Toronto Raptors: It’s high time to get their affairs in order

Mar 16, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Injured Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (7) watches as head coach Dwane Casey looks on during a timeout against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Air Canada Centre. The Thunder beat the Raptors 123-102. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 16, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Injured Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (7) watches as head coach Dwane Casey looks on during a timeout against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Air Canada Centre. The Thunder beat the Raptors 123-102. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports /

Watching the Toronto Raptors get crushed into itty-bitty pieces and swept away by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs was a humbling and enlightening experience as a writer — and fan — covering this team.

If there was ever a team to challenge LeBron James and the Cavs, this had to be it. This Toronto Raptors team was specifically made for it.

Flexible bigs, the ability to go big or go small, scorers at the guard positions to exploit the Cavaliers’ terrible defence, veterans to stabilize the locker room when things got rough. It was all there.

A legitimate chance to beat LeBron on their way to the NBA Finals. They beat the Raptors in six games last year, so it’s at least a six-game series again this year, right? They got worse and the Raptors got better, the gap is naturally narrowing.

On paper, this was supposed to be the best Raptors team ever. Toronto finally captured the elusive stretch-four they’ve sought after for years since Patrick Patterson didn’t work out.

And, they got a three-and-D wing that was specifically brought in to guard LeBron. Everything made sense, and everyone is sleeping on the Raptors – they’re gonna give the Cavs a serious run for their money.

And then I woke up. It was all a dream. I’ve never felt so duped, hoodwinked or bamboozled by a basketball team in my entire life. Watching the Raptors get crushed into itty-bitty pieces and swept away by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs was as humbling as it was enlightening as a writer — and fan — covering this team.

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It’s like talking mad trash about your friend who challenged a dude to a fight, only to realize the person they challenged is Saitama, who then proceeds to normal punch him into oblivion. It was so easy to be convinced the Raptors could pull off the upset that it blinded you to the fact LeBron is really good at basketball and always crushes teams on his way to the finals.

This series loss stings and not because it hurt the team’s pride (and my pocketbook), but because it could have lasting implications for the Raptors long-term future. There’s no silver lining, it wasn’t a bitter loss in Game 7 or a series loss due to injury.

It was a straight destruction, absolute obliteration, nuclear fission. The Raptors never had a chance and never looked like it either, which means they gotta stare a lot of problems in the face.

This team as it’s constructed is good, damn good. In the regular season. It’s a scathing offensive force that really found it’s way defensively as the season went on.

However, the franchise is past this now. The regular season is for chumps, any team worth 50 wins should realistically look towards the ultimate goal of raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in June.

The thing is, these past two season the Raptors haven’t proven they can stand toe-to-toe with the Cavs and this year is a more stark realization than ever. Kyle Lowry is a dope regular season player, but it’s looking like he’s starting to wear down. Small point guards who attack the rim constantly don’t last long in the NBA and although Lowry has a lower total amount of minutes than other All-Stars his age, father time remains undefeated.

A fluid-filled elbow here, a broken wrist there, a stiff back here, and another sprained ankle there, are all disassociated injuries, but they start mounting up as you age. All the jammed fingers shaken out and sprained ankles walked off slowly, suddenly become harder to recover from. When those happen, it’s harder to catch a rhythm in the regular season and by extension the postseason, where Lowry always seems to disappear.

Toronto Raptors
May 7, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard Cory Joseph (6) talks with Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) )during the fourth quarter in the second round of game 4 of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at against the Cleveland Cavaliers Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports /

The postseason struggles by Lowry are now bordering on comical. This year he shrunk down to 15 points, 5.9 assists and 3.1 boards from his 22.4/7/4 stat line.

Every year it’s been an issue, playoff Lowry rears its ugly head and keeps leaving people perplexed. Every player associated with a ‘playoff’ version is better than we see on a regular basis.

‘Playoff’ LeBron and Rajon Rondo are monsters, while playoff-Lowry is a mouse. Maybe, It’s possible that the system betrays him.

Toronto Raptors
Toronto Raptors /

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors’ offence has been a stagnant mess for multiple years now and never showed improvement in how the ball moves. It works during the regular season, because teams don’t have enough time to game plan for one specific team.

However, the postseason offers nothing but time. The Drakes scored 101.3 points per 100 possessions in these playoffs, ranking them 14th in the playoffs, which is almost nine points below their regular season numbers.

At first glance the Raptors appeared to get spacing in Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. However, the Raps couldn’t hit an open threes if their lives depended on it (which it kinda did).

Ibaka was brought in to be the stretch-four the Raptors woefully needed, but he’s never gained the respect of one. Ibaka’s shot is good, not great, from beyond the arc and when given the ball in space he looks like a tourist that just lost his wallet.

The isolation-based offence grinds into a predictable time bomb that explodes every 24 seconds, resulting in the ugliest drives to the hoop and mid-range jump shots known to man. It’s hard to make that work as a reliable offence, unless your name is LeBron, Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook.

