By J.M. Poulard
During the late 1990’s, the Chicago Bulls made the decision not to bring back head coach Phil Jackson and essentially ended the Michael Jordan-era Bulls. That Chicago team had just completed three straight 62-plus-win seasons and collected titles every year of that stint.
It was the most successful period of the franchise, but management felt it was time to move on. Here’s what ensued in terms of wins and losses:
It took the Bulls six years to return to a level of respectability, and two years later (2007-08) they were once again a sub-.500 team.
Team building is a difficult task that relies heavily on scouting, talent acquisition and luck (winning the draft lottery when Tim Duncan is the best player in the draft isn’t the same as winning it when Elton Brand is the consensus top pick).
With that information in mind, consider the current fate of a Toronto Raptors—whose success is nowhere near that of the late 1990’s Bulls—coming off its best four-year run ever. During the 2013-16 period, they set franchise highs for wins (48.49 and 56) in each ensuing season. Toronto “only” won 51 games this past year, but still finished with the third-best record in the conference.
The Raptors were eliminated in back-to-back seasons by a Cleveland Cavaliers team that has put a chokehold on the Eastern Conference since LeBron James’ return in 2014. Toronto’s most recent elimination came in four games, with Kyle Lowry sitting out the final two games due to an ankle injury.
Still, in the games Lowry played, Cleveland won by a combined margin of 33 points. In other words, the series likely was never going to be close.
Thus, the franchise had a huge decision to make this summer with a few core players entering free agency: bring the group back possibly to get spanked by the Cavs or the invincible Warriors if Toronto makes the Finals, or rebuild with an eye towards the decline of Golden State and Cleveland.
Raptors management ultimately elected to give it another a shot, albeit with a detonation date (more on that later).
The front office re-signed Kyle Lowry to a three-year, $100 million deal and brought Serge Ibaka back with a $65 million contract for three seasons. These two transactions have essentially capped out the Raptors for the duration of the deals, according to Spotrac.
Indeed, Toronto figures to be above the salary cap until 2021, which will limit their ability to bring in new talented players via free agency. As a result, the Raptors will have to rely heavily on the draft and the trade route to acquire serviceable players.
That’s problematic considering the fact that the roster is a bit antiquated. Lowry and Ibaka’s game mesh well with the pace-and-space era that has taken the league by storm, but the remaining starters are an odd fit.
The team already decided to move on from DeMarre Carroll, who was supposed to be the significant free agent piece that pushed the Raptors closer to the top.
Instead, his defensive proficiency has seemingly deteriorated and he shot a mere 34.1 percent from downtown this past season. To say Carroll’s production disappointed would be an understatement, but when one factors in his $14.8 million price tag for the 2017-18 campaign, it’s easy to see why they paid a first round draft pick to be rid of him.
Next on the cost cutting block might be Jonas Valanciunas, who operates well on the block, but his moves take time to set up and help defenders shading his every move only further complicates the operation. Keep in mind, Valanciunas is an exclusively interior player, thus he is unable to create spacing for teammates.
The NBA Finals demonstrated that it’s incredibly easy to punish teams that lack floor spacers—the Cavs often left Tristan Thompson on the bench—and too many of Toronto’s core fits that mold.
DeMar DeRozan is one of the best mid-range swingman in the league given his ability to make teams pay from the elbow and low-post areas. However, he is only a 28.1 percent career 3-point shooter.
In other words, the floor tends to naturally shrink when he and Valanciunas share the floor.
[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”Raptors” title=”More Toronto Raptors Articles” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
Sure, Toronto ranked sixth in offensive rating during the 2016-17 campaign, but it also scored less than 95 points—Raps scored 77 points in Game 3 of their first-round series versus the Milwaukee Bucks—in half of its playoff games.
It’s understandable for the front office to bring everyone back given the team’s recent run of success, but management has to re-think the roster if competing in the East is the endgame.
There’s no shame in losing to Cleveland, but the Boston Celtics’ signing of Gordon Hayward just put a roadblock in front of the Raptors. The conference got weaker as a whole, but the path to the Eastern Conference Finals just became a bit more difficult.
Did the Raptors make a mistake?
It’s too soon to tell considering there might be other moves to make. I would expect Toronto to gauge the trade value of Valanciunas to see what pieces the Raptors could get in return. If the answer isn’t much, perhaps the 27-year-old DeRozan can generate value.
It might sound absurd to give up on such a fabulous scorer as he approaches his prime, but DeRozan can become a free agent in 2020. That’s an important year to keep track of given that all of Toronto’s contracts expire then.
Yes, everyone on the roster might be headed out of town if Toronto is merely a doormat for Cleveland and Boston. The Raptors need to have enough vision to project the worst-case scenario and avoid it altogether.
If trading away all of their assets a year early or two is what works best, the Raps might not have a choice as the Indiana Pacers can attest.
They ignored the signs indicating that Paul George might eventually leave Indiana, and once it was clearly communicated, the Pacers lost some of their leverage and ultimately traded George for Victor Oladipo and Domatas Sabonis.
That’s the kind of return on investment the Raptors might get three years from now.
Would a multitude of consecutive second-round knockouts warrant such a risk?
The answer has to be no, right?
And if such is the case, the Raptors need to start reshaping the roster in the upcoming winter to avoid an organic implosion.
The Raptors will remain stuck in purgatory if they stay the course, and hopefully, the warning signs are obvious enough that they will shift their focus.
If they don’t, there’s a good chance they follow the same of the Bulls…the 2000s version.