Another postseason, another crushing disappointment for Raptors fans. Since the Raptors were swept in the second round of the playoffs, making it back-to-back sweeps against the Cavaliers in the past two postseasons, the Raptors have been a point of popular discussion. Surely after so many playoff runs ending in disappointment, now is the time for the Raptors to make a major change. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results…right? Before we get into it, I’d like to point out that this famous quote is actually misattributed to Albert Einstein, and originates from author Rita Mae Brown.
Despite the pain of being eliminated by LeBron for the third straight year, I believe that the Raptors should run it back with their current core next season for the following reasons:
- The Raptors’ core has a defined window of contention as well as an expiration date.
- There is value in consistently being a top team in the East, especially with the uncertainty in the conference moving forward.
- Despite the disappointing end, the 2017-18 season was the most successful one in Raptors history.
Let’s dive in to each of these points individually.
The “Championship” Window
It’s easy to fall into a defeatist attitude in the current NBA landscape. After all, in a league with LeBron James continuing to dominate as the best player in the league in his 15th season in the East, and a 73 win team which added Kevin Durant to its core in the West, what chance does any other team have of competing? While the odds are certainly stacked against the remaining teams, it is simply not practical for 28 (or 25 if you are generous by including HOU, BOS, and PHI) teams to tank. For what it’s worth, the Raptors did achieve 40 wins before 20 losses this past season, and finished the season with 59 wins en route to the first seed in the Eastern Conference.
Let’s set aside the debate of whether or not Toronto is a contender at the moment – we will touch on that later. The theory for blowing up the current iteration for the Toronto Raptors is that they are stuck in so-called playoff mediocrity – good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to have a realistic shot of contending or getting meaningfully better. The great fear for these teams is that they will commit to a mediocre (and often declining core) with no realistic chance of making it to the finals even with lady luck on their side.
Consider the 2012-2013 Brooklyn Nets with nearly $73M committed annually (out of a $59M salary cap) to multi-year contracts for a core of Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, Kris Humphries, and Gerald Wallace. This team would go on to win 49 games and finish fourth in the East. Those Nets would lose to the Chicago Bulls in 7-games in the playoffs that season and during the subsequent years, would make a series of win-now moves to build around this core (including infamously trading for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett while giving up 3 unprotected 1st along with a 1st round pick swap) but never end up winning even 50 games. It is only now at the end of 2017-18 season, that Brooklyn has begun to recover from the damage of committing to playoff mediocrity.
The Raptors, on the other hand, have a clearly defined window of contention, and no impending albatross contracts:
Color Key: Player, Team, or Early Termination option
The Raptors starting lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka, Valanciunas, and Anunoby are essentially set up to expire concurrently following the 2019-20 season (DeRozan could opt in to his 2020-21 player option, but as a star on the wrong side of 30, it should make financial sense for him to decline it and hit free agency earlier). Even the hugely successful “Baby Raptors” bench mob are all locked in for either next season (Wright) or until 2019-20 (Poletl, Siakam, Miles). The only potential loss for the Raptors among the top 10 players in minutes played this past season is Fred VanVleet, and even he is only entering restricted free agency. Clearly, when President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri re-signed Ibaka and Lowry this past offseason, he decided to set up an exit strategy in case this core peters out. This current iteration of the Raptors essentially has two postseason runs remaining to get over the hump before the front office has the option for a natural and clean tear-down.
The benefit to having this exit strategy built into the Raptor payroll is that there is no chance that they will be caught in-between cores with no way to meaningfully improve long term or short term. The example here would be the Oklahoma City Thunder this coming offseason should Paul George elect to leave in free agency:
Color Key: Player, Team, or Early Termination option
Assuming George leaves and Anthony opts in, the Thunder would have $117M in salaries committed for 9 players. This would put them over the cap with no realistic way to bring in someone of equivalent talent to replace George. This scenario would leave the Thunder bringing back essentially the same team that just won 48 games en route to a first round exit this past season minus their second best player (George). Long term, the Thunder have Russell Westbrook signed through the 2022-23 season (when Westbrook will be age 33) on a 5-year $205M contract that will kick in next season. If George does leave, the Thunder will be caught in the unenviable position of being not good enough to be a true contender, but too good to bottom out and re-build for the future.