But that’s the price you pay when the shooters are unreliable; the defence gets to clamp down on the stars until the others can prove their worth. The offence is a symbiotic relationship where each player relies on the other and when one part breaks down the other struggles for survival.

Toronto Raptors
May 7, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) lays on the floor as Raptors guard Cory Joseph (6) tries to assist during the fourth quarter in the second round of game four of the 2017 NBA Playoffs against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports /

At least the Cavaliers series provided a moment of clairvoyance for the Raptors. Masai Ujiri didn’t necessarily push every chip into the middle of the table when making trades at the trade deadline, but he only has enough left for his big blind.

The Drakes aren’t good enough as is to square off against the Cavs; you can’t bring back the same cast of characters. Lowry, Ibaka, Tucker and Patterson all have expiring contracts this summer.

Re-sign everyone and the Raptors are $30 million over the cap. That means paying around $250 million for a team that just got bounced in the second round. No matter how often Ujiri says he has backing from MLSE, nobody is paying more than the Cavs to field a team that is worse than the Cavs.

Slimming down means letting defensive stalwart Tucker and Plus/Minus prince Patterson walk. Cory Joseph is a nice piece but there are replacements on the roster and DeMarre Carroll is slowly crystallizing into a relic.

All of which are moveable, but it’s just not realistic to get underneath the tax if you bring back Lowry and Ibaka. The cap hit will hurt, but when you’re backed by two phone companies you can make it work.

Realistically, the future of the franchise all rests on Lowry’s shoulders. Toronto can offer him a five-year deal worth at least $200 million deal, while rivals can offer only four-year deals that start at the same max around $35 million a year. Obviously, Masai and co. can try to chop down the dollars or years, but Lowry’s gonna have offers to fall back on.

Alienate Lowry with the wrong deal and the next time we see him, he’s wearing Spurs on his feet or antlers on his head. He’s made it clear the next step in his career is winning a championship but money talks – only a select few players will really take a haircut to win at all cost.

Moving out West is a bizarre path but not an impossible one to trek. With coach Pop and Kawhi Leonard at your back it’s hard to see where you could go wrong. And if Lowry makes the move to another team, we’re going to witness a tear down unlike any we’ve ever seen in Toronto.

It’ll be a tad difficult to move DeMar DeRozan due to his $27 million contract, but places get desperate. For all the Lakers’ tanking, they may lose their pick in the draft this year to the 76ers and without a clear star standout on their roster, they could be desperate to grab a splashy established name.

Regardless, Lowry leaving means kicking off the tank-o-thon. There would be no real need to re-sign Ibaka, Tucker or Patterson – just roll the ball out with the youngens.

Delon Wright, Norman Powell, Bruno Caboclo, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl will finally get to grace the court for significant minutes. The Raptors have always been good with player development, it’s just been hidden behind their recent rash of winning.

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DeRozan, Powell, Terrence Ross, and Jonas Valanciunas were all originally drafted by the Raptors and have all contributed to a varying degree to where the franchise is right now. You don’t get the 50-win seasons without DeRozan, you don’t get the playoff wins without Powell, and you don’t get Ibaka without Ross. Dwane Casey and co. have been astute player developers, which is probably why they weren’t opposed to a tear down in the first place.

Don’t forget this winning Raptors squad was built by accident. When Masai Ujiri came on board in 2013 he tried to trade Lowry to the Knicks, but the trade got vetoed by the (in)famous James Dolan.

Then he made a trade to get Rudy Gay (the Raptors best player at the time) off the squad for spare parts in Patterson, John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez. The stage was set for a tank, but the Raptors kept winning and winning and winning.

Sticking together is the safest option for both Lowry and the Raptors and people fear change. Bring back Ibaka and Tucker and the team is still mostly intact.

The Raptors just need to eat a five-year contract with an aging point guard. Sure, Lowry is an All-Star for the next two to three years, but that back end will look egregious when he’s a role piece on a then aging DeRozan-led Raptors squad. But maybe some of the younglings will burst on the scene.

Powell continues to wow anyone who watches him play and the Raptors backup point guards continue to show flashes of legitimate players. Amazingly Ujiri has built two teams at the same time, the core parts to the now Raptors don’t really have anything to do with the new wave, even though they sit on the same bench.

Next: 4 Takeaways From Masai Ujiri's End of Year Presser

Despite the Cavs devastating the Dinos in round 2, DeRozan thinks the Raptors are close to the NBA finals, and he could be right. It’s always hardest to tell when it’s time to retool, wait or rebuild when you’re in that 50-win range but unable to make it over the top.

The Raptors could be Clippers East or maneuvering their way to greatness. It’s hard to tell, but a lot of dominoes need to fall before coming to a conclusion and Lowry gets to pick the first one to push.