The Toronto Raptors are back in a position with which they have some experience: being largely ignored.
At home, the basketball team’s weekend agreement to bring back point guard Fred VanVleet was swallowed up by their hockey brethren’s seismic signing of John Tavares. And around the NBA, the Raptors’ off-season tinkering was utterly dwarfed by the LeBron Quake and the Boogie Bomb: James’ move to the Los Angeles Lakers, tilting the NBA’s power imbalance even further to the Western Conference, and then DeMarcus Cousins’ planned signing with the Golden State Warriors, making even that LeBron move seem kind of pointless.
All of it leads to a couple of conclusions. The Raptors appear poised to run back much the same team that won 59 games last season and, for a brief period, finally earned the kind of NBA-wide respect that the franchise had been seeking over two decades of general irrelevance. But also: they are pretty much right back where they started last year in that whole quest-for-respect thing.
The weird thing about this NBA off-season is that Raptors president Masai Ujiri had absolutely nothing to do with the team’s biggest change. When LeBron decided to go to the Lakers, for reasons he will presumably eventually explain, the Raptors suddenly didn’t have to worry about losing to him again. It would, in a lot of years, have been seen as a huge win in these parts. Toronto was the top seed in the East last year, and the conference just lost the one guy who has casually swatted them like flies in the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. Sunshine and rainbows all around, right?
And yet, as analysis has burst forth about what the LeBron move has meant for the NBA next season, no one outside Toronto is expecting it to mean much for the Raptors. It’s already being assumed that the East will be a two-team fight between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. The Raptors are occasionally being mentioned as an afterthought in that race.
This has already been reflected in the betting markets which, depending on where you look, have the Raptors installed as between 50-1 and 60-1 long shots to win the NBA title. To be fair, everyone is a long shot relative to the absurd Warriors, but the Celtics are only at 5-1 and the Sixers are at 10-1. The Raptors today have the same title odds as the San Antonio Spurs, a team whose best player does not want to be on the San Antonio Spurs.
It was as recently as March that the Raptors were being routinely celebrated around the NBA for successfully reinventing themselves, with everyone from analytics-savvy reporters to Charles Barkley giving them praise, which covers the full spectrum of basketball analysis. That was just four months ago, but it feels like a lifetime.
None of this is to suggest that the Raptors have been shortchanged by their doubters. It is a team that has earned its disrespect. James and his motley collection of Cavaliers went 4-0 against the Raptors in the playoffs and 8-10 against everyone else. The second straight sweep against the Cavs, coming as it did after the Raptors had made a convincing case that this team had been remodelled into something more playoff-ready, looked all the worse when a young and injury-depleted Celtics team pushed LeBron to a tough seven-game series win. The Raptors had, before 2018, been a team whose best players weren’t quite good enough to be elite playoff performers, and it now it turned out they were still that team.
They appear to be out to prove, again, that they are not. Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster may yet pull off a significant move that breaks up the core of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. But with NBA free agency unfolding at its usual rapid pace and teams rushing to overpay the small pool of available players, the number of teams looking to make some kind of blockbuster deal will grow smaller by the day. There’s now a good chance that the Raptors of training camp will closely resemble the Raptors of that playoff disappointment, except lacking the deposed NBA Coach of the Year.
There was a point after the season ended when Ujiri spoke like someone who truly believed that the Raptors were not the same old failures, but instead the team that had impressed the league on its way to that franchise record in wins. He said that if things had gone just a little differently against the Cavs — if they hadn’t blown the big lead in Game 1, or suffered the miracle shot from James in Game 3 — then they just might have lived up to their promise. Two days later, he fired his coach.
It could be that in a weakened East, and with new head coach Nick Nurse providing a different voice, the Raptors will finally stop being the team that looks good right up until it runs face first into LeBron James every spring. They have a chance to prove themselves all over again. It is, at least, a familiar role.
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