The Roar
The Roar

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The Toronto Raptors need to make an all-in move

DeMar DeRozan faces up against Otto Porter. (Image: Keith Allison CC BY-SA 2.0)
Expert
2nd January, 2017
4

Irrelevance is so deeply embedded in the identity of the Toronto Raptors that now, at the most relevant point of their franchise’s history, they seem almost dazed by their success.

The Raptors, as presently constructed, are incredible and, at least in the most meaningful pursuit, without hope.

Their offence, propelled by the brilliance of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, having career years coming off career years, has not just been the best in the league, but one of the best in history.

The defence, though, lingers in mediocrity (17th in efficiency), and the offence feels unsustainable. When the Warriors or Cavs use the genius and gravity of their superstars to create wide open shots, basketball makes sense. Lowry’s pull-up threes and DeRozan’s contested fade-aways do not inspire the same sense of inevitability.

As a result, despite being second in the league in net rating, above teams like the Spurs and Cavs, the Raptors’ scorching start feels like, if not a façade, then an exaggeration. And even with the team raining fire on offence, they haven’t been able to claim the biggest scalps, with an 0-6 record against the Cavs, Clippers and Warriors.

Each of those losses was close and honourable, but that only sheds light on what seems to be the destiny of this Raptors squad – brave but inescapable defeats.

DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors during a game against the Washington Wizards on November 2, 2016 at Verizon Center in Washington, DC.

The Cavs didn’t take Toronto seriously in last year’s playoffs, only switching on when they needed to. There’s nothing to suggest another meeting this coming May or June would be any different. The Raptors, remarkable against most of the league, are made to look innocuous by the very best.

Their defence can’t hold up, with no singular lockdown force or the required cohesion to not break against a Cleveland or Golden State. The offence too, so fluent during the regular season, becomes isolation-obsessed, laborious and stunted in the postseason.

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The likes of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving have extra gears they can reach in the playoffs, levels they get to where you can only hope for them to fail and never expect it. Lowry and DeRozan, from all the evidence, do not have such gears.

Lowry has been a top-12 player in the league the past two years, but he has the lowest ceiling of any superstar. He’s not a supreme athlete, excelling instead on intelligence and toughness. When teams put the shackles on him in the playoffs last year, he showed that he didn’t have the superhuman powers to break out of them like other stars can.

At least he screamed in his failed attempts, though. DeRozan, for most of the playoffs, was rendered inaudible, especially in the first round when Paul George managed to both wear him like a glove and put him in a clown suit.

DeRozan is a sterling athlete, but like his hero Kobe Bryant, who he’s obsessed with emulating, he plays the game at a slow, slithering pace, and players like George or an engaged LeBron make him look almost embarrassingly guardable.

The Raptors have incredible depth, a depth which makes them special, but Lowry and DeRozan are the hubs of everything, and in the postseason they’ll be insufficient. As presently constructed, barring a significant LeBron injury, they have little hope of dethroning the Cavs, especially given the way Kevin Love is playing.

The Cavs, though, while formidable, are also vulnerable. They’re thin on the wing, and JR Smith’s injury leaves them exposed, and also gives Toronto a real chance at the No.1 seed. Cleveland’s offence is unstoppable, but unless you’re Steph Curry, their defence isn’t intimidating. A tweak or something more serious for LeBron or Kyrie and maybe the Cavs could be had.

Toronto Raptor

The time is now for Toronto. Lowry and key cog Patrick Patterson are free agents at the end of the season. Players will likely have to be sacrificed to keep them both. Lowry will be 31 in March and DeRozan is 27 and we’re likely seeing his peak now. This is Toronto’s best shot, and they should do all they can to best position the rifle, even if all that means is increasing their odds at overcoming Cleveland from 10 per cent to 20 per cent.

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The player Toronto needs is a frontcourt star, someone to complement the perimeter excellence of Lowry and DeRozan. Most of the obvious power forward candidates are in the last year of their contract, but this should be a positive for Toronto, not a hindrance. Those players will come cheaper, and Toronto’s main timeline for contention is the next six months, anyway.

Players like Kenneth Faried and Markieff Morris don’t move the needle enough. The Raptors need a star. Paul Millsap is a commonly touted name (and supposedly on the market), someone who could launch Toronto’s defence towards the elite, and can thrive without needing the ball all the time – essential given the ball dominance of Toronto’s backcourt stars.

The Raptors have the pieces to make a game-changing move. The resurgent Terrence Ross is on an appealing contract, Norman Powell’s potential (why doesn’t he play more?) is highly regarded around the league, and Toronto have a stockpile of young assets. Jonas Valanciunas, a capable if underwhelming starter, could also be put on the table to help fetch an elite player in return.

Whatever the move is, the Raptors need to be proactive. Last season was fun (although not fun to watch in the playoffs), the deepest run the franchise has ever made. Now, though, anything short of truly testing Cleveland will be a lukewarm sequel.

The Raptors, as marvellously detailed in Zach Lowe’s recent podcast, have a history defined by comical incompetence. Everything from naming their Toronto team after after an American blockbuster set near Costa Rica, to having Jose Calderon be in the discussion for their fifth best player in franchise history.

This team has been a joke, and now, as they’ve finally put on a straight face, with the right move they can have the rest of the league not just take them seriously but begin to fear them.

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