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Kelly: Raptors’ team ‘character’ and ‘chemistry’ are starting to wear thin

Based on its own low standards, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has been on an unusually pleasant run recently.

The Leafs are terrible and everyone's happy with that. Toronto FC is middling and few people care any more. The Raptors are just good enough that everyone is satisfied to let them putter along as they are.

(The Blue Jays now exist in a separate sphere – the best of Toronto's teams, and the only one fretted over in a compulsive way. Every move by the Rogers-owned baseball team is a disaster in the making, including making no move at all. The Jays have become the city's collective worry beads.)

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Given what had been the usual affairs at the MLSE offices at 50 Bay Street – so many fires breaking out at once that the firetruck often caught fire – you can understand why there isn't a huge premium put on change.

The cross-organizational philosophy that's allowed this dead calm to settle on the most frantic sports market in the country is character. At the executive level, that word is deployed so often that it's become a kind of verbal tic.

MLSE teams are no longer about performance, per se. They're about doing things the right way with the right sort of people. When that results in actual winning is an open question that will be left unanswered until A) someone manages it, possibly by accident; or B) everyone figures out that something can be both a good idea and a con-job simultaneously.

The Raptors are now the thin edge of that wedge.

The NBA trade deadline passed on Thursday afternoon. Like just about everyone else in the league, the Raptors did nothing. This team hasn't made a significant mid-season move since the Rudy Gay trade in December, 2013. It's like they finally got one right and are now terrified to risk their run of good luck.

"We have great chemistry. We've won 14 out of 16," general manager Masai Ujiri said afterward. "Why can't it continue to grow?"

(Begins shaking sheet metal to produce ominous sound effect.)

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If that's a genuine question, I'd say this – because it hasn't already. They've tried this two years running with essentially the same group of guys, and knocked themselves out against a postseason brick wall both times. Whatever "chemistry" there is to the Raptors, it's traditionally been the sort that ends with the lab scattered all over campus.

Guessing that it will work this time is just that. Ujiri spun things cleverly, pointing to the return of perpetually hobbled forward DeMarre Carroll and saying: "That's the player we add."

By this logic, every team should vigorously beat one of its best players around the knees and ankles at mid-season. Then, after he's spent three months in traction, the team gets to "acquire" him for a playoff run.

It's proof once more that if there have been any advancements in pro sports over the past 20 years, most of them are related to spreading the cult of creative messaging.

Barring catastrophic injuries, the next two months don't matter. The Raptors are locked into a playoff spot, and have been since the beginning. Game 1 of the playoffs is the real opening night of the 2015-16 season.

They're sitting second in the East. Once you start looking down the standings for possible first-round opponents, that's when the trouble starts.

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Currently, Toronto would play Charlotte. That's not a good matchup. Neither is Chicago. Or Indiana. Or Miami (if Chris Bosh is okay). Or Detroit. Or just about anybody once you factor in the way the game tightens and the rules loosen in the postseason.

The Raptors are not the sort of team that will scare anyone, mainly because they maintain a reputation for softness when it matters.

Last year, Paul Pierce beat them by himself during a preseries interview – the infamous "They don't have 'it'" moment. No one's yet proved they've found it.

Let's say they do – currently, as good a possibility as the other thing. If the Raptors win a round, they are our new civic golden boys and people will stop caring about Josh Donaldson's last haircut.

If they win two, downtown Toronto will begin to sag dangerously into the Earth as everyone rushes in from the suburbs. If they give Cleveland a fight in the conference final … well, who knows. It is too dizzying a prospect to consider from this distance.

If they win, things can stay as they are.

If they lose, things have to change. A lot.

Ujiri's line about chemistry is proved wrong. Everyone who can be fired is fired. Players start being ejected from a moving vehicle, Inspector-Gadget style.

The character experiment crumbles under its own weight, and we're back to buying guys based entirely on talent rather than their tendency toward churchiness.

Around the same time this is happening, the Leafs are learning where they stand in the Auston Matthews lottery and the Jays are getting a sense of whether last season was an anomaly or a new normal. What if those things are tilting the wrong way as well?

Since everything in Toronto sports exists in a symbiotic state, you can imagine these past few desultory and reflective months going sideways all at once and violently.

It's fun covering winners, but for selfish professional reasons, one misses the turmoil. It's good for business. You get a more honest look at things when they're headed in the wrong direction.

The Raptors aren't just playing for glory. Having spent most of two years being agreeably disappointing, they now get to set the tone for an entire city going forward.

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