Raptors hope for the best, plan for the rest

Kyle Lowry (Stacy Bengs/AP)

This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.

Such is the history of the Toronto Raptors that every ray of sunshine has been followed by a thunderhead. Tracy McGrady tantalized and then raced out of town. The Vince Carter era gave way to the Vince Carter exit. Bryan Colangelo walked on water until the acquisitions of Jermaine O’Neal, Hedo Turkoglu and Rudy Gay left the franchise deep in the mud of mediocrity.

So it’s hard to look at this unexpected gift basket of a season and not poke carefully for the razors hidden in the coloured paper. It’s a habit. Yes, since Gay was sent to Sacramento on Dec. 8, the Raptors have been one of the best stories in the NBA. Yes, they’ll make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. But it’s so Rafael Araujo that it’s happening in the year Toronto-area kids Andrew Wiggins and Tyler Ennis promise to be headlining the draft lottery. Of course it’s all happening when the Raptors’ best player, the previously combustible Kyle Lowry, is in a contract year. A playoff spot and the potential of a first-round win aren’t exactly fool’s gold, but is it some short-term success at the expense of something with legs—maybe even an all-star with a Canadian passport?

Raptors GM Masai Ujiri can sense the fear. He even admits things have worked out better than he thought they would. “I’m not going to say I’m a genius and I knew it was going to go this way.”

He didn’t know trading Gay and the $38 million left on his contract for bench pieces would result in DeMar DeRozan flowering and Terrence Ross emerging. He didn’t know Lowry, with his tough-to-coach label, would turn into a nightly triple-double threat.

Most thought the trade signalled a drive to tank the season in the name of a lottery pick. Instead, the Raptors’ share-the-ball, never-quit mentality, personified by Lowry, has provided a winter that has been as much fun as summer, cold beer and patios.

But as the hangover hits after a rare playoff appearance, reality could follow with an uppercut: If the ultimate goal is a championship, superstars are helpful, and they are hard to get outside the top few spots in the draft lottery. Has the season of progress been a setback?

Don’t worry—Ujiri can supply the Aspirin. “I didn’t want to finish seventh or eighth or ninth or 10th,” he says. “But even in a bad year in the East, if we finish third, fourth, fifth or at worst sixth, for [our young players] to see the playoffs—now they know why you play the regular season.”

Winning opens up possibilities, Ujiri says. “When people see your team like this, it’s better. If your team is good, people talk about your players. When you’re losing, your players aren’t as valuable.”

Ujiri is like most Raptors fans—he loves this team and the way they’ve surpassed even what he thought they could. But he doesn’t love them that much. He can’t and he shouldn’t. Read between the lines and it’s evident that this season’s promise represents only another step to the ultimate goal.

If the draft lottery is where the Raptors really want to be this June, then maybe the way to get there is a post-season trade, offering some of their good young players and a future draft pick or two for a spot in the top 10—an easier move with the pieces of a winning team.

If repatriating Canadian talent is the plan, perhaps building a stable organization and welcoming them as free agents is the best way to go.

If keeping Lowry and adding to the core that’s here is the route, Ujiri seems prepared for that, too, with salary-cap space and additional picks to barter on hand.

It all speaks to the best part of the Raptors’ unpredictable uptick: If there are clouds on the horizon, Ujiri appears to have brought an umbrella big enough for all.

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