A few NBA franchises have a legacy of success. Most of the rest stumble into it occasionally.
Unable to figure winning out, the Toronto Raptors opted instead to be known for their famous curse. Good things would occasionally happen to the franchise, but all the gold they touched must turn to playoff lead.
The 2017-18 season was meant to change that. Instead, it was a masterpiece of misdirection. Give the Raptors this much credit – they fooled a lot of us.
A month ago, serious people were writing serious articles about how this team should finally be taken seriously. Several straight-facedly projected the Raptors going to their first final.
Now, after being swept for the second straight time by LeBron James, Kevin Love and a half-dozen guys from a YMCA pickup league, even the die-hards won’t trust this group again.
Monday began portentously with a Passion moment. The Raptors were mocked on social media by James’s 13-year-old son (“Your season ends tonight”) and then betrayed by Drake (“Nah my season starts in june [when his new album is released] junior.”)
The retreat was on. No one wants to be connected to this team. They’re contaminated once more.
You could feel doubt spreading contagiously. Toronto’s ‘Anything is possible’ cliché generator malfunctioned a few hours before tip-off.
“We gotta go out here and keep fighting,” Fred VanVleet said morosely. “I don’t know what that means, to be honest.”
It meant more lineup surprises. It meant more mixed-martial-arts-style defence. It meant more frantic play at either end, all adding up to the same result.
The dreamkiller was a 111-second stretch near the end of the second quarter when Brazilian turnover machine Lucas Nogueira was inserted for … dramatic effect, I guess?
While Nogueira flailed around like an inflatable tube man, the Cavs went on a 10-0 run. That turned a close game into a blowout.
The real shame of it was that James was relatively contained (10 points) at the half. The Raptors still trailed by 16. In the end, Toronto’s beaten-by-one-great-man narrative fig-leafed over a lot of basketball sins.
But by the end of the third, James was once again in LeBronning-just-for-fun mode. Then DeMar DeRozan was ejected for a wildly flagrant foul. The game finished 128-93.
This game was worse than abysmal. It was the Raptors presenting a last-minute argument against their continued coherence.
The story of most NBA teams is one of mountain climbing. They start at the bottom (tanking). They get a few guys on board and set off (the process). The air starts to thin (playoffs). They make several abortive attempts at summiting (the finals). A few get to the pinnacle (championship). Then they roll back down and start over.
The Raptors got up a little ways, tripped and are dangling from a ledge waiting to fall. The question isn’t how long they can hang on. It’s what the point of hanging on might be.
Will anybody care if this team is good enough to win 50 games and a playoff round each year for a couple more seasons? Maybe. But it will be a grim sort of caring.
The only thing worse than supporting a terrible team is being forced to endure an average one. The first excites your rage; the second, your apathy. In the entertainment business, nothing is more dangerous than boring people.
Each year, the Raptors try to solve this problem with a new message – ‘Growing pains!’; ‘Thriving in adversity!’; ‘Best team in the history of January!’
Last year, the tag was ‘Culture shift!’ That was clever. Back to Year Zero (though not in the scorched-earth, Khmer Rouge sense). Shed the past without actually changing anything. Rather, tweak the marketing angle.
In the end, the new improvements highlighted old faults. This is still a regular-season team; a team without personality or edge; a soft team.
Even the bland amiability of the group was a defect by the end. Good squads bully others. The Raptors are the NBA’s most reliable source of free lunch money.
Next year’s slogan isn’t very compelling – ‘Maybe LeBron wants to live in Beverly Hills!’
Also, it’s pointless.
Even if their nemesis leaves for the Western Conference, it won’t matter. Come next April, Boston and Philadelphia will be fully formed powerhouses and the Raptors will still be the Raptors.
That’s the real takeaway from this season – that the leopard cannot change its spots. Instead, the spots change the leopard.
This team’s history of sadness once centred on individuals. That was a straight line of disaster from the beginning to the recent past – Damon Stoudamire, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani.
All of them let the city down spectacularly – either by being busts or, worse, by being great and leaving as soon as they could.
For 20 years, Toronto was known for two things – hideous uniforms and being somewhere no basketball player would choose to be.
DeRozan and Kyle Lowry solved that problem. We’ve almost forgotten how big a deal it was when guys with options first decided that they wanted to remain in Canada.
In response, the curse metastasized. It’s not about individual players any more. Now it’s about the team. Even when it should be great, there’s something about this club that resists success.
Curses aren’t real, but they are if you believe in them. Based on how they responded after spitting the bit in Game 1, the Raptors believe in this one. You could see it getting hold of them.
Every time they turned the ball over; all the little on-court spats that were not a feature during the regular season; DeRozan meekly accepting his benching. Those were signs.
What team sits its best player during the fourth-quarter of a game it must win? A team that’s always going to lose in the end.
What best player takes that sort of humiliation with a shrug? One who doesn’t believe it would have mattered anyway.
Toronto could go 82-0 next year and it will start the playoffs believing it is doomed. More importantly, so will its opponents.
As long as that’s the case, the Raptors will be the worst good team in the NBA.
If that depresses you, don’t worry. It’s not long before they’re just averagely bad again.