This defined window of contention should not mean that the Raptors core is “untouchable”, far from it in my opinion. I would instead characterize them as unlikely to be touched. In general, savvy front offices pursue players who they believe will outplay their contracts. The two types of players who fit this mold are players on their rookie contracts, (think Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Karl Anthony-Towns) and the true “max” players (think LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis). While the Raptors certainly have their share of good players on rookie contracts such as Poletl and Anunoby, none look promising enough that they could be the centerpiece of a trade for a true star player (Eric Gordon in the Chris Paul or Zach LaVine in the Jimmy Butler trade). Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, while valuable players and fairly paid, are not talented enough to be the “missing piece” for a team looking to win now. Any trade centered around Ibaka or Valanciunas would likely be lateral moves at best. Kyle Lowry is on the wrong side of 30 and plays the deepest position in the league, making him a good fit only on the few win now teams looking to improve at point guard (ironically Cleveland would be a great fit for him).
DeRozan is the player who would fetch the most back in a trade, but it is unclear how bullish the market for him would be even if he was made available. He is a player who is a clear all star, but a step or two below other first options such as LeBron, Harden, or Anthony Davis in terms of ability. DeRozan is also a less than optimal fit as a potential second or third option because his best asset is his on-ball scoring ability. Other all-star wings such as Paul George and Jimmy Butler have skillsets far more conducive to playing a complementary role, such as strong on-ball defense and consistent 3-point shooting. If I were the Raptors, I would listen to offers for DeRozan, but not get my hopes up that the right deal would come along.
Assuming that the Raptors stay the current course, they should have a good idea of how talented the likes of Poletl, Anunoby, and Siakam are by the time the current core expires, and have the option to bottom out while pursing a rebuild with a new core thanks to a relatively clean cap sheet following the 2019-20 season.
The Value of Consistency
The Raptors have preached value of consistency throughout this current core’s run. The duo of Lowry and DeRozan alongside head coach Dwane Casey have been together since the 2012-13 season. Since the 2013-14 season, the Raptors have averaged 52.6 wins per season and made the Eastern Conference Finals once (losing 4-2 to the Cavaliers in 2015-16).
There is value in a team with the ability to consistently win 50+ games a season. These teams can generally expect home court advantage in at least one round of the playoffs (if not more). Here, I would like to invoke a quote from former Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey:
“Luck is a fact, but should not be a factor. Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best…Luck is the residue of design.”
Theoretically, all it could take is a favorable match-up, a lucky bounce, or the right injury and the Raptors could find themselves in the finals. With the powerhouse that is Golden State reigning over the rest of the league, other teams trying to win now can only put themselves in a position in which they have a chance to get lucky. Some are quick to declare that the Raptors both have no shot at beating the Cavaliers with LeBron currently, and no shot of winning the Eastern Conference in the future with a fully healthy Boston and up-and-coming Philadelphia on the horizon. If there is one thing that has been proven correct over NBA history it’s that it is difficult to predict anything.
Toronto has undoubtedly had a history of playoff woes (including losing 10 consecutive game 1’s at one point), but keep in mind that for the past 3 seasons the only team to have eliminated the Raptors in the postseason is the Cavaliers. If LeBron does decide to leave Cleveland for a team in the Western Conference (like the Lakers, Rockets, or Spurs) would it really be that surprising if the Raptors made the finals? Even if LeBron does stay in the Eastern Conference next season, let’s also not forget that he would be entering his 16th season and age 34 with over 50000 minutes played combined in the Regular and Postseason. Though he has taken excellent care of his body, old age has never been truly beaten in professional sports. Even if LeBron truly is in the Raptors’ heads, and is their proverbial collective boogeyman, there is a realistic chance that LeBron James will be someone else’s problem next season.
