It was one of the most strikingly counterintuitive moments of the 2016 NBA trade deadline: The Toronto Raptors revealed a large aspirational appetite not by making a big move, but by doing nothing.
It goes against the instincts of fans, commentators, everyone who follows sports either for a living or for fun: When a trade deadline approaches, and a team is very much in contention for a conference championship, it’s a natural instinct to insist on action.
“Well don’t just stand there, DO SOMETHING!”
These feelings and phrases are wired into our brains and bones: “We gotta do something — we can’t just let events run their course. We have to make change and determine our own fate. We can’t let outside forces control us! WE shape the future!”
Quite clearly, with the Cleveland Cavaliers sitting just a few games in front of them (and moreover, making a deal to bring aboard Channing Frye), it is perfectly understandable to sit here, after the trade deadline, and express bafflement that the Toronto Raptors didn’t make any moves. The first NBA Finals in franchise history could have become more attainable with just one transaction from general manager Masai Ujiri. He has a coach — Dwane Casey — who has not yet proved himself in the playoffs. His players, from Kyle Lowry to DeMar DeRozan to the rest of the starting five and the main contributors on the bench, are still waiting to make their mark in the postseason.
Given the fullness of the landscape in Toronto, it is not illogical to claim that the Raptors needed an extra ingredient, something to either spice up their roster or provide a veteran voice which might resonate in the final months of the regular season and the all-important second half of April, when the first round arrives.
Patrick Patterson could have been shipped in search of a different roster complexion. Ryan Anderson of the New Orleans Pelicans could have been brought north of the border as part of that re-make attempt. Ujiri didn’t bite.
It’s what we know as sports fans and chroniclers: Contentious competitions beg for some show of action on the part of a front office. Moreover, the contents of a move are sometimes secondary to the reality of the move itself. On some occasions, players don’t even care which new piece they gained; what matters is that the organization made an effort to do something about a situation viewed as something less than complete. The simple reality of action from a decision maker has sometimes caused a team to play with even more inspiration and quality. Certainly, some Raptor fans harbored this view or something close to it.
Ujiri rested on the foundation of the roster he took into deadline day.
It might seem like an anything-but-aspirational move, and if you want to make that very argument, you’ll be heard. You won’t be deemed an unreasonable person — it’s an entirely fair point to make.
However, if viewed from a different angle, doing nothing actually says a lot about the Raptors’ belief in what they have. Sometimes, that can be the loudest and most ambitious statement of all.
We have seen examples in recent years of organizations which patiently built themselves into winners… but had to go through several frustrating cycles before reaching a new horizon (or on a larger historical level, a horizon which hadn’t been seen in a long time).
Pete Carroll didn’t instantly fix the Seattle Seahawks. He began to see sunlight after three seasons, but the San Francisco 49ers represented a highly formidable obstacle in the NFC West. The Seahawks weren’t certain that the mixture they had — the approach they possessed — was good enough to beat the Niners in a moment of truth until an interception in the end zone preserved a narrow win in the 2013 NFC Championship Game. The Seahawks’ culture was unique to the NFL, a marked change from the crowd in what is generally regarded as a copycat league. The organization stood on its own truth… and won it all.
The Kansas City Royals hadn’t won anything since 1985. General manager Dayton Moore had to work within the small-market constraints of Major League Baseball. He had to assemble component parts without big-name stars in the pursuit of a championship. The 2014 team wasn’t a complete team, but its blend of a deep bullpen, speedy baserunners, and very deft fielders overrode its weaknesses and came within one base hit of the World Series. The following season, the Royals weren’t exactly inert before the trade deadline, but the addition of something far less than a superstar — a role player named Ben Zobrist — did more to push the organization into the winner’s circle than anything else. The Royals remained true to what they were instead of trying to become something they weren’t. They won the 2015 World Series.
That basic belief is very much in evidence in Toronto.
The Raptors haven’t yet made the first Eastern Conference Finals in franchise history. They haven’t yet stacked together consecutive victories in playoff series. They haven’t yet completed the long trek from irrelevance to fulfillment — the path carved out by the Seahawks and Royals in recent years.
They haven’t YET.
The Raptors believe that their “yet” will soon cease to exist… with their loyal employees being trusted — valued — enough to complete the job.
The central components of the Raptors’ roster were wiped off the map by the Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs 10 months ago. Toronto — players, coaches, front office — had to stare into the abyss of humiliation and cronfront the immensity of its inadquacies.
Not doing anything before the trade deadline could be viewed as passivity, the meek acceptance of things as they are, the paralysis of an organization afraid of being better.
You would not be faulted for thinking the Toronto Raptors are scared of the future, or perhaps unwisely clinging to a false hope. However, from this writer’s vantage point, inaction at the trade deadline conveys a completely different vibe.
The Raptors want to find their true North with the people they know and trust.
Inertia never felt so aspirational.