Raptors broke the face of a team staffer at Sotto Sotto.

In other words, it’s pretty easy to root for this team. But if you’re at all having any trouble with that, here’s a laundry list of reasons why you should cheer for the Raptors.

1. Kyle Lowry Over Everything

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When Lowry joined the Raptors in an offseason trade in 2012, there wasn’t much noise made about the move. He was known as a hothead (some even called him a coach killer), he had a spotty track record with injuries, and he wasn’t anything close to being considered an All-Star.

It wasn’t even clear if Lowry would seize the reins at point guard, or if he would join the half-dozen other pretenders who tried and failed to take the throne from Jose Calderon. Sure enough, Lowry came off the bench for Calderon for months when he first arrived.

Four years, two All-Star nominations, and 36 win shares later, Lowry’s tenure with the Raptors has been nothing short of a fairytale. It’s the rags to riches story, the old trope of how hard work pays off that even includes the cliche turning point where a wise mentor (Masai Ujiri) sits down with Lowry to famously issue the challenge of whether he wanted to be a $1 million dollar player, a $5 million dollar player, or an All-Star. Never has an average player figured it all out at the age of 27 to then hit his peak as an elite player at 29, but here he is, the chubby bulldog that sparred with the puppies by day who’s now a lean greyhound running with the wolves by night, No. 7 out of Villanova, Kyle Lowry the franchise player.

If you can’t respect that then your whole perspective is wack.

(And not to dive too much into the nitty gritty of schematics, but Lowry is actually everything for this team. The Raptors are 10 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court. That’s on-par with Durant (+10.8) and several of the best players in the league. Lowry is a mastermind on the court, he’s a brilliant defender, he’s so smart at creating opportunities for himself and others, he’s their best 3-point shooter. Everything you could possibly want out of a sub-6-foot guard, Lowry gives it to you.)

2. DeMar DeRozan and how a little turns into a lot

There’s a famous Chinese idiom, 愚公移山, that tells a story of an old man who wanted to move a mountain that blocked his path on his way to work. After a lifetime of climbing, he decides to take it upon himself to move the mountain by removing boulder after boulder, day after day. The old man eventually dies, and his family carries on his work for generations. The gods were so impressed by their perseverance, that they had the mountains separated.

DeMar DeRozan is that old man who persevered, and the basketball gods smiled upon his sacrifice.

At no point before this season did I feel like DeRozan was a surefire bet to become a significant player in the NBA. Like many others, I thought of his game – one predicated on suffocating the offense with an endless line of long-twos – was folly. It was frustrating to watch through the years as he eschewed opportunities to improve his 3-point shot in favor of learning new post moves and various fadeaways to hone his midrange game. As the the league wooed itself to a pace-and-space style, DeRozan stayed playing the old man game. He insisted on moving the mountain.

DeRozan is a lesson in stubborn futility.

And yet, for the first time in his career, DeRozan has finally put it together in a way that everyone – even the analytic types – can agree on his effectiveness. He’s still playing the same game he always did, but he’s a top-10 scorer and not only that, he’s an efficient volume scorer.

Granted, it’s too much of a generalization to say DeRozan is playing the exact same way for that belittles the marked improvement in his game. Yes, it’s true that he still loves his long twos and he’s still a ball-stopper, but he’s become an effective ball-handler, he’s an excellent post-up option against smaller defenders, he drives to the rim with the same ferocity as he always did, and most of all, he’s become match-up proof – a surefire sign of an elite scorer.

It especially came through in playoff series where teams had time to scout and prepare, but it wasn’t all that hard to stop DeRozan, or at least make him ineffective. Put a long defender on him (like the Wizards did with Otto Porter), let him hoist long twos, take away the paint with a big at the rim, and watch his efficiency plummet.

That’s no longer the case with DeRozan. He’s become good enough of a playmaker where if you focus too much on him, he’ll fire off the pass to the corner shooter or spot the unmarked big on the roll. His handles are good enough to where he can cross up a player and get his shoulder by them for a drive (or likelier yet, a foul for two free throws). And if you get right up on him, the Raptors have enough sets where they leverage hyper-aggression into curling sets for DeRozan to use his athleticism without needing the dribble whatsoever.