One might say that should LeBron head west, young teams like Boston and Philadelphia will leapfrog the Toronto Raptors as the new top dogs of the east. Unfortunately player and team improvement is not always linear or predictable. For example, the Chicago Bulls entered the 2011-12 season following an Eastern Conference Finals appearance led by the youngest MVP in league history in 23 year old Derrick Rose alongside 26 year old Luol Deng as well as 27 year old Joakim Noah. The Bulls looked to be on the cusp of challenging for the East for years to come and would seemingly only get better from that point on. Instead, Derrick Rose would suffer from injuries for the remainder of his prime, and the Bulls to this day have not gotten past the second round of the playoffs since that 2011-12 run.
Similarly, when LeBron decided to return to Cleveland at the start of the 2014-15 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs were expected to be his primary adversaries in the finals moving forward following a hotly contested 6 game series in the Western Conference Finals. Instead, the Golden State Warriors, who had just come off a first round exit to the Los Angeles Clippers under head coach Mark Jackson, would hire Steve Kerr to be Jackson’s replacement, and the Warriors would become LeBron’s greatest adversary for the next three seasons, reeling off seasons of 67, 73 and 67 wins.
It’s also not as if the Raptors are simply running everything back. Just a couple days ago, news broke that head coach Dwane Casey had been fired. Current speculation is that the Raptors are looking for a coach who will make better in-game adjustments (against the Cavaliers in particular). Changing head coaches is reasonable approach to shaking things up relatively painlessly for the franchise. It is far easier to move on from a coach than a star player because the coach does not need to be factored in to the salary cap. The downside risk is minimal as the Raptors are a team of veteran players with years of continuity, and with the right hire there is certainly upside potential for next season. Perhaps the next Raptors may even be lucky enough to hire the Steve Kerr to Dwane Casey’s Mark Jackson.
Keeping Expectations in Perspective
Despite the disappointing finish in the postseason, this past season was the best season in Toronto Raptors history. Keep in mind that the Raptors have a short history of only 23 years, and won over 50 games for the first time just two seasons ago in 2015-16. Fans of the NBA are quick to adopt a championship or bust mentality for every team, but by many indications the Raptors have had a successful season. According to ESPN figures the Raptors had the fourth highest attendance in the league this past regular season while also managing to avoid the luxury tax (and dreaded repeater tax penalty). From a business perspective, the Toronto Raptors ownership group (Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment Ltd. or MLSE) is likely quite pleased with the season’s results as a whole.
This could be another factor that prevents the Raptor front office from seeking the early tear-down of this current core. Not all owners/ownership groups ascribe to the championship or bust mentality. Every franchise would love to win a title, but some owners are unwilling to do everything it takes. Some owners are seemingly content with being in the playoff mix every season. Others are even content with merely turning a year to year profit as their overall franchise value skyrockets . This is the uglier business side of the sport that passionate fans would like to ignore. According to a report from ESPN on revenue sharing in the NBA the Raptors were a team that neither paid in or received revenue sharing payments. That is to say that it is likely that the Raptors were breaking even or may even have turned a profit following the 2016-17 season. There is no reason to expect that the numbers for the 2017-18 would be any worse. If anything the business side of the Toronto Raptors may be even better due to the franchise best 59 wins and first seed in the East.
Even if we accept that this current iteration of the Raptors will never make it to the finals, or manage to beat the Cavaliers, business-wise it makes little sense to blow up the roster ahead of the 2019-20 season. If the Raptors were experiencing ballooning luxury tax payments on the level of the Cleveland Cavaliers while also getting swept in the second round of the playoffs, the ownership group might decide that the costs do not justify the return on investment, pushing the front office to make wholesale changes. However, as long as the Raptors are breaking even/turning a profit while simultaneously experiencing yearly gains in franchise value, what incentive is there for ownership to take two steps back to maybe take three steps forward at some indeterminable point in the future? For every successful re-build like the post-Big 3 Boston Celtics, there are many like the post-Dwight Orlando Magic or post-Nash Phoenix Suns stuck in a perpetual cycle of building and tearing down.
The sports media and popular culture will inevitably joke about the Raptors should they end up running it back again next season, but no front office has ever found success basing its strategy on avoiding ESPN hot takes. It makes sense for the Raptors to run it back one more time (and another time after that) whether you buy the Raptors are true contenders or not.