In late 2013, the Toronto Raptors were a few games below .500, destined for a sixth straight season missing the NBA playoffs. It was Masai Ujiri’s first season in charge, and Dwane Casey’s third as head coach.
As is the case with so many mediocre teams with new front offices, the future seemed primed for upheaval. Most expected Ujiri to excuse Casey in the summer, if not sooner, and remake the team from the bottom up.
The first step of that process came in December, when Ujiri unloaded the worst excess of those awful turn-of-the-decade Raptors: Rudy Gay.
That trade turned out to be pretty much the entire process to get Toronto from bad to good. The Raptors were 7-12 when the trade went down. Toronto went 41-22 the rest of the way and won the division. They haven’t won fewer than 49 games since.
Upheaval was delayed indefinitely. Sure, Ujiri made major roster tweaks in the intervening years. There was DeMarre Carroll, there was Bismack Biyombo, there was eventually Serge Ibaka. But Casey stuck around, as did three starters from that team Ujiri inherited: DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas.
Upheaval was delayed, until now. In the wake of its best season ever — 59 wins, the No. 1 seed, the league’s No. 2 scoring margin, a top-five offense and defense — Toronto was just punted out of the playoffs so hard the team might have escaped Earth’s gravitational forces. We might need SpaceX to send out a search party.
For the third straight year, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers ended the Raptors’ season in the harshest possible way. This one was a sweep of epic proportions. To recap:
- The Raptors lost Game 1 at home despite never trailing for even one second in regulation.
- The Raptors lost Game 2 at home by 18 as James dropped 43, many of them on absurd turnaround fadeaways.
- The Raptors lost Game 3 on a 15-foot floating bank shot taken at a 45-degree angle by, who else, James.
- The Raptors lost Game 4 by 35.
This was the playoff series equivalent of Toronto’s Rudy Gay era. It was a week of the rollerblading Raptor mascot’s faceplant, except way more sad than funny. It was awful.
That’s it. That’s got to be it.
Unless James retires or actually joins the LA Lakers or some other team out West, it’s over for the Raptors. Ujiri can’t put everyone — himself included — through this again, not after the Raptors legitimately rebuilt their style and confidence from the ground up over the course of the season.
Can you imagine? Can you freaking imagine? Try to imagine getting punked in the playoffs year after year, and then stripping your psyche bare and watching everyone else on the team do the same, the coach abandoning all of his tightly held principles for what basketball ought to be, everyone involved buying into THE NEW RAPTORS, pulling it off completely during the regular season, having the franchise’s best season ever, watching your tormentors fall into a despair pit of their own making, feeling more confident than ever before. And then ... this. Four straight games of faceplants.
These Raptors dug deep into their souls, changed everything they could about themselves with one challenge in mind, and failed spectacularly when that challenge arrived. It’s enough to make you pour some tea, crawl into a dark room, put on The Smiths, and remember that existence is suffering.
The Raptors are done. Ujiri’s upheaval, long delayed by the wild success of the Rudy Gay trade, should almost assuredly be here. One would think that Casey will exit, as much for his own sanity as for any difference that will make for Toronto. Whether Ujiri will put Lowry or DeRozan on the market aggressively remains to be seen — Lowry is spectacularly well-paid for a 32-year-old point guard. One struggles to imagine many teams lining up for Valanciunas given the new NBA paradigm, despite his steady improvement. Ibaka’s $40 million due over the next two seasons is frightening.
Toronto has some intriguing youth, leading with rookie OG Anunoby and including Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright, and Fred VanVleet, assuming the Raptors retain him as a restricted free agent. (We miss you, Norman Powell. We’ll never give up on you, Lucas Nogueira.) James shot out all the lights in the Air Canada Centre in Game 2, but the future is bright enough for the Raptors fandom to (eventually) climb out of that dark room and see the next sun rise over the horizon.
Just not with this core. Just not against this opponent. Not ever again, please.
Three cheers for what the Raptors did over the past five years. One long pour for the Raptors’ fate.