At one point making the playoffs was considered a monumental accomplishment for the Toronto Raptors. Now the organization and their fan base have their sights set on much loftier goals.
The Toronto Raptors clinched their fourth consecutive playoff berth on Saturday when they defeated the Dallas Mavericks, 94-86. But there was no celebration in wake of the team’s accomplishment. There was no Dom Perignon bottles being popped at the American Airlines Center, there was no jubilation from the fan base.
Instead, it was the kind of celebration you would see when Mariano Rivera would trot out from the Yankees’ bullpen and throw a one-two-three ninth inning to close out a game. He was so automatic you just expected him to close the game and secure victory.
That expectation is kind of where the Raptors are at now. No, they are not at Rivera’s level of dominance, few athletes reach his level, but the franchise is at the point where making the playoffs is no longer a surprise — it’s an expectation, much like Rivera notching another save was.
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Truthfully, saying the Raptors made the playoffs almost feels meaningless at this point and that says a lot about where this franchise is at, too. Keep in mind, the first 18 years of this franchise featured only five playoff appearances and was highlighted by Vince Carter‘s brief prime, Chris Bosh‘s short tenure and the failed acquisition of Hakeem Olajuwon. Never mind the playoffs, the Raptors were just fighting to be relevant and involved in the national picture of the NBA.
Now the Raptors are not only relevant, they’re a stable franchise with all the resources in place for long-term success. Don’t believe me? Just look at their foundation and what they have done the past few seasons.
The team is now a perennial contender in not only the Atlantic Division, but the Eastern Conference. They have built a successful D-League program in the Raptors 905. They built a state of the art practice facility (BioSteel Centre) that is a stone’s throw away from the Air Canada Centre. They hosted both the NBA All-Star Game and D-League Showcase. And, perhaps most importantly, the organization has proven they can keep — and attract — players to Toronto by re-signing DeMar DeRozan to a long-term deal and making big acquisitions at the NBA Trade Deadline by acquiring Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker.
Those are all significant signs of stability and success that further prove the expectations for this team have changed. This cultural shift within the Raptors has now led to a larger question, however.
Before the season the debate among Raptor fans was what is success for this team? Well, after the way Saturday’s playoff clinching victory was celebrated, I would say the bar for what success is has without question been raised to an unforeseen level.
Setting a franchise record for wins and reaching the Eastern Conference Finals last season was great, but emulating the Memphis Grizzlies’ model where you make the postseason each year, collect playoff revenue, and eventually get bounced by a more talented team is not what the Raptors are after.
This organization — and its fan base — clearly believes they can accomplish something special, and when you look at the landscape of the Eastern Conference, why wouldn’t they believe that? The Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards are arguably right around where the Raptors are, while the juggernaut Cleveland Cavaliers are wounded with injuries and look beatable. Of course, LeBron James is the trump card to every team in the East, but, with a healthy Kyle Lowry, do you not like the Raptors’ chances this year?
Again, the fact that we’re even having this discussion about whether the Raptors can beat the Cavs and win the Eastern Conference tells you everything you need to know about where this franchise is at.
It’s not longer in a state of inferiority where making the playoffs is considered “good enough.” No, that’s not “good enough” anymore. That is now an expectation. Instead, thanks to a rock solid foundation, the bar has been raised to where the Raptors and their fan base are now thinking about much bigger, long-term ideas of success. Ideas that could possibly involve the Larry O’Brien Trophy being paraded down Yonge Street in late June.