The Toronto Raptors were unceremoniously booted from the second round of the NBA Eastern Conference playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The 4-0 sweep was the most recent playoff defeat for the current core of Canada’s lone squad — carrying the banner of #WeTheNorth rather softly from 2013-14 through this past season.
In year one, they fell to an aging Nets team in the first round, four games to three. Year two was a 4-0 sweep at the hands of the Wizards. Last year, the franchise’s first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, was a lopsided six-game defeat vs. the Cavs. In 2017, a sweep that made it very clear this Toronto squad has a clear, LeBron-shaped ceiling.
The “Drake era” Raptors, defined in part by the rapper’s presence in/around the team’s marketing and branding, has been a bold departure from Toronto’s previous iterations. While the team’s home city is one of the largest in North America, it’s been held down by its weaker dollar compared to its 29 U.S. counterparts. The ability to attract top free agents to Canada has never been easy for the Raptors.
Yet with brazen team president Masai Ujiri steering the ship, the team’s made savvy personnel moves to build around DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas.
Serge Ibaka was acquired this year for Terrence Ross and a first-round pick. DeMarre Carroll and Corey Joseph were brought in during the summer of 2015. Patrick Patterson and a collection of other pieces came aboard in 2013 in a move that moved Rudy Gay’s albatross deal. Kyle Lowry was also brought in via trade in 2012. His career has since taken off and Lowry’s become the best player on the team.
That’s sort of the problem now. Lowry and DeRozan aren’t the most compatible co-stars, and it ends up that this core might have hit its ceiling.
In late March, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor wondered if it was (unfortunately) time to blow the team up and start over, facing facts that this was as high as Toronto could climb. His conclusion:
“What’s transpired in Toronto over the past four years has been exhilarating for the city and the franchise. If the Raptors go to the Finals, expect no major roster changes. But the odds are not in their favor. LeBron is a roadblock, and a final boss awaits in the West. If the Raptors suffer another early playoff exit, Ujiri’s past suggests he will reshape the team’s future.”
Lowry intends to be a free agent, and it’ll take some work to keep him, Patterson, Ibaka and P.J. Tucker in Toronto without drifting into the dreaded luxury tax threshold. From his early comments this offseason, Lowry (already in his 30s) is wiling to move to the Western Conference just to get away from the shadow LeBron James seems to cast on the East.
King James has appeared in every Eastern Conference Final series since 2011, and also nine of the last 11 (including this season). His team’s won all but one of those appearances (2009).
Making matters even worse than the normal financial issues for Canadian clubs are the enormous depths to which their dollar currently matches up with the United States’. Since reaching near-parity in 2013, the gulf has climbed steadily and stands at $1.37 Canadian dollars for every U.S. dollar. Even faced with leaving a $200 million contract on the table by leaving the Raptors, Lowry wouldn’t necessarily be a fool to do it.
The same could go for the other free agents-to-be. Ibaka, particularly, may not re-sign. But his value has also plummeted in the last two years — so he may want to cash in for more in the U.S. Patterson and Tucker have a chance to make real money for (potentially) the last or second-to-last time as NBA players. Either could head elsewhere as well.
Losing Ibaka alone is a blow to what this team’s stood for: slow and measured growth, plus some savvy signings. Ujiri gave up a first-round pick for Ibaka, before a draft that is actually pretty loaded with talent. The net result was losing a round earlier in the playoffs.
This offseason will be a big one for the Raptors. Maybe the biggest for the franchise since it hired Ujiri back in 2010. Keeping Lowry around could keep the team’s very small chance at contention alive, but at what cost? And who says that Toronto can get over the hump as currently constructed? If anything, this year proves that’s not the case at all.
The Celtics are young, flush with assets and surging to the top of the East. Meanwhile, the 76ers are potentially on the way up as well (while the Knicks and Nets remain the Knicks and Nets). Perhaps it’s worth examining the Atlantic Division and realizing you can rebuild and bounce back quickly. Even without Lowry, there’s still plenty of talent on the Raptors’ roster. They just might have to move some of it away to make room for a new influx of talent and an on-the-fly reset of the Toronto
Drakes Raptors we’ve come to know lately.
In any case, the proverbial “window” appears to be closing on this iteration of the franchise — really before it even fully opened. Maybe the next time it’s propped open, the Raptors makes moves to stick around a little longer.