To a man, the Toronto Raptors are going into the off-season with an air of optimism, a belief that they are part of something that is growing, that can last, that take them places.
It’s not a small thing.
The yawning, five-month stretch between now and the start of training camp is plenty of time for good or bad things to happen, or not much to happen at all.
It all depends what they make of it.
The core group of Raptors that put together an over-achieving season and put up a valiant fight in their first-round series before bowing out in six games to the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night needs to use the time wisely.
That they’re going into it with the belief that better days are ahead can only help and making the next step -- from a scrappy 48-win team to a deeper, more polished and group that can convince themselves that, say, a conference finals appearance is on the horizon -- is difficult.
But it starts with looking around the locker room one last time and having confidence that this is a good place to be, and believing success is closer at hand than some might think.
“It’s time now. That’s about as much building as we all want to do,” said Fred VanVleet as the Raptors cleaned out their lockers prior to dispersing for the off-season. “I think we have the pieces and now how do you put those pieces together. Can you add a few pieces around the board and then how do you make it work? How does it make most sense to be the most efficient, the most lethal team that you can put out on the floor?”
But, of course, it makes sense for VanVleet to offer that sentiment. He’s a cornerstone here, part of the foundation upon which everything else rests. And besides, he’s Fred VanVleet, one of his core skills is self belief, and by extension, the belief that everything he touches can be lifted, improved, and advanced beyond what anyone else might think of think.
But listen also to the likes of Thad Young, the 15-year veteran who joined the Raptors at the trade deadline, played a growing role on a team that finished 17-9 and showed well in the playoffs. Either he’s been force-fed Raptors-flavoured Kool-Aid, or all those years spread among seven different organizations has given him a unique perspective on what’s what.
Young, 33, is a pending free agent and may require off-season thumb surgery, but the Raptors made a strong impression on him. It was hard not to get the impression that he’d be happy to return.
“This organization is elite, like one of the top I've ever been a part of, amazing from day one, me coming here,” he said. “… I loved everything about this experience. But as far as the team ... sky's the limit for every individual on this team, for the simple fact of like I think we have a good mixture of like young guys with some veteran guys … but this team can be really, really scary.”
Certainly the optimism isn’t unfounded. The 2021-22 Raptors season will go down as one where a team that was in the draft lottery the year before jumped to fifth place in the East. A team that had just one starter – Pascal Siakam – remaining from its 2018-19 championship squad remained competitive and ambitious.
Siakam himself is as good a symbol as any of the team’s journey. He described his situation a year ago -- coming off 12 months of on-court disappointment and off-season shoulder surgery -- as “the bottom”. And now, After putting together the best regular season of his career and following it up with some convincing playoff performances? He sees this bounce-back season as a launching pad to something greater, which -- given he has a strong chance of earning all-NBA recognition for the second time in three seasons -- is noteworthy.
“… Just from where I came from in the season and I was able to evolve and continue to get better as the season was going on, I’m definitely optimistic that it’s going to get better. I know that it’s going to get better,” said Siakam. “… I feel I can become, a complete player that can do everything on the floor. That’s my goal and I feel that I can achieve it, it’s there, achievable, all I have to do is go for it and work for it and I think I have that part kinda down. I know I’m going to put the work in and hopefully the results come with it.”
There are plenty of variables, and status quo probably won’t get it done.
But it's a team that will be over the salary cap, is at the very least in need of additional depth and likely not in position to attract a significant free agent. Therefore, taking incremental steps individually is probably the most likely path to improvement for the group as a whole.
Fortunately the youngest Raptors have the kind potential for growth that can change teams in a hurry. It’s an over-simplification to say the Raptors will go as far and as quickly as rookie-of-the-year Scottie Barnes can take them in his second season, but his teammates are open to the possibility.
“[He had] probably as good of a year as a guy in his position [can have],” said VanVleet. “He got a ton of minutes, a ton of experience at every position, offensively and defensively. He had some injuries he had to come back from. He pretty much did it all.
“I’m excited to see what he comes back with next year. He’s obviously a heck of a player. He really helped us in a lot of ways, and he was able to have playoff success. He crossed every box; he checked every box. What that looks like for him next year, I don’t know … but if he comes back any per cent better than he was this year, we’ll be all right.”
Barnes isn’t alone. Chris Boucher is 29 and a pending free agent, but in his own way, still has upside. A classic late bloomer, Boucher almost torpedoed his free agency with a horrible start to the season but made himself into a vital piece of the rotation this year and going forward by embracing the role he was most suited for.
“I didn't really enjoy doing hustle plays until I really realized that that's what I was,” said Boucher, who saw his scoring average fall, but his value increase. “That's something that I could grow from now. Bringing it every time.”
It’s a small thing, but it matters. The Raptors would love to bring Boucher back and Boucher would love to return. That he discovered a role that fits exactly what the Raptors need is a win-win.
It’s the kind of development story the Raptors likely need to replicate up-and-down the roster, because the chances of a big-player transaction that moves the needle is unlikely.
And those that were here and plan to be back are OKwith that.
“I think we can definitely get better within without adding anything,” said VanVleet. “ … I’ll let management answer the questions in terms of acquiring new players. But as far as what we got, we got a ton of new experience this year and a really good core group of guys that if we get better at what we do and how we play together, we’ll be better next year, for sure.”
After seven months of losing streaks and winning streaks and injuries and illness, the Raptors head into the off-season believing they have something worth fighting for, which is one more victory in a season that featured more than anyone reasonably expected.