With the draft over, Raptors need to evolve or risk getting pushed aside

Malachi Flynn spoke about being overlooked for his size and how he’s taken inspiration from players like Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet.

The best thing about the pandemic – from an NBA perspective – might have taken place Wednesday night during a draft that was short on flash, light on drama but long on heartfelt emotion.

Instead of a fashion show where the draftees will be remembered for their custom suits as they strode across the stage at Barclays Center in Brooklyn to shake commissioner Adam Silver’s hand, the players were at home (mostly) and surrounded by friends and family, taking it all in by video conference.

The class of 2020 may not be remembered for the number of Hall of Famers or all-stars it turns out – even Anthony Edwards, taken No. 1 by the Minnesota Timberwolves, is far from a sure thing — but it will never be forgotten for how raw the emotions were as the league’s newest members soaked in the moment, comfortable to let it all out among those who know them best.

Pick after pick, the post-draft interviews would start and then stop as feelings welled up and words were washed away.

An exception was Malachi Flynn, the hard-nosed senior point guard and youngest of seven brothers and sisters the Raptors took 29th overall. He appeared on camera all smiles, after piquing the Raptors' interest because he’s all business.

“He's a serious kid,” said Raptors general manager Bobby Webster of the six-foot-one, San Diego State product who has drawn comparisons to Fred VanVleet. “He's professional. He's about the hard work. He's about winning. So, I think those will be the natural comparisons ... but clearly things that we value in guys we're bringing in.”

For Webster and the Raptors, things will get more serious from here.

With the draft over, the real work begins as the rest of the league seems to be remaking itself on the fly. For the moment, the Raptors were standing to the side as interested observers, but that could change.

“Yeah, you've always got to keep up with everyone else, as far as (trade) volume,” said Webster. “.... As you know, trades will continue the rest of tonight, tomorrow. Free agency starts on Friday. So you're on it, we're right in the thick of it. Ton of stuff going on.”

Now is the time for the Raptors to get with it.

The Raptors defended their 2018 championship with arguably the best regular season in franchise history, setting a team record with a .736 winning percentage, albeit over a pandemic-shortened 72-game schedule. But after never quite hitting their stride in a seven-game, second-round loss to the Boston Celtics, the path to getting better — or even picking up where they left off — has its share of pitfalls.

Free agency was always going to be the bigger lever Toronto's short- and medium-term future. But when it opens Friday at 6:00 p.m. ET, only three of the top-eight rotation players who helped the franchise to a title will still be under contract. VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol will all become free agents, momentarily leaving just Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Norm Powell to hold the fort, along with OG Anunoby, who wasn’t was on the playoff roster in 2019 but has become a foundational piece since.

Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the draft, the Eastern Conference was on its way to being reshaped. The Brooklyn Nets – who the Raptors swept aside in the first round of the playoffs in the Orlando bubble — will have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant on the floor this coming season, with the possibility that James Harden forces his way out of Houston to join them. At the least, the Nets picked up sharpshooter Landry Shamet from the Los Angeles Clippers.

The underachieving Philadelphia 76ers are showing signs of rebalancing their roster, executing draft-night trades to bring in Danny Green and Seth Curry – the kind of elite perimeter threats who should better complement Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. There is some talk that newly hired Sixers president Darryl Morrey – formerly with the Rockets – will try to bring Harden to Philadelphia if the Nets can’t reach an agreement with Houston.

The Celtics are reportedly considering a sign-and-trade deal that would send Gordan Hayward to Atlanta to create a significant trade exception Boston could use to make a move for another big-money player.

And the Milwaukee Bucks are better. Although the widely reported sign-and-trade for swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic fell through when it turned out the Sacramento Kings player hadn’t agreed to sign a new contract for the purposes of being traded to Milwaukee, they did land Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans to solidify themselves at point guard.

Glitches aside, the Raptors' challenge seems clear: evolve or get pushed aside in a rapidly improving Eastern Conference.

Toronto remains confident it can keep VanVleet and is betting that with Ibaka unlikely to garner offers above the mid-level exception of $9.23 million in a tight market for big men, a richer short-term deal that maintains salary-cap flexibility is a possibility, with Gasol in a somewhat similar situation. But all that does is bring a good team – one that fell well short of a title – back to even. The Raptors will have the full MLE at their disposal and will need to use it to add a piece rather than be seen as treading water.

With all due respect to Flynn, he’s not going to be counted on to move the needle on a team with championship aims.

The real tears will come if the Raptors emerge from free agency with their new first-round pick as the only significant addition of the off-season or having lost some of the pieces they’ve come to depend on.

The NBA will pass you by if you stand still.

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