Among the many small good fortunes that have added up to the best season in Toronto Raptors history, the key among them was this – this was the failure that failed.
In the end, the team, the season and a city’s playoff dream were saved by one man’s wounded pride.
From the outset, this was all supposed to turn out differently. In the preseason, the Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment hierarchy had turned its short-term focus to the hockey and soccer outfits. Those teams had hope. The Raptors had none. They were a long-term concern.
New GM Masai Ujiri was tasked with blowing the team up and rebuilding it in time for a great coming out in 2016, when Toronto plays host to the NBA all-star game. The first step in that process was securing a high draft pick in what looks like the best incoming crop of talent in a decade. In October, the Raptors were still seriously envisioning a scenario in which they ended up with prodigy Andrew Wiggins from Vaughan, Ont.
Ujiri was given the first 45 days of the season to determine exactly how much dynamite was required to manage that.
On Dec. 8 – a week ahead of schedule – ball-stopping moper Rudy Gay was traded to the Sacramento Kings. The Raptors were in Los Angeles.
Beyond his play, a small insight into why Toronto wanted Gay gone – after he found out he’d been traded, the $18-million (U.S.)-a-year player asked the Lakers to refund the tickets he’d bought for friends and family to the night’s game.
This was a signature Ujiri swoop. He bluffed the Kings into outbidding themselves for a player no one else in the league wanted.
Getting rid of Gay was the goal, but Ujiri felt he’d won the deal outright, acquiring four role players he believed could lighten an airless locker room.
Though news of the talks would not leak for several weeks, the Raptors were at the same time already deep in discussions with the New York Knicks to deal another unwanted piece – point guard Kyle Lowry.
Gay was the detonator. Lowry was the explosion. Without his ball-handling and smarts, the Raptors are not an NBA team. They’re a bunch of guys running around heedlessly on an NBA court.
The discussion did not centre on the idea of a deal. Conceptually, Toronto had already moved beyond Lowry. The conversations were about the proposed return of picks and players.
The talks were general, positive and ongoing. No one was rushing. Everyone in the New York power structure wanted the trade to happen as well, but for one person – Knicks owner James Dolan.
Dolan is the worst sort of owner, one that knows just enough about basketball to be dangerous. He was also blinded by hurt feelings.
Dolan felt he’d been hoodwinked twice by Ujiri – once in the deal that emptied out the New York roster for Carmelo Anthony, and again when Ujiri tossed human anchor Andrea Bargnani onto the Knicks’ foredeck.
Dolan didn’t veto the move at this point. Instead, he stonewalled while events overtook him. The trade deadline was not for another two months. The Knicks, being the Knicks, believed they could still just Knicks their way into the playoffs. Talks dragged on.
Twelve days after dealing Gay, the 9-14 Raptors went on what should have been the real beginning of the tank – a grisly four-day procession through West Coast powerhouses Dallas, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
The Raptors beat the Mavericks in overtime. Two days later, they beat the Thunder. On the last night, they traded blows with the Spurs, the best team in the league, and lost showing unfamiliar snarl and cohesion.
That three-game set swung the internal direction 180 degrees. From that point on, the Raptors would finish the season 37-19.
Talks with New York continued, but Toronto had lost interest. The Raptors weren’t going to take anything short of a blockbuster package in return for a player who was headed for free agency. It was only then – long past the time when it mattered – that Dolan stepped in and called the whole thing off.
In a just world, the next banner they raise at the Air Canada Centre will be a portrait of Dolan facing the wrong way.
The really smart people in sport – and there are fewer than you think – know what to take credit for. No one in the Raptors organization wants to take credit for deciding not to trade Lowry. Without any real volition, they’d created a winner.
Through January and February, Lowry grew nightly as a catalyst and a leader. Within the space of a few weeks, he’d morphed from an expendable into an untouchable.
“Sometimes, the best trades are the ones that don’t happen,” coach Dwane Casey said on Friday.
On the cusp of the playoffs, there is already a sense of forgetting about this near-hit.
“I wasn’t worried about Kyle leaving,” DeMar DeRozan said, furiously shaking his head. “I wasn’t worried about Kyle leaving.”
“I didn’t even know he was going to be traded,” said Terrence Ross (and, since it’s Ross, that might actually be true).
As he was throughout the process, Lowry is philosophic.
“I don’t look back on it. I didn’t look at it at the time,” Lowry shrugged. “That time’s long gone now. If it would have happened, we would be talking about it. I’d be talking in a different media scrum. But I’m talking to you guys.”
It was that close. If Lowry leaves, the Knicks probably make the playoffs. The Raptors definitely do not.
It’s proof that in sport, as in life, you’re responsible for all your own wrong turnings. You can only accept the applause for some of the right ones.
Follow me on Twitter: @cathalkelly