The three most exciting things that have happened to the Toronto Raptors this season are:
- That time they might have traded everyone for Kyrie Irving;
- That time they might have traded everyone for Kevin Durant;
- And that time it became clear that they were thinking of trading everyone for anyone else.
In between, they’ve played 56 games of increasingly irrelevant basketball.
Toronto sits in 10th place in the Eastern Conference – the Bermuda Triangle of the NBA. It is not good enough to get anywhere and not bad enough to start getting good enough again.
As such, the Raptors aren’t a team any more. They’re a basketball parts store. Everything’s for sale at the right price.
As Thursday’s trade deadline approached, you began to feel some heat emanating from a franchise that has been cold and moist for a couple of seasons now. Finally, the time to take another big swing.
The expectation was not necessarily that the team get immediately better. Only that it should be different.
At this point, any sort of change seems advisable. Torching the whole set-up may not turn out to be a great idea, but it is at least an interesting one.
Let’s face it. Trading for Irving and inviting the circus that trails him was never going to equal a championship. But it would make you care about Toronto’s coming game against … flipping pages … oh man, Utah.
Or dream really big – what if the Raptors got Durant? That would have been Kawhi 2.0. – less guaranteed of success, but just as much hype.
There was a small moment there where everything seemed possible. As long as the Raptors were willing to burn it all down, they could conceivably have anyone they wanted.
The previous time this team had genuine, honest-to-God aspirations of getting somewhere was the 2020 bubble playoffs. The phantom promise of this past week has been the most exciting time to be a Raptors fan since then.
Three years isn’t a long time in NBA terms. It’s an eternity. Allowing yourself to go directly from a championship to three years of meh could be a crime against the international charter of basketball rights. You’d have to check the statute.
But in the end, it turns out the only thing the Raptors trade in any more is rumours.
A week ago, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet were the foundation upon which a rebuild could begin.
The trade deadline passed at 3 p.m. and all four were still Raptors.
So what are those four now? They may still be a foundation, but somewhere else. Trent and VanVleet are out of contract at season’s end. Anunoby and Siakam are up for renewal a year later.
If these guys can’t win together now, there isn’t much point in re-signing them. If you don’t re-sign them, someone else will take them for nothing. You could try this again next year, but by that point, you’re selling a distressed asset and your team is still bad.
The Raptors did make one move ahead of the deadline. They reacquired centre Jakob Poeltl.
Poeltl was the other guy in the trade that swapped DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. Poeltl’s older and better now, but he’s still stuck at ‘other guy’ status on the NBA Heat Meter.
Poeltl doesn’t make the Raptors meaningfully better. All he does is remind people there was a time not so long ago when the Raptors wanted to matter. And that that time has now passed.
The Leonard coup and what followed from it earned Toronto team president Masai Ujiri a decade’s worth of mulligans. One thing that I take as a given – there is some sort of plan in place here. While we’re concentrating on the last week, Ujiri & Co. have probably got this mapped out 40 moves ahead. Maybe that plan is brilliant. Maybe it’ll work.
But there’s a problem with long-term sports plans for mediocre teams. The plan’s not going to work if you tell people about it; and, your customers can’t get on board with a plan no one will tell them about.
All people know for sure right now is that the Raptors are not a fun team to root for and no one’s doing anything about it.
They’re likeable guys with identifiable personalities, but watching them feels like work. They win just enough to keep you hanging in there, and lose just enough to make you feel silly for doing so.
This sort of ennui is fungal. If it’s allowed to continue unchecked, it gets into every corner of an organization. Eventually, all their moves seem ill-advised, even the advisable ones. Everyone seems dull, even the exciting people. Ennui kills more executive groups than bad contracts and worse trades.
Eventually, people tire of you and want change. Any sort. Good or bad. Usually bad. They just need something to talk about that isn’t pretending to get whipped up about a two-game win streak.
The Raptors aren’t at that point yet, but for the first time in a decade, they’re moving in that direction.
One day after a new owner took control, the Phoenix Suns traded their future for Durant right now. Was that a good idea? We’ll know in two or three years. Regardless of how it turns out, what a fun two or three years that will be in Phoenix. That’s the secret sauce right there.
The point of professional sports is not winning. It’s creating buzz, by whatever means necessary. Be good or be bad, but do not create indifference.
If a lot of teams are rudderless, the Raptors are starting to look boatless. They’re out there night after night, flailing around, waiting for someone to rescue them. If there’s a plan, the guys in uniform don’t seem to know about it either. No buzz. Not even a faint hum.
So what should the Raptors do? They should do something.
Plans are great and all, but in the entertainment business something is always better than nothing.