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A Post-Mortem For The Toronto Raptors

sportingnews.com

The Toronto Raptors have fallen to LeBron James and the Cavaliers for the third consecutive season, but this time it might mean the end of an era.

As the Toronto Raptors walked off the floor of Quicken Loans Arena Monday night, you could feel the disappointment permeating through the organization. A few minutes later, as DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry sat at the podium answering questions in the postgame press conference, you could see it, too.

DeRozan took the lead, honestly answering the questions while clearly conveying his disappointment in the team’s failures, all while the eyes of his fluorescent yellow Minions t-shirt peered over the table. To his right, Lowry said as few words as he could get away with while pulling his Adidas hat as far down on his face as possible to cover up his frustration.

Most of the press conference was filled with the generic answers you’d expect, but DeRozan had one response that stuck out to me.

“You know we had the opportunity, had the opportunity, had the opportunity, and we couldn’t pull off that big challenge you wanna face-up against, going against a guy like that [LeBron James].”

The words on their own aren’t notable, but his repetition of “the opportunity” was. DeRozan was alluding to Toronto’s three consecutive playoff losses at the hands of Cleveland, and it was clear both he and the entire organization were feeling the burden of all three failures in that moment.

The questions Toronto have to answer aren’t easy. They aren’t choosing which high-profile free agents to go after or which role player best fits their system. They’re deciding whether they want to continue down this road, with this team, with a marginal chance at title contention, or if they want to move onto the next step in their franchise.

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Jason Miller - Getty Images

Looking back at this season years from now, Raptor fans will see this as the new high-water mark in team history. They set a new franchise record for wins, were the best team in the East during the regular season, and — for a while — looked like they had a legitimate shot at a title.

But history will also show this season ending like the three before it: dominated by possibly the greatest player of all time. While in many ways this series was closer than history may reflect, the Raptors were as far as ever from truly competing with LeBron. Their regular season successes only set them up for disappointment at the failures we always expected.

LeBron’s unbelievable one-footed fadeaway banked-in runner to win Game 3 will be the defining image of this series, but there were very few moments in the entire series he wasn’t dominant.

In the end, the Raptors went out with a whimper. They lost Game 4 by 35 points and it wasn’t even that close. If it wasn’t LeBron beating them it was JR Smith or Kyle Korver or Kevin Love. As early as the second quarter it was clear Toronto’s minds were halfway out the door and they had lost any will to compete.

The closest the Raptors got to fighting back was DeRozan’s flagrant 2 on Jordan Clarkson at the end of the third quarter, ensuring he was the first Raptor to reach the offseason. While the severity of the foul and whether it deserved an ejection can be debated (I thought a flagrant 2 was harsh), it was an undeniably fitting end to the series.

In many ways, it mirrored Andrew Bynum’s flagrant foul on JJ Barea in 2011. To be clear, Bynum’s foul was far more egregious and dangerous than DeRozan’s and the severity of the fouls are in no way similar, but both marked symbolic ends for their teams. Of course, those Lakers’ two championships far outweigh anything the Raptors have achieved, but both fouls were acts of frustration to end humiliating series.

And really, DeRozan walking off that court probably becomes the end of an era for Toronto. This was their window. This was the season. They were the team running on all cylinders with the Cavs in disarray. This was going to be the year they finally got the playoff monkey off their back, but the season ended with an even larger primate still firmly attached.

Even if LeBron leaves for LA or Houston or another Western Conference team, Toronto won’t have the same opportunities next season. Boston and Philadelphia look to be starting a decade-long fight for East supremacy and Milwaukee has their own superstar just scratching the surface of his potential. The Raptors are aging out of a competition the others are just growing into.

Toronto could possibly reload and compete for another year or two if they had flexibility, but they are standing at the edge of salary cap hell. Over the past two seasons, President Masai Ujiri mortgaged the farm to commit to this version of the team, giving lucrative extensions to their core players.

Toronto Raptors’ Salary Breakdown: 2018-2021Image title

The Raptors have already committed over $126 million next season and $132 million for 2019-20. Over 75% of that money is owed to Lowry, DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas. The 32-year-old Lowry is set to be the sixth highest paid player in the league next season, making more than James Harden, Anthony Davis, and Damian Lillard. Ibaka is somehow only 28 years old, but his steep athletic decline is making the $45 million he’s owed over the next two seasons seem like a massive overpay.

Fred VanVleet emerged as a very good backup point guard this season, but he will be a restricted free agent this summer. Toronto may luck into re-signing him for cheap due to the relative lack of cap space around the league, but his deal will only add to their already substantial tax bill.

In the summer of 2019, both CJ Miles and Valanciunas have player options they’re likely to pick up — totaling $26.3 million — and OG Anunoby, Jakob Poeltl, and Pascal Siakam all have team options. If Valanciunas opts in, the Raptors will be fully committed to their top four guys for the next two seasons and will have to choose between the role players who helped build the team.

They could try to trade one of their top players for assets, but DeRozan is the only one with real trade value and there isn’t a clear trade partner with enticing pieces to offer. Pairing Ibaka or Valanciunas with one of their few low-cost assets could help lower the tax bill, but that would only push Toronto even further from title contention.

They have the option to blow it up and trade DeRozan and Lowry for young players and draft picks, but it’s hard to envision Ujiri voluntarily ending the best era in franchise history just two and a half months after their best regular season ever. So if major changes are coming, they are probably coming on the bench. Dwayne Casey appears like he might get fired and win Coach of the Year in the same month, but the essence of the team (read: Lowry and DeRozan) is probably going to stay the same.

In all likelihood, Toronto is going to run it back. If the Raptors start next season with the same roster they have today, the goals and expectations for this team are going to have to change. In other eras, against other competition, the Raptors may very well have made a Finals and would have a very different place in history. They may even win 50 games next season and look to be a contender in March. But the past four years have proven this team doesn’t have what it takes to win a title.


Edited by Emily Berman.

SQuiz
Who has the most points in Toronto Raptors history?
Created 5/9/18
  1. Kyle Lowry
  2. DeMar DeRozan
  3. Vince Carter
  4. Chris Bosh

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