Time-out, Toronto fans. Sit down and take a breather. Forget the number one standing in the East, and the second best record in the NBA.
The Toronto Raptors were overachievers this year. Taking advantage of slumps and injuries on rival teams, Toronto won 59 regular season games, and a playoff series over Washington. Toronto did this without bonafide superstars, reliable 3-point marksmen and mobile big men with good hands. They essentially had rookies trying to guard LeBron James, playing at perhaps his highest level ever. No wonder they lost to Cleveland in four.
Raptors fans with over-inflated expectations are understandably feeling much frustration at a team with seemingly two personalities: champions of the regular season, chumps of the playoffs.
Let’s come back to earth. President Masai Ujiri and coach Dwane Casey have built a team that consistently sells out arenas and wins more than 50 games, without a player on par with LeBron, Stef Curry, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis or James Harden. Do you really want to mess with that?
They have built a culture of loyalty where earnest all-stars such as DeMar DeRozan, 28, and Kyle Lowry, 32, actually want to spend winters in one of the coldest cities in the league. They are best friends who take care of each other. Not many all-star combos have that personal chemistry. There’s a healthy mix of players from America, Europe and Africa. That means something in Toronto.
Toronto had the youngest team this deep in the playoffs. Many teams would love to have athletic young players such as OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, and a bruising big man like Jonas Valanciunas, who can screen and roll, block shots and score in bunches. Yes he’s slow, inconsistent and error prone. But he’s only 26 years old, and he’s still learning.
The Toronto experiment blew up in the playoffs but the nucleus is there. The potential remains. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, Toronto.
Appreciate what you have. Don’t expect the Raptors to beat LeBron as long as he’s in the eastern conference. Nobody can beat him.
Toronto fans should accept a reality that this current team can win 50-plus games and challenge growing powerhouses such as Boston or Philadelphia. That’s quite an achievement.
Toronto most likely will never reach The Finals without the superstars playing for Cleveland, Houston or Golden State. Raptors are doing well enough to remain a contender, in the very least, and they are still young enough to learn and develop.
Toronto shouldn’t fire coach Casey, despite his disastrous moves against Cleveland:
—messing with your normal rotation, then inserting Bebe Nogueira after weeks on the bench
—underplaying JV, who was beating Cleveland inside, and Delon Wright, their best perimeter defender
–getting in the head or failing to motivate your top scorers, who seemingly became afraid to shoot or dunk
—failing to plan or execute a defensive strategy to handle a team with two driving guards surrounded by three knock-down shooters. Cleveland turned Toronto’s defense inside out, drawing JV and Ibaka out of the key, leaving little guys as rim protectors, or leaving 3-point shooters wide open.
Toronto was disorganized and discombobulated against the Cavs. LeBron does that to you.
But do you dwell on the second round sweep and forget about the 59-win season?
You can’t fire a coach who won 59 games without a superstar in a cold city overlooked by much of the league. What if his replacement doesn’t win 59 games or even 39? Do you fire him or her too?
No coach is perfect, and Casey didn’t have LeBron to make him look good. Unless the Raptors have a guaranteed better replacement, they should reward Casey for finishing first in the regular season and give him another chance to go deeper in the playoffs.
They should keep Lowry, unless they can trade him for a proven playoff performer such as Paul George. They should give DeMar, who has worked hard to improve his skills over the years, a chance to put his athleticism to better use on the defensive end.
They should consider dealing Serge Ibaka, CJ Miles, Norm Powell, Jakob Poeltl, Nogueira or even Fred Van Vleet for a bonafide 3-point marksman such as JJ Redick, Marco Belinelli or Wayne Ellington. A reliable third option would open up the lane for Lowry and DeRozen to do what they do best — drive to the bucket.
They should also go after an athletic, competitive power forward such as Kenneth Faried.
Ibaka and JV are too slow to deal with teams such as the Cavs who can space the floor, create mismatches and find backdoor cutters. I would trade Ibaka and other variables (such as Miles, Powell, Poeltl) to fill that power forward hole.
If they do that, the Raptors can remain in the mix. And if LeBron goes west, the Raptors will have much more hope of advancing deeper in the playoffs.
Philadelphia and Boston are trusting The Process. Toronto should too.
(words and images copyright Christopher Johnson, Globalite Media all rights reserved).