Article Written by Adam Corsair (@ACorsair21)
As much as we pretty much knew that the Raptors would fall to Cleveland, I don't think anyone thought it would be in the form of a sweep. Even without Kyle Lowry, I was under the assumption that Toronto would be able to at least take one game against the Cavs, given how this team was structured for this very purpose at the trade deadline. On paper, the Raptors looked better than the team that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals last year; a team that was able to push Cleveland to 6 games. The addition of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker transformed this team from one that heavily relied on its offense, to a much more balanced team that valued and prioritized defense during the regular season. However, if you questioned the polarities of the regular season and the post season before, this may have been a very rude awakening.
The loss of Kyle Lowry due to an ankle injury was the straw that broke the camel's back and the Raptors simply couldn't match the depth and abilities that the Cavaliers possess. "Trading 2's for 3's" was a phrase that was drilled into the audience during the brief series against Cleveland, and it has become more apparent than ever that the NBA has gone in a completely different direction that the Raptors have yet to catch up to. The game has become one that is predicated on the success of shooting beyond the arc compared to having a balanced lineup of players that fit the traditional "1 through 5" vessels on the floor. The days of the dominate big man whose job is exclusive to dominating the glass with rebounds and put-backs are fading, as the league is moving towards the direction of stretching out the power-forwards and centers to spread the floor and create space in order for more opportunities to shoot threes with success. This is a key reason for the Raptors' failure against Cleveland, though it is not the only reason. Lack of intensity, Casey's loyalty to a fault towards a regular season starting lineup, and playing against the very best player in the NBA all factor into the Raptors' collapse in the playoffs as well. When looking at it in hindsight, it's easy to call a spade a spade.
We, as fans, are not blind to this. At times it's frustrating to even have to watch a team that is not Cleveland and Golden State during the playoffs, and that is because we pretty much know where every series begins and ends - with the exception of the inevitable rematch between those two teams. Like I've said in the past, the rest of the teams in the NBA are fighting for their respective conference's Intercontinental Championship - aka, 2nd place. With the rise of the "super team" formula becoming more of a means to win an NBA championship, rather than building a core group of game changers from within, it's become harder and harder to combat this trend and we're left with our hands in the air, shrugging as we say, "What are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to compete with that?!" I'm with you.
However, if there's one thing that we - as Raptors fans - have that should leave us encouraged is the fact that Masai Ujiri is also not blind to this and will do whatever he can to put the Raptors in a position to compete. Given his track record of success when it comes to evaluating talent (DeMarre Carroll aside) and acquiring pieces that have allowed the Raptors to inch closer and closer towards the ultimate goal (albeit, not close enough, yet), he has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to evaluating the future of the organization. His end-of-season press conference indicated this in an honest and somewhat hopeful manner that should leave Raptors fans with the ability to sleep soundly, regardless of which direction Ujiri decides to go. Whether it be surrounding the current core with better weapons, resigning some of the team's key free agents (Lowry, Ibaka, Patterson, & Tucker), allocating those dollars on younger players with a higher ceiling, or hitting the reset button, we ought to trust that the organization is in good hands, as there is very little to doubt in terms of Ujiri's vision. However, it is clear that the decision to sign Kyle Lowry will be at the forefront of attention for all Raptors fans.
I offered my support for the decision to resign Kyle Lowry before, as I pointed out the flaws in Donnovan Bennett's popular (or unpopular, depending on how you look it at) piece which offers 9 reasons for the Raptors to sign-and-trade Kyle Lowry (a piece which he has since updated. Things that make you go "hmmm..."). The main premise against the idea of resigning Kyle Lowry is how much it will cost the Raptors given his age and injury history. At 31 years old, it is fair to suggest that it could be a bit overambitious for the Raptors to offer Lowry a contract worth about $200 million dollars that lasts about 5 years. Since writing my response to Bennett's piece, Lowry has dealt with two injuries during the playoffs - his back and his ankle; the former he battled through, to his credit. Lowry has also been vocal regarding his intention to decline his player option in order to attain a more lucrative contract, which he will certainly receive whether it be from Toronto or another team. Already, rumors of mutual interest between Lowry and his hometown team - the 76ers - have surfaced, as they are said to be willing to make a "competitive" offer to the All-Star point guard. The Spurs and Timberwolves have been floated out as being suitors for Lowry's services, although nothing more than speculation has been offered to support this. The bottom line in, there won't be any shortage of teams looking to acquire Lowry during the off-season.