Plays like this, from when DeRozan had 30 against the Hawks on 20 shots in March, where he used a hand-off from Patrick Patterson like a can-opener to lose his man and get to the basket. It’s mostly the same stuff that the Raptors have always run for him, but DeRozan’s suddenly made the jump.

I must admit that I still have my reservations about DeRozan. There’s still a lingering “what if?”, brought upon by games like the Raptors’ recent win over Milwaukee where they had 27 assists with DeRozan resting. I wonder if his game is still futile.

But the one thing I’ve come to respect with DeRozan, above all else, is that he’s a relentless worker. Since Day 1 of his NBA career, DeRozan has been moving those boulders and he’s become so good at what it no longer matters that he’s bucking convention.

The basketball gods are finally taking notice.

3. Drake represents the Raptors

Ujiri-Drake-Leiweke-All-Star-Jersey

My grand theory with Drake, the actor, the entertainer, the musician, the politician, the businessman, the guy who wore a tracksuit to Rihanna’s “Work” shoot in the Real Jerk at 842 Gerrard St in the East end of Toronto – my general theory is that Aubrey Drake Graham is putting on a real-life act of the grandest proportions.

And that’s not calling him fake; it’s the opposite.

He’s invented this character who embodies success despite being an outsider (How you let me run it down here, I ain’t even from ’round here), despite being a super lame character on a super lame soap, despite being a walking meme, who’s atop the rap game despite relatively weak bars. On the contrary, Drake’s internalized the role, like a cop who’s been undercover for so long that he’s lost his grip on his true identity – Drake made this his life. And incredibly, it’s working. I mean this is the dude who had Rihanna grind on him while wearing sweatpants in a video that’s been watched over 148 million times.

Regardless of how, what matters is that Drake is one of the biggest celebrities in North America, and within his ever-expanding universe, there lays his fandom of the Raptors.

Some people don’t like Drake’s affiliation with the team, citing that he’s often cheering for other teams (Drake’s “proud parent” look where he’s smiling endearingly and looking up at various athletes is one of his many memes), and that he’s a distraction. I say fuck that. One of the most successful people to ever come out of Toronto wants to rep the claw. Why get in the way of that?

Look, the Raptors could use a little flash. It’s not like we have LeBron skying for dunks or Steph splashing threes from halfcourt. If you’re a general fan, the Raptors don’t really have a magnanimous pull outside of Drake’s radiant smile. He’s been gracious enough to lend his personality and his clout to the team. Let’s be thankful for that effort, not question his true colors, or be concerned about his persona.

He’s also a damn good defender.

4. Luis Scola brings veteran presents

Don’t control+F Scola’s name on this blog. I’ve said a lot of mean things about his game. But don’t confuse those critiques with who he is as a person. Scola is a well-spoken, well-traveled, meticulous professional and an endlessly decent man (read Kiyan Sobhani’s interview with Scola).

And god damnit, he might be slower than the elevator when I’m late to work, but he’s always here with those veteran presents. It’s like Christmas all the time for Bruno, Bebe and the like.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Toronto Raptors

5. TJ Ross and the magic of rebranding

So much of life is perspective. You might think you’re in a rough spot, or falling behind your compatriots, or blogging to a tiny audience on the obscurest corner of the internet, but it all depends on your perspective. And sometimes in life, that’s all you need to solve your problem (although it won’t change anything for the very real problem that my web traffic consists of literal tumbleweeds).

The honest-to-goodness truth about Terrence “Terry/TJ/Eli” Ross is that he’s fallen short of expectations. It’s been a frighteningly wild ride where he’s hit lows where he doesn’t even resemble an NBA player, let alone someone who was picked eighth overall ahead of Andre Drummond. He also takes you to the highs of winning the dunk contest, a 51-point game, endless athleticism, and a gorgeous, mouthwatering butter-soft jumpshot that goes in 100 percent of 38 percent of the time. But on the whole, he’s not who we envisioned him to be.

That’s exactly why we at Raptors Republic gave him the TJ rebrand (nevermind the harrowingly unsuccessful Terry rebrand). After being let down so many times, we told fans to change our perspective and to stop seeing him as a bust, and squint our eyes to see the superstar in his cocoon stages, and while I can’t speak for everyone, it’s worked wonders for my enjoyment of Ross’ game.

