The joy of the Raptors mid-season bad-to-good metamorphosis four years ago sprung from the lack of expectations that preceded it. A team on the brink of full-scale reconstruction and another prolonged down cycle suddenly became relevant, igniting a fervor that couldn’t even by dampened by a first-round playoff loss. Turning a lost season into found treasure was more than enough to satiate a starving fan base. It was an easy team to love, and a difficult one to find disappointment in no matter how many playoff minutes John Salmons played.
That kind of unencumbered joy was missing by the end of last season. With Kyle Lowry’s wrist busted and free agency looming, each loss — and even the unconvincing victories — felt like another crack threatening to erode the foundation of this iteration of the Raptors. Beating Milwaukee in six games wasn’t accompanied by woo-hoos as much as it was exhausted sighs. A second straight post-season exit to Cleveland carried with it much less reason for optimism than the first.
Masai Ujiri would probably make the deadline moves for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker again. They were necessary considering the pressing timeframe and weaknesses of the team. But combined with Lowry’s injury, the trades left the team stewing in suboptimal conditions for success. Urgency and expectations made for a viscous and heavy concoction that the team couldn’t detach itself from before LeBron James got his hands on it.
“When you end the season the way we did,” said Fred VanVleet on media day. “Just a lot of bad feelings and emotions, you know you’ve got grown men, people who are pissed off.”
With tense feelings pervading both the locker room and fan base, the summer forecast looked grim. In January, a Kyle Lowry return felt like a virtual lock; six months and two season-derailing injuries later, the Spurs, Rockets and Sixers had Raptors fans feeling nauseous.
The decompression phase following the Cavs sweep helped ease stomachs. A depressed cap jump left few viable destinations to which Lowry could jet. Serge Ibaka signed on July 1st, hinting that a Raptors tear-down wasn’t in the cards. Then Lowry’s Players’ Tribune piece dropped.
With a pair of three-year deals for his two marquee UFAs, Ujiri hit refresh on this era of the Raptors, setting the franchise up with a glistening new window of pseudo-contention with the outside chance for more. No more pending star departures or compressed crash-courses in chemistry. Instead, Toronto enters the 2017-18 season with time to bake, and no fear that a playoff shortfall will drive away its best player.
“To have this new opportunity it’s a fresh start almost,” said VanVleet. “I don’t feel like we’re carrying that weight on our shoulders going into it.”
Of course signing Lowry and Ibaka came at the expense of some reliable hands. P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson signed with contenders out west, while Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll were shed in an effort to duck the tax. Those holes will be hard to fill — some more so than others — but the departure of four veterans leaves behind a situation from which fun and optimism should burst.
This past summer’s 2K-esque player movement left the Raptors and their continuity firmly off the league radar. ESPN’s projection model penciled the Toronto in for just 43 wins. Washington and Milwaukee are sexier picks to upset the East’s hierarchy. The Raptors feel predictable, even boring. Dwane Casey’s preseason pivot to a more inclusive, three-focused offense is more curiosity than accepted gospel at this point. To the extent a 50-win team can be slept on, the Raptors are that. Compared to the last three seasons, in which the onus was on the Raptors to prove they belonged in the East’s top tier, the expectations coming into 2017-18 feel notably less lofty.
Remember why that 2013-14 season was so special?
Adding even further to the potential for fun this season are the nine untapped roster players still playing out their rookie deals. It’s inherently more fun when a young dude does a cool thing on a basketball court than when a veteran does (this rule is of course bent by the 40+ Paradox, otherwise known as The Actual Carter Effect). Delon Wright driving and getting blocked at the rim can be viewed as a learning experience, a stepping stone towards his refinement; Carroll’s slashes were merely a relief if successful, and ulcer-inducing when he popped it off the front of the rim. Rather than commiserating after every bricked Patrick Patterson three, fans can be excited by Pascal Siakam’s willingness to take one. Norman Powell is going to dunk on heads, OG Anunoby will flash his sexy blogger talents and Bruno Caboclo will remain a human victory cigar. It’s unreasonable to expect all or most of the young Raptors to pop this season. But what if they do?
Within this new three-year window, it’s always made more sense for 2018-19 — when LeBron could be elsewhere and the young guys will be a year further along — to be the Raptors’ next “all-in” campaign. This season probably won’t end with an unexpected Finals appearance. Maybe it is Washington’s turns to be ceremonially beheaded in the Eastern Conference Finals. That’s fine. For the first time in four years, the Raptors’ future won’t be at risk should the season end prematurely. Player development and changing long-standing habits are going to take higher priority than racking up wins — the fact that the Raptors will still be pretty good anyway speaks to Ujiri and co.’s multi-tasking ability.
Of course you’ll still nitpick Casey’s rotations. Jonas Valanciunas’ value will never be agreed upon. C.J. Miles vs. Norman Powell as the starting three will be a small-time debate, but it’ll damn sure be had throughout the year. But this year’s discourse won’t come with the same weight that burdened last year’s team as the season wound down. Low expectations breed unbridled joy when things break right, and easy acceptance when they don’t.
None of this is to say last year’s Raptors weren’t enjoyable. They were… in a “they’re winning and every second of this should be savoured before Lowry leaves” kind of way. This year, a muted profile, youthful exuberance and some familiar faces should bring back the kind of low-stakes bliss that rang in the best era of franchise history.
The Raptors are about to be fun again. Enjoy it.
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