Although Toronto has the advantage as they are able to sign him to a longer deal worth more money than any other team in the league, their ability to resign Lowry may largely depend on their ability to keep the current core together. If Ujiri is unable to sign Serge Ibaka, for instance, Lowry may decide it is better for him to play for his hometown team. On the other hand, if Ujiri is able to allocate some of that $200 million that would theoretically go to Lowry on a younger and less expensive player instead, it may give the team more flexibility while maintaining the ability to compete at the same time. This is the dilemma.
If Ujiri decides to offer Lowry a max contract, it's an indication that he has no intention of hitting the reset button - assuming Lowry accepts. Offering a 31 year old point guard (a position that there is no shortage of) that has been injured more often than we'd like him to be is a huge risk and has "all-in" written all over it. While I don't wish to ignore all the positives that Lowry has done for the Raptors, I'm sort of starting to see why this isn't as cut-and-dry as I once did (i.e. my aforementioned response to Bennett). Prior to this playoff series, it felt like a no-brainer for the Raptors to resign Lowry as keeping the current core was essential for building success. Whereas now, I've become warmer towards the idea of letting him walk while allocating those dollars to spend on a player(s) that still puts the Raptors in a position to compete. Sometimes it is best to shake up and change a roster when the same core players have been unable to get it done. DeRozan is already locked up and the team has made the commitment for him to be the face of the franchise (barring a trade, of course). I'd feel a lot more comfortable with the Raptors building around DeRozan than bringing back Lowry to see the same episode over and over. If Ujiri is genuine in his desire to shift towards the new style of play the NBA is adopting, perhaps resigning Ibaka should be more of a priority than Lowry.
That thing I mentioned about allocating those dollars to spend on other players? Serge is one of those players. Although it has been said that Ibaka will base his decision of where to play on his daughter's wishes, there's little reason to believe he wouldn't want to return, and the Raptors should make it a priority to resign him. Ibaka is one of those players that fits in to the mold of the new style of play in the NBA that I described previously. He can protect the rim, while at the same time is able to stretch the floor and act as a decent three-point threat. Not since Chris Bosh have the Raptors had a reliable and adequate power-forward, so it's not hard to recognize the value Ibaka possesses. His ability to protect the rim and adequately switch from the 4 and 5 spots when needed is something that is not easy to find and something the Raptors must maintain. With youth, size, and versatility in his favor, Ibaka will be crucial for the Raptors if they still wish to compete in the East.
However, should the Raptors go a totally different route and decide to not sign both Lowry and Ibaka, thereby leading to somewhat of a "rebuild," Raptors fans should not be discouraged. There's something eerily exciting about a reset or a rebuild under the vision of Masai Ujiri, simply because we have yet to see it. We are all aware that it was on the horizon once the Raptors parted ways with Rudy Gay in 2013, but it never materialized as the team instead showed quick signs of strength and proved capable of being a force in the East. If I was a betting man (which I sometimes am), I would be willing to bet that Ujiri wouldn't be willing to blow it up entirely and waste the prime years that DeRozan possess, leaving the team in a Brooklyn Nets/76ers-esq state. Instead, I see the team taking a brief step back in order to evaluate the young talent that they already have (Powell, Wright, Poeltl, Nogueira, and even VanVleet) to get a more adequate picture as to how they can improve. Yes, this may necessitate a down year or two, but by no means do I think this will lead to a complete collapse. Powell and Wright have shown some signs of growth throughout the course of both the regular season and playoffs during Lowry's absence, so we have reason to believe that they both may be able to become pivotal pieces for the Raptors' future.
Regardless, the off-season should be more than interesting and we should feel encouraged by the fact that Ujiri has acknowledged what is obvious in order for the Raptors to succeed. Raptors fans should hold their heads up high with pride over how well the team played throughout the entire season, given their injury woes. Time and time again, the team has picked itself up when things looked grim, and proved that this may have been the best Raptors team that has ever been assembled, when they were all healthy. We should not find ourselves in a state of a recency bias and evaluate the entire season based on the final four games that this team has played. This is a Raptors team that we will never forget and will surely be one that we will be thankful that we had the opportunity to see. With that said, this will surely be a time that we will mark as a turning point for the Raptors that will dictate its success or failure in the years that follow.
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