TJ is a guy who will come off the bench and occasionally hit shots. He can space the floor, or he can space out of games. It’s a mixed bag. But what he can always do is entertain, so long as you blindly root for the guy like I do, and through that prism, he is the ultralight beam.

uspw_245720

Conversely, I’m starting to apply the same viewpoint to Jonas Valanciunas, who entered the league with Ross as rookies in 2012. Valanciunas has accomplished far more than what Ross has in his career, but again, his career has been soured in part by perspective.

Valanciunas has his weaknesses, but he’s a good player overall, and certainly a better prospect than Ross. But it’s been frustrating to expect greatness out of Valanciunas, only to see a good – but not great – center whose limitations are painfully obvious. He was supposed to be the franchise player when it looked like the Raptors were in the tank, but then the team got good (thanks, Lowry!) and Valanciunas’ development was pushed to the back burner.

I’ve critiqued Valanciunas in the past, and in looking back, I maintain that my points were fair, but that my disappointment wasn’t. If I’m going to put blinders on for TJ, then I should definitely do the same for Valanciunas. So I’ll stop hanging on every missed rotation, change my perspective, and start cheering instead because it’s so much more fun that way. That’s what TJ taught me.

Plus, this track is a banger.

6. Dwane Casey is still pounding that rock

Look, you can’t call yourself a Raptors fan if you haven’t bashed head coach Dwane Casey at some point in your life. It’s practically a ritual, and the suited-and-booted stonefaced teacher makes for an easy target, especially given the way his tenure started.

But can you really argue with the results?

image

Casey is never going to draw the praise that someone like Brad Stevens, Rick Carlisle, Gregg Popovich, or even Doc Rivers draws. Casey isn’t into being a celebrity, and quite frankly, he’s can’t conjure up sets like those four future Hall of Famers.

But what Casey can do is inspire his team to play hard, and that’s been a constant through thick and thin. If DeRozan moves mountains, Casey is right there with him pounding those rocks. (As an aside: Casey worked in a mine growing up, so he literally moved mountains. Shouts to Chinese idioms.)

Casey has been extremely successful in implementing a culture of hard work.

You have to take the broader view to appreciate Casey, but unfortunately so much of a coach’s appraisal comes from the minutiae. It’s much easier to slam Casey for a silly play (another iso for DeRozan to win the game? Really??) but it’s easy to overlook how prepared the team is for every game, how hard they play, how little controversy ever goes on, and how everyone is on the same page every year. All of that matters, and now that he’s been paired with the talent to match his hard-nosed style of play, it’s finally coming together for Casey.

With all that being said, has Casey done enough to secure his job going forward? That still remains a question to be answered based on what happens in the playoffs. But he’s done a great deal of work to get the Raptors to where they are, and while it isn’t as sexy as drawing up Elevator Doors to free Klay Thompson for a shot, Casey doesn’t get enough credit for everything he does before tip-off.

7. Bismack Biyombo, the monk you can’t punk

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Ask any Raptors beat reporter and they’ll tell you: Bismack Biyombo is one of the best interviews on the team.

As a player, Biyombo is the prototypical hyperathletic rim protector who lacks cogent offensive abilities. He skies for rebounds, he swats shots by the half-dozen, and he gets out of the way on offense. As far as consistency and reliability goes, there’s little-to-no variance. You know what you’re going to get out of Biyombo.

As a person, Biyombo is nothing like what he is on the court. There’s still that quiet intensity about the way he carries himself, but he’s largely jovial and playful – save for when he’s meditating. And above all else, he’s wise beyond his years.

“It feels like that’s my zone where I can find joy, I can find calmness, I can find happiness,” Biyombo told Eric Koreen of his meditations. “That’s just me. I enjoy it. I know sometimes it’s hard when you try to meditate. Your mind is fighting. Sometimes throughout meditation, you find a way to break down those negative thoughts and try to bring the positive thoughts. That generates a lot of good energy around your body.

“There are things that you cannot control — other people. What I can control is having happiness within myself. I can’t control anybody but myself. But I can control myself, what I do, what I think, how I act, how I speak. That I can control.”

