Five burning questions and answers about the Toronto Raptors‘ immediate future in the wake of their humbling Game 4 loss in the nation’s capital that sealed a first-round sweep for the Washington Wizards:
1. What is the proper reaction to the news that the Raps got swept?
I’ve been trying to come up with something clever to soothe the basketball-loving locals in one of my favorite cities in the world.
Trying and failing.
Pretty sure that a friendly reminder that Toronto’s first-ever NBA All-Star Weekend is a mere 293 days away won’t bring much comfort to one of the league’s top two or three most rabid fan followings. We’ve seen three sweeps already in this lopsided opening round of the NBA playoffs, with Portland still at risk as of this writing, but the Raps have already clinched Most Disappointing Team of Round 1.
You won’t be able to find anyone on the planet who can prove they picked the Wizards, under any circumstances, to sweep the East’s No. 4 seed.
Take all the time you want to search for evidence to disprove that theory.
2. What does such a meek exit mean for Dwane Casey’s future?
In this particular series, Washington’s Randy Wittman was widely presumed to be the Coach on the Hot Seat.
But things can change quickly when you get broomed out of the first round by a lower seed and its under-fire coach in a matchup that all of those ESPN experts project to go six or seven games.
We’re exaggerating the experts part, but you get the point. Go winless in a No. 4-versus-No. 5 series and lose Game 4 in no-show fashion and people are going to instantly question the coach’s job security.
The well-chronicled reality that Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri inherited Casey, as opposed to hiring him as his proverbial “own guy,” inevitably only adds volume to the questions.
Initial indications, though, suggest that Casey will indeed be back next season, according to the latest whispers on the Toronto grapevine.
The fact Ujiri scheduled his end-of-season news conference for Tuesday, instead of taking an extra week to evaluate things like Sam Presti did in Oklahoma City, would also seem to bode well for Casey.
A few key points to bear in mind here:
• Casey only just completed the first season of a three-year extension.
• He happens to have done more winning than any other Raptors coach before him. In addition to back-to-back division titles and his role in helping Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan break through as All-Stars, Casey happens to be the most successful coach in team history … with a record of 154-158 (.494).
• The Raptors, for all their undeniable financial resources, also happen to be investing in a new practice facility, as well as their own D-League franchise, and presumably would not love the idea of absorbing the remaining money on the coach’s contract if there was a sudden clamor to make a change.
The big knocks against Casey are (A) that Toronto was ousted in Round 1 despite sporting home-court advantage for the second spring running and (B) that he’s known as a defensive specialist but couldn’t prevent the Raps from slipping from No. 9 to No. 23 in defensive efficiency from last season to this season.
Then this series was so noncompetitive, especially in the Game 4 finale, that Casey’s status inevitably becomes a prime post-series topic.
Yet it’s only fair to note that the Raps, with memories of that Game 7 loss to Raps killer Paul Pierce and the Brooklyn Nets still fresh, declined to make a midseason acquisition (or two) to give the roster a boost.
It’s a group that really could have used a new rim protector. Or a more dependable small forward. Or a Pierce-like vet to try to keep the locker room connected in tough time.
So you’re moved to ask: Is it Casey’s fault he couldn’t keep the Raps in the league’s upper third defensively with the personnel at his disposal?
3. What about the roster? How much change do you expect?
Even accounting for Ujiri’s measured nature, I’d still brace for considerable change.
The evaluation here will be more drawn out. And the Raptors have a variety of directions they can go. Yet the early word on the personnel grapevine is that Lowry, DeRozan and big man Jonas Valanciunas (who’s eligible for a contract extension this summer) are the only players on the roster who can feel with a healthy sense of confidence that they’re likely to stay right where they are.
You likewise have to figure Lou Williams isn’t far off lock-to-return status, either, after winning Sixth Man Award honors this month. But the Raptors’ planning is really just beginning.
Ujiri was widely expected to blow up his roster early last season, only to be somewhat forced into standing pat when the Raptors — Lowry specifically — took off after Rudy Gay was dealt to Sacramento in December 2013. The swift and steep fall endured by this group, which closed on a 12-18 swoon after a 22-6 start, gives Ujiri ample justification to be as aggressive in launching a reboot as rivals expected months ago.
4. What does the future hold for Lou Williams specifically?
Lowry and DeRozan possess quite reasonable contracts considering both became All-Stars over the past two seasons.
Lowry makes $12 million per season; DeRozan is at a mere $10 million annually.
As long as the Raps can re-sign Williams at a palatable number of his own, it’s believed they want him back, as well, no matter how badly they need frontcourt upgrades. Which speaks to the sort of splash Williams made in his first season in Canada, arriving via trade with Atlanta on the day before free agency commenced last summer and going on to win the league’s highest honor for reserves.
5. What do the Raptors have working in their favor going forward?
Ujiri has neatly avoided bad contracts and maintained future flexibility, giving himself plenty of team-building options.
The Raptors, last we checked, also get to stay in the East, where teams are generally just one good trade away from legit contention.
Yet you’re advised, with Ujiri, to rule nothing out. If he suddenly elects to plot a drastic course, like shopping Lowry in the most aggressive possible teardown, rival teams won’t be surprised.
Irrespective of the justifiable fretting about the way the season ended, on top of the various health struggles that slowed Lowry down so much after his first All-Star appearance, there are reasons for optimism if you know where to look north of the border.
And we’re not just referring to Toronto’s looming opportunity to host All-Star Weekend for the first time.