The Toronto Raptors have been a unique personal experience for me as a sports fan. I have never had the experience of following a franchise from its birth to present day as sports fan. I also have had the unique experience of covering this team for over 5 years and had access going on four years. It makes for a very unique experience to say the least.
I find at this time of year I become reflective about a lot of things with not much going on in terms of news. It also becomes a time when I find it the most hard to write or create. There isn’t a lot of material to run with at this point of the year. I think anyone that can tell you they have any idea what is going happen with this team at this point is lying to you and fooling themselves.
We are not hanging out in these gyms seeing what these players are working on day in and day out. They are not playing at a level that is comparable to the NBA. International basketball is likely the closest to the challenge they face in the NBA on a nightly basis.
All this being said I find myself less inspired for any Raptors season that I can remember. This isn’t exactly what I should say is it? I don’t always say what I should say. You would think I would be with Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani being gone would be reason enough. It is no secret that I felt both were holding back this team from moving forward in this post Bosh era. While that is true the idea of Andrew Wiggins clouds my thoughts about this season.
If I could have made a prototype of what the Raptors needed to succeed in both a basketball and business sense it is Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins is an All-Star level talent that I have seen first hand with amazing skill at such a young age and he is one of us, a Canadian born player to root for. It is exactly what this franchise needs desperately. He is what Lebron James once meant for Cleveland, what Derrick Rose still means to the Chicago Bulls. Nothing sells more than a home grown superstar. It is so much easier to root for a guy that is considered your own. It is a lot of pressure but pressure that Wiggins has faced for a long time already.
Also, as we just looked back yesterday on two guys who left Toronto behind, in Andrew Wiggins you have someone that has said on the record this is where he wants to play. So many times we have watched people walk away to even laugh at the idea of playing in Toronto. To have someone that wants to play here and is committed to the city can be magical. Just look at Kevin Durant and his happiness in Oklahoma City. That can be contagious with the right player in place.
Still no one that makes up this Raptors roster is interested in hearing about the dream of having Andrew Wiggins on the Toronto Raptors. They want to see this team break through and succeed. Maybe no one more so than Dwane Casey who is basically coaching for his job this season. You have players with motivation to succeed as well. Kyle Lowry is at the top of that list that is playing for his next contract. Which makes his evaluation process for the Raptors a very tough one to make? The Raptors have made many bad decisions over the last 18 years but one they didn’t was passing on a point guard to re-sign. Mike James was traded for in the final year of his deal and came to Toronto and lit it up. He had the best season of his career to that point. As history would show the best of his career, so while at the time Chris Bosh was disappointed to see Mike James go it was the right decision on the part of the Raptors.
Part of being a fairly young team is that you have so many players with both potential and motivation to live up to that potential. It also means in the case of most of the players that make up with squad never having experienced success. Amir Johnson was around success early in his career but just as a young observer not a participant to any large degree. Rudy Gay came from a Memphis squad that had some success but its greatest success was without him a part of it. In DeMar DeRozan you have a guy that has only ever been a Raptor and never got to experience any success in terms of a winning record or any playoff experience. No matter what name you care to mention no one can honestly say they have been a major piece to a successful puzzle.
When you examine the Eastern Conference the first 5 teams in the standings are pretty much a lock. After that it is up in the air for anyone that wants to take 6-8. But to land in any of those positions likely gets you a quick exit from the playoffs when you consider the teams you would match-up against. You are likely talking about facing Miami, Indiana or Chicago and possibly the Nets. So you are left to ask yourself is it worth it?
Give up you lottery ticket to be first round playoff fodder. While I don’t think you need to go to the extreme of tanking to get in that lottery, which some teams have clearly chosen to do, I do think you need a ticket to be in it if your best case situation is a first round playoff exit.
If you look with a real honesty at the Raptors roster can they be anything better than sixth in the East? I don’t think anyone can say that with a straight face. Raptors have been to playoffs before and they never established a firm grip on being a consistent and improving playoff team. I am not convinced they can be now with this whole group in place.
Even if you did you have some key pieces that could easily walk away from the Raptors with Kyle Lowry and Rudy Gay. Assuming the Raptors do not trade them, Lowry can walk away after this season and Rudy Gay could as well, but far less likely he would opt out of his big money contract. The following year he could leave and the Raptors are left with nothing for either. A situation we have seen many times in the past.
I would not blame Lowry or Gay for walking away as both came to this team via trades and really doesn’t owe Toronto anything in terms of loyalty. They never chose to come here at the end of the day.
It all can give you a headache if you think long and hard about the Raptors situation. What we do know is that by 2015 things in terms of salary really free up as the Raptors would really only have commitments to Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan on the books. You could include Terrence Ross in that but technically the Raptors would have a team option they could just pass on if he fails to develop.
At the end of the day the Raptors as it has been in the past have far more questions than they have answers heading into the next two years. During that time the direction they take will likely become much clearer with the moves Masai Ujiri makes.
I would say at this point Ujiri is still weighing his options with what he has and not looking to make any long term commitments for the time being. This group of players ultimately will point to the direction he heads by how they play in this upcoming season with a clear focus on how they play to close out 2013.
If the Raptors do not find themselves with a solid foundation of a playoff appearance that they could challenge for sixth place or better it would only seem appropriate to start looking to dismantle this roster. The Raptors sit in the grey (Not Aaron Gray) area of teams on the edge of the playoff race which is where no team wants to be at the end of the day.
Going back to how this whole thing started as someone that has watched since day one that is a very frustrating place to find yourself as a fan. This group being just a .500 team (which is basically what they were when they added Rudy Gay last season) will not be good enough. The stakes are high for the future of this franchise, as many people have reached the point of being tired of supporting a team that has not given them much to be excited about over its entire existence. Tired of the excuses and desperate to have a team they can believe in and support that can win and consistently be a playoff team and eventual contender.