Like all of us, Biyombo is caught up in the struggle of finding peace and making sense of our place in the universe. But run up on Bis, as the likes of Meyers Leonard, Russell Westbrook and Tyler Hansbrough have this season, and all that goes to the wayside. He’s a warrior who will defend himself and his teammates.

“You let the image speak for itself, but one thing is nobody is going to punk me, not where I came from,” Biyombo said of Westbrook after they got into a disagreement early in the season. “You don’t do that to me. I know there are a lot of TVs and, of course, everybody wants to look tough. It’s good to look tough on TV and I respect that about everybody, but you just are not going to punk me. I respect the game. I don’t play to hurt nobody.”

Every team could use a Biyombo. We’re lucky to have him.

8. Cory Joseph and rise of Canada Basketball

October 5, 2015; San Jose, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30, left) dribbles against Toronto Raptors guard Cory Joseph (6) during the first half in a preseason game at SAP Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
October 5, 2015; San Jose, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30, left) dribbles against Toronto Raptors guard Cory Joseph (6) during the first half in a preseason game at SAP Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Last summer, when the Raptors signed Anthony Bennett to a minimum deal to fill out the 15-man roster, I screamed favoritism (I actually screamed nepotism but my good friend Dan told me that’s only for family).

Here was this undeniable bust who only got a shot at redemption because he was Canadian, and I didn’t like how that played out. Sure enough, Bennett was let go midway through the season in favor of an actually competent NBA player in Jason Thompson.

There were similar cries of favoritism in the case of Cory Joseph when he signed an expensive four-year, $30-million deal, but you almost never anything about it now. The difference, obviously, is that Joseph isn’t just the hometown kid from neighbouring Ajax – he’s actually good at his job.

Not many players leave the Spurs monastery and become even better, but that’s exactly what Joseph has done. He’s already played a career-high in minutes and he’s proven to be the Raptors’ go-to Sixth Man all season. Joseph is an elite defender who hounds the ball, he can play on or off the ball, he’s an excellent driver who can finish in traffic with either hand, he’s exceeding quick, and he will break your ankles (RIP Brian Roberts).

More importantly, Joseph is slowly etching his name into the history books as the first Canadian-born player to make it big with the hometown team. And with all due respect to that one year Jamaal Magloire played, what Joseph is doing actually means something to the incoming wave of Canadian players on the come-up.

I got swept up in the idea that the Raptors should only act in the interests of wins and losses, and that’s why I was so upset when they signed Bennett. But for the only franchise north of the 49th, the Raptors have a bit more responsibility to carry. If Vince Carter wearing a dinosaur jersey inspired Andrew Wiggins to pick up a basketball, what would the incoming class of Canadians like Wiggins, Joseph, and likely lottery pick Jamal Murray – Canadian-born kids who are showing out on the stages they dreamed of play on while growing up – what will they inspire?

9. The irreplaceable importance of leadership

TORONTO, September 30, 2013 Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri speaks during a press conference in Toronto, Canada, Sept. 30, 2013. The National Basketball Association (NBA) confirmed that Toronto was selected as the host of the All-Star Game 2016. It will be the first time the showcase event is held outside of the United States.
TORONTO, September 30, 2013 Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri speaks during a press conference in Toronto, Canada, Sept. 30, 2013. The National Basketball Association (NBA) confirmed that Toronto was selected as the host of the All-Star Game 2016. It will be the first time the showcase event is held outside of the United States.

How lucky are the Raptors to have someone like Masai Ujiri captaining the ship?

I won’t go into too much depth with what Ujiri’s done (a full recap here) but he’s the one, along with former MLSE president Tim Leiweke, who built the infrastructure to make this all possible.

Ujiri draws endless praise for his team-building, and if you click the link above, I’ve detailed how Ujiri has shrewdly built along the margins to mold the Raptors into one of the healthiest organizations in the league. But what I left out was his charity work with Giants of Africa, and just generally how wonderful of a person he is.

On a recent episode of The Vertical Podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski, Ujiri detailed what Nelson Mandela meant to him, how he hopes to move Mandela’s message forward, and how he wants to live a meaningful life by using his influence and abilities to help impoverished children in Africa.

Ujiri is a man with a vision and a heart, and those two go hand-in-hand with how he goes about his business.

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