The thing about the Toronto Raptors winning a championship is that it deservedly earns those involved a lot of leeway when things go sideways.
Enough that a 1-5 start isn’t about to start a referendum about the roster-building skills of Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster.
But as the Raptors hit their first patch of regular-season adversity since they became a perennial Eastern Conference title contender, it’s inevitable that there will some blame that gets passed around.
And it’s not just Raptors nation that’s looking at the club’s configuration now that the tires have hit the road and wondering how they will get back on track. You likely won’t hear a more pointedly critical assessment of a roster from an NBA head coach this season than the one Nick Nurse delivered in explaining why he was moving the previously forgotten Stanley Johnson into a more prominent role.
“I just cannot keep sending out another guy, another little shooting guard,” he said. “You know, we've got a whole slew of 'em … We just can't continue to get bashed on the glass like that because all the other good stuff you're gonna do just gets wiped out. So that's why. I'm looking for some rebounding help, brother.”
Are the Raptors as bad as their record has shown through six games? It’s hard to imagine, but as they tip-off a four-game western road swing Wednesday against the Phoenix Suns at 9:00 p.m. ET on Sportsnet, we’ll find out soon enough.
But the team that played at a franchise-record, 60-win pace last season seems a distant memory.
Throughout the organization there was a deep belief that were it not for Pascal Siakam’s pandemic-induced swoon and Marc Gasol’s stumbles in the playoffs they were good enough to take their title defence all the way to the Finals in 2020 and once there concede nothing to LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
It makes no sense that losing Gasol and Serge Ibaka – the only significant departures from last season – has doomed Toronto to finishing in the lottery for the first time in eight years.
But it could be time for a more realistic appraisal of what their ceiling might be, and for the moment anyone who took the ‘under’ on Las Vegas’ pre-season projection of 41.5 wins (or 47 over an 82-game season) has to be feeling pretty good right now.
And while Ujiri and Webster deserve heaps of credit for maneuvering the Raptors into championship status, it’s fair to point out that in the years since there have been more misses than hits.
It’s not just that Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Ibaka and Gasol – 60 per cent of what was at most a seven-man rotation in the 2019 post-season – have moved on. Also missing is skill development coach and beloved talent whisperer Phil Handy, who won his third ring with the Los Angeles Lakers in October, lead assistant coach – and positivity maestro – Nate Bjorkgren is now running the Indiana Pacers and Patrick Mutombo – who worked closely with the struggling Siakam, for example – is now head coach of Raptors 905.
More tangibly, the talent drain from 2019 seems to be catching up to the Raptors, who now can only count Lowry, Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell as key contributors to their title run remaining.
And while given Gasol’s age and his disappearing act in the bubble it seemed unlikely that the Raptors were going to bring the Spanish veteran back on anything but the most team-friendly deal, when the Lakers agreed to offer him a second year it was clear that ship had sailed.
But failing to bring back Ibaka will go down as one of the executive team’s clear misses.
Ibaka wanted to stay with the Raptors and even coming off a career-year, the veteran understood that it might mean having to settle for a one-year deal as the club was doing everything in their power to avoid taking on commitments that would interfere with their cap space in 2021.
But the Raptors’ first offer – about $12 million for the 2020-21 season – was below what he was expecting and while Toronto came up to $14 million, they were still trying to keep some powder dry to pursue Gasol. That didn’t go over well with Ibaka who, according to multiple sources, resented having to play behind the Spanish international and wasn’t going to sign on for a shared role again. Ibaka quickly pivoted to the Los Angeles Clippers and their two-year deal for $19 million.
In retrospect, the Raptors absolutely could have kept Ibaka without being a tax team or otherwise altering their off-season plans now or in the future.
After the all the dust settled in the off-season the Raptors still ended up with about $3 million in space under the luxury tax threshold and that’s after paying Chris Boucher $6.5 million this season as a restricted free agent – a nice deal for the Montreal native, but larger than any other team was going to offer him.
Ibaka’s presence wouldn’t make the Raptors a championship contender, but his absence has clearly lowered their floor.
The Raptors’ new centres – Aron Baynes and Alex Len, veteran journeymen with minimal upside signed to one-year deals – offer little in the way of offensive punch and Toronto’s 28th-ranked attack is a reflection.
Defences can effectively play 5-on-4 with no need to worry about either of the Raptors’ bigs stretching them out to the three-point line or rolling hard to the rim. Boucher offers a more dynamic option offensively but is so slight he simply can’t help but be overwhelmed on the defensive glass. The Raptors, who rank 27th in defensive rebounding percentage on the season, are even worse when Boucher is on the floor, grabbing just 68.3 per cent of other team’s misses.
To their credit the Raptors are holding themselves accountable, being clear that whatever the potential of the current group is, they’re falling short of it.
“Right now we have nothing, you know, there's nothing to us, right? We're just like that team that teams are looking at us like ‘alright let's go eat.’” said Lowry. “We have to use that to fuel us.”
But there’s also a sense that the ceiling for the team as constructed probably needs to be re-evaluated. Doing the best they can with what they have is their job, but what they have is proving a flawed mix.
“We are who we are,” said VanVleet. “At this point it’s not our job to make trades or change the roster around. We gotta go play with who we got. We’re good enough, we got enough on the team to do it, but we gotta do it.”
But do they have enough? This a roster where the only lottery picks are Len (taken fifth overall in 2013) and Johnson (No. 8 in 2015), with each charitably considered under-achievers relative to their draft position. The Raptors carry seven undrafted players and six more of which the highest pick is little-used DeAndre' Bembry, who was taken with 21st selection in 2016.
All of which falls on the Raptors’ executive branch. Teams don’t trend upwards forever and even maintaining a level of excellence as consistently as the Raptors have over an extended period is remarkably rare. The Raptors are tied for the league’s second-longest playoff streak and second-best winning percentage over that stretch.
But what comes next matters, too. Ujiri and Webster appear to have sacrificed the last year they have Lowry under contract as they positioned themselves to take a run at Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
They’ve paid the price by fielding an unbalanced roster with some clear holes, and given the fact Antetokounmpo signed an extension it’s not clear what Plan B is, or if there even is one.
They haven’t shown their hand yet and their track record means they will get the benefit of the doubt, but it’s becoming apparent that this edition of the Raptors is short of a complete deck with no obvious path to improving their cards.