The hows and whys of that transformation will be the subject of plenty of debate during the long offseason ahead, both among fans and the Raptors’ front office.
How, for instance, did the near-identical personnel group from a year ago slip from the top 10 in defensive efficiency to the bottom five? Why did this gutty team that was once impossible to blow out just roll over and abide a humiliating 31-point loss that ended their season? Were the Raptors an overachieving team that fell back down to earth, or a talented team that failed to adapt when the rest of the league started to figure them out? And, most crucially: Where do they go from here?
The organization will face some big decisions this summer. Prominent rotation players in Lou Williams and Amir Johnson are coming off the books, frustrating but still-promising youngster Jonas Valanciunas is coming up for an extension, and that all may be just the tip of the iceberg.
For a good part of this season, keeping the whole band together felt both worthwhile and inevitable, rooted as the team’s success appeared to be in the ineffable trappings of chemistry and continuity. The players seemed to love playing together and knew how to bring out the best in each other. A propulsive momentum hurtled them forward. They were a team on the upswing, growing together, building something. They were just getting started.
There were some delirious highs: The 13-2 start that preceded DeMar DeRozan’s groin injury; the DeRozan-less run that took them to 24-7 while Kyle Lowry went supernova; the post-All-Star break thrashing of the Atlanta Hawks that pushed the Raptors to 20 games over .500 for the first time in franchise history.
Most serious Raptors fans can probably parrot those exact moments of demarcation, because ours is a fanbase obsessed with escaping the shadow of its franchise’s history. The facts live with us always: 20 years. One playoff series victory. Nary a 50-win season.
That’s why, even in the midst of a gimmicky 20th anniversary campaigndesigned to dredge up the past, each landmark this season felt like a step towards leaving it behind.
Somewhere along the way, though, things went stale. Injuries played a part, but the issues went far deeper than that. The ball didn’t zip around as swiftly on offense. The defensive intensity all but dissipated. When the once-resilient Raptors fell behind, they seemed content to start chucking, then throw up their hands if they couldn’t manage to shoot themselves back into a game. Stripped of the feel-goodery that comes with shattering expectations, they became a bit of a drag.
At the center of it all was Lowry, an All-Star starter and the team’s beating heart, who ended up looking like a shell of himself – possessed of a broken jump shot, unable to beat guys off the bounce and consistently struggling to keep opposing guards in front of him.
As the season wore on and his rut deepened, there was a mounting desperation to his game. He forced things, tried to shoot himself back into rhythm, threw reckless lob passes, gambled himself out of position on defense, took silly fouls. The balls-to-the-wall grit was still there, but his redoubled efforts proved to be the squirmings of a man trapped in quicksand; he ultimately helped suck the Raptors down.
During his first seaon as Raptors general manager in 2013-14, Masai Ujiri announced: “We will not be trapped in the middle.”
Ujiri’s first stab at a tear-down inadvertently bred an organic roster cohesion that yanked the Raptors out of the doldrums. He doubled down on that roster last summer and this season offered a brief glimmer of hope that the same unit could take the next step.
But after all that, the middle is exactly where the Raptors find themselves; not nearly good enough to contend and with no clear path to substantial improvement. Their offseason would’ve been an intriguing one regardless, but it’s increasingly shaping up as a watershed summer for the franchise.
It may be a while before the dust settles and things might not look pretty once it does.