Despite weak East, Raptors opting for rebuild

December 4, 2013, 9:02 PM

There has almost never been an easy time to be a Toronto Raptors fan, but buckle up: The worst could be coming.

We don’t say this lightly.

This is a franchise where every historic turn has been a blind hairpin, every high followed by a crashing low, and there have been many more lows than highs. For every moment where it felt things might be coming together, there have been years when they’ve been splintering apart like Jorge Garbajosa’s leg after he tried to block that Al Jefferson layup in Boston late in the 2006–07 season.

Yet some long cold winters are likely ahead as the Raptors teeter on the verge of a full-blown rebuild, but are hampered by circumstance.

Not surprisingly there is no market across the NBA for Rudy Gay, the Raptors roster-choking quasi-franchise player, unless the Raptors want to take back an even longer and more toxic deal. They are left hoping he refuses to pick up his $19-million option for next season, but are under no expectation he’ll leave that money on the table as his market value declines.

Similarly, in an environment where perhaps 10 teams are angling for a favourable draft position, point guard Kyle Lowry and his expiring $6-million deal is getting only tepid interest for concern he might actually help a team to a handful of unwanted victories.

So the players most likely to generate a return are the ones a prospering organization would normally like to keep around—guys like DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson. Is it worth moving them when they’re exactly the kind of players you’d like a prized incoming rookie to be surrounded by?

DeRozan in particular is a player that might generate some interest, but that would mean the Raptors parting ways with a young and improving player just as he appears to be finding his game. Perfect.

“It’s ugly right now,” said one longtime NBA executive.

As the Raptors try to pick themselves up from the wreckage in Golden State where they frittered away a 27-point third-quarter lead and ended up losing 112-103—”We were hit by a three-point train,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said via text message. “We played as well as we could for three quarters and as bad as we can for the fourth”—there is an uncomfortable reality setting in around an organization that can no longer fool itself about what it might take to get out of the mess they’re in.

And that reality is that it’s going to take time to make this right. A lot of time.

Patience has been the message from Masai Ujiri since he took over as general manager. A team that is five years removed from a playoff spot doesn’t get fixed with the snap of a finger. But the optimists in the crowd thought that might mean a quiet summer as he took time to assess exactly where the cracks were on the vessel put together by his predecessor Bryan Colangelo before he was pushed out by new MLSE president and chief executive Tim Leiweke.

As the season approached and patience was still the default setting the horizon shifted to perhaps 20 or 30 games into the season—surely by then whatever plan Ujiri had would kick into action: either a push to the playoffs or a great sell-off. Except as the first month of this season has shown and as a dreadful night like Tuesday’s emphasizes, the distant horizon of respectability may not be measured in weeks or months.

The fact is the Raptors are landlocked—washed up on a beach like Gay’s whale of a contract and the tide isn’t coming any time soon. The Raptors may not be positioned for competitive relevancy for years.

This is what it feels like when your basketball team’s credit card bill is due and the line of credit is already maxed out. Raptors fans are used to it.

The team is 12th in the NBA in attendance and 15th by percentage of seats sold, but those are soft figures. They failed to sell out twice at the ACC with the Miami Heat in town. Announced crowds reflect tickets sold, but an eye test at Sunday’s loss to the Denver Nuggets suggested that fewer than 14,000 people used the 16,290 tickets sold. Television ratings have flat-lined as well.

Further complicating matters is that the Eastern Conference—and the Atlantic Division in particular—is so weak that after Tuesday night’s debacle the 6–11 Raptors were just a half game behind the 8–12 Boston Celtics for the division lead and the No. 4 playoff seed that comes with it. It’s conceivable that a 35-win season would be enough to have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

But the Raptors aren’t fooled by the easy lure of a playoff spot. If anything, that would complicate matters. A playoff spot would create the temptation or expectation to re-sign Lowry or extend Gay, not to mention yield a mid-to-late first-round pick in a season when the Raptors desperately need and want to be in the lottery.

No folks, the rebuild is underway.

For all of Leiweke’s championship-or-bust evangelicalism, he’s wise enough to know that title-contending franchises are build on a foundation of multiple productive drafts and years of salary-cap flexibility. He didn’t give Ujiri a five-year contract with instructions to rush the job.

Ironically it has never been more tempting or potentially rewarding for the Raptors to think short-term and try to augment their current roster with an eye toward breaking their playoff drought down the road. But if there’s one bit of good news in the current gloom is that there have been assurances from Leiweke on down that the mistakes of the recent past won’t be repeated.

Playoffs or bust isn’t the mantra. The goal is a long-term solution to years of on-court woes. There is an awareness that there is no quick fix. That clarity is perhaps the only thing Raptors fans will have to cheer about for some time to come.

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