The Toronto Raptors provide ample material for jokes, and the internet is happy to oblige. When you have a superstar ambassador as polarizing (and straight-up funny) as Drake, when your marketing campaign is based on loosely accurate geographic statements, when your local politicians never cease to be embarrassing, the laughs will come at your expense.
That shouldn't obscure the masterful work the franchise has done to reach a peak never before seen by Toronto's army of basketball fans. This is the best the Raptors have ever been, and while it appears they will be victims of the Cavaliers' vicious on-court attack and the internet's broader ridicule, Toronto should be proud of this team and hopeful for even greater heights.
Consider where the team was back in 2012-13, when Rudy Gay was seen by the front office as the solution. That team had Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan already, but couldn't gain traction. They didn't gain it with Gay, either. Masai Ujiri arrived months after the Gay trade, and months later, he flipped the small forward to Sacramento for bench players. One of those, Greivis Vasquez, Ujiri later dealt for a first-round pick. Another, Patrick Patterson, became an affordable and important cog in the Toronto machine.
Ujiri's best move, though, was trading Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks for an unprotected first-rounder. Toronto will use that selection this year, picking No. 9 overall. The Raptors might be down 0-1 against the Cavaliers, and this might be a short series. But thanks to Ujiri's brilliance, Toronto is the very rare team that finds itself in the conference finals and the top 10 of the draft in the same year.
The Raptors are far from perfect. The shine has come off the Eastern Conference, in part because Cleveland absolutely trounced the Hawks -- who looked like the second-best East team in the regular season's second half -- and because Toronto has struggled with teams seen as inferior.
But injury (DeRozan's thumb and Lowry's elbow) can help explain why the Raptors have looked so underwhelming, and let's not forget that Miami was actually good! Getting into a war with a team so many people were excited to see face Cleveland is no crime. Quality judgments are relative. The Raptors appear to be nowhere nearly as good as the Cavs, but that's not the only measure of success.
This is a constant problem in sports analysis: we grade on the toughest curve. Championship or failure. It's an impossible binary standard. The Raptors are not a title team, but this season was still an incredible success. No champion was built in a day, with the exception of the 2008 Boston Celtics.
As Paul Flannery has written about multiple teams, there is a natural progression to team success. The Raptors are closer than ever to their peak. Toronto hopes that peak involves hoisting the Larry O'Brien north of the border. Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. We won't know until the climb ends. It hasn't yet.
Given the mere presence of Ujiri, a top-three GM in the league over the past five years, and the ever-growing number of assets the Raptors control, I wouldn't bet against new heights next season and beyond. Lowry and DeRozan aren't the most reliable 1-2 punch in the upper echelon of the league -- they don't compare favorably to Curry-Draymond, LeBron-Kyrie, Durant-Westbrook, CP3-Griffin or Kawhi-Aldridge. But they are really good, and Toronto's bench is flat-out great. (Jonas Valanciunas' injury has thrust Bismack Biyombo into the starting five, which has hurt the reserve crew.)
Plus, the Raptors have a bunch of intriguing young pieces, including Biyombo, Cory Joseph, Norman Powell, Bebe Nogueira, Bruno Caboclo and Delon Wright. All six of those players plus Valanciunas are 24 or younger. Double-plus, thanks to Ujiri's deft trade hand, the Raptors have four picks in the first rounds of the next two drafts. (The outstanding Bucks pick from the Vasquez trade is lottery-protected for a few years.) So much is made of the Celtics' favorable state. The Raptors' future draft assets aren't as alluring, but combined with the talent base already in place, it makes for a very pretty picture.
The Raptors aren't going to win this series or the championship. This has still been an incredible dream season for the franchise, and chances are the best is yet to come. We're still going to make these jokes. But in the end, Toronto may yet have the last laugh.
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