In the midst of what is now a nine-game losing streak and a lost season, let’s tally up the things the Toronto Raptors have managed to do right.
They have their excuses in order. Everything from ‘I miss home’ (though I doubt a single Raptor in history has ever thought of Canada as ‘home’) to ‘the pandemic ate my rhythm’. Have you heard the one about the refs? Because they love that one.
Their surrender has been unconditional. None of this don’t-take-me-out-coach, I-can-do-it stuff from these guys. Everyone on this team is working for the weekend. That gives team president Masai Ujiri a free swinging hand once it comes to the axe.
Most important, they got the nose of the plane pointed vertical while there were still parachutes on board. If you’re the Raptors management, there is still a way to turn this dog of a season into a mitigated success by Thursday’s trade deadline.
It’s headed that way in a hurry, as the team begins throwing off the he-said, he-said stories that typify truly dysfunctional franchises. On Tuesday, it was a report – denied by the team – that star Pascal Siakam was fined US$50,000 for screaming at head coach Nick Nurse.
A rock solid rule of the NBA rumour mill – where there is smoke, there will be more smoke, and then more smoke, until someone gets frustrated enough to light an actual fire.
These would seem propitious circumstances for that old favourite of the flailing organization – dynamite the support columns and spend the summer sifting through the wreckage.
But first the Raptors must ask themselves – are we tanking for a bit or are we starting from scratch? Because one choice may lead unavoidably into the other.
Another thing the Raptors have done well is be bad. When they are bad, they are ambitiously terrible. On Monday, they played the worst team in the NBA. Maybe the worst team in the known universe.
The Houston Rockets had lost 20 straight. They are so far underwater, they’d started growing gills.
The Raptors didn’t just lose to that sad sack Houston team. They were annihilated by them.
Granted, the bench is short and a few of the guys aren’t exactly shipshape, but there is pride to consider. Surely, Toronto could have showed up just this one night, and then gone back to sleep for a while. That might’ve given management a reason to keep the band together.
The Raptors either couldn’t do that, didn’t want to do that, or some combination of the two. They gave up. And like that press box legend, Maya Angelou, used to say – when a team shows you who they are, believe them.
The current Raptors are not as bad as they were on Monday, but they are nowhere close to good. They lack some fundamental quality that packages individual talent and transforms it into aggregate quality.
For a lot of observers, that’s a new phenomenon.
If it seems like a long time since the Raptors won their championship, it’s been an age since they were bad. In the interim, fair-weather fans became zealots and non-fans became more-than-casual observers. The dark age that was this team pre-2013 has been largely forgotten. When you think of what defines this team now, you think of Kyle Lowry and Ujiri, sure. But mostly what you think of is competence.
The Raptors had become one of those teams that never slips below a better-than-adequate performance level. Good enough for a couple of playoff rounds and at least the hope of more year after year.
If Ujiri has made a mistake since arriving in Toronto in 2013, it’s this – he made running an NBA team look easy.
Like, how hard has it been for him, really? You just sign a few guys everyone else has given up on and they are, like, amazing. Then you draft players no one else wants and they are amazing, too. Then you convince one of the most talented and mercurial pros in all of sport to take a flyer on your competent little club. And then you win a title no one gave you a chance in hell of winning.
Now you go back and repeat the formula. Let the old guys hitch their own ride to the glue factory, and give the young guys all the money you used to pay the old guys. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
Except the young guys aren’t as good as the old guys. At least, not yet. And you know that new batch of players you got that no one else wanted? Yeah, bad news. There was a reason no one wanted them.
And now you can’t afford all your new guys, or the one remaining old guy, and why would you want to because they are playing like they just met each other on the bus ride over to the arena?
That leaves the Raptors with 72 hours or so to decide which team they are – the old, competent one or a new, incompetent version. This season’s results would strongly point to the latter.
If that’s the case, there is only one good choice – you start over. You trade Norman Powell and Kyle Lowry for whatever you can get. You dive as deep as you can get in the final 30 games and hope for some draft lottery magic. You accept that it’s going to take a season or four before you have returned to your former level of competence.
But however sensible it may sound, that way lies dissolution. Ujiri’s contract is up July 1st. Does he strike as you sort of guy who wants to start from scratch with a team he’s already resurrected from the dead once? Even Lazarus didn’t get a do-over.
If Ujiri goes, this golden era of Raptors basketball goes with him. It may have gone already.
Either way – trade everyone or stand fast – the Raptors are no longer one of the NBA’s haves. They are a scrabbling have-not.
They aren’t even comers. They’re too well-known and well-paid for that. They are the team that seemed to have it together, but didn’t. They are stuck somewhere between pretty good and really bad.
In the NBA, that may be the most dangerous position for any franchise to find itself in.