Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Toronto Raptors made another early exit from the NBA Playoffs.
Yes, I know it’s hard to believe. The Raptors won 59 games, earned the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, and for once, it looked like the duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry had finally gotten it together. Then the playoffs happened: while Lowry shot a career-high from three-point range (44.4 percent) and DeRozan averaged nearly 23 points a game, they got swept in the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the second straight season by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
DeRozan admitted after the Game Four elimination that this was the hardest of all.
“My nine years being in the league, this is probably the toughest, most frustrating, difficult, lowest feeling I’ve had,” DeRozan said. “I don’t know how, I don’t know why, I just always had that belief that the more crap you go through, the stronger and more resilient you’re going to be down the line.”
Since head coach Dwane Casey took over the team in the 2011-12 season, they have been to the playoffs for a franchise-record five season in a row. However, only once have they gotten to the conference finals, and have been swept three times, despite having the top record in the Atlantic Division for four out of the last five seasons.
If you’re a Raptors fan (or the front office), at some point the wins need to lead to more than just a playoff berth, especially when the 2017-18 season saw the team with its best opportunity to finally best LeBron James and the Cavaliers. To get eliminated by the same team three seasons in a row, including two consecutive sweeps, should say something about the strategy of the Raptors.
So, with all that being said, let’s look at the three likely scenarios that will unfold this offseason.
1) BLOW IT UP
I’ve had plenty of discussions on this with basketball fans, and a lot of them are saying the same thing: the Raptors don’t need to blow it up. And while they have their reasons (more on that later), I genuinely think that the only way this situation remedies itself is if they go on a full-on fire sale.
DeMar DeRozan? Trade him. Yes, he’s under contract until 2021 with a player option after 2020. But if I’m a team like…let’s say the Oklahoma City Thunder, and I’ve got a guy on my squad who is set to make as much as DeRozan and I know he’s nowhere near the difference maker, maybe I take a shot. Sweeten up the pot with Andre Roberson and maybe bring back Patrick Patterson (who played in Toronto for four seasons), some draft protection and maybe we go somewhere.
Yes, I get it: he has been the franchise cornerstone since 2010 when Chris Bosh left Toronto, and he should retire a Raptor. But if he is supposed to be the franchise, there was no reason for him to NOT play the fourth quarter of Game Three in the semifinals, and he shouldn’t have gotten himself ejected in Game Four. As a team captain, you are expected to be composed.
Kyle Lowry? Well, his situation is a little bit harder to clear up. At 32 years old and making $31 million or more for the next two seasons, it’s going to be hard to find a team that will take that contract off their hands. And with a dead cap value of $64.3 million for next season, Toronto will most likely have to keep him while either pushing Fred Van Vleet or OG Anunoby into a more significant scoring role and marking Jonas Valanciunas the clear-cut number two option.
Dwane Casey? Sure, he’s the most successful coach in franchise history…but he’s got to go as well. Granted, the team has improved every year in his tenure, and the players seem to like him. But his playoff record has been atrocious (21-30, and except for 2016, has been eliminated by teams that they had no business getting eliminated by.
Casey is aware that despite how his teams have done on the regular season, that there has always been a target on his back.
“I’m a big boy. I’ve been through it,” Casey said after the Raptors got eliminated. “I know what we’ve accomplished and how the basketball world respects what we’re doing. It’s part of the territory. I accept it. I’m not running from it. … I’m an easy target … I don’t feel sorry for myself, let’s put it that way.”
Casey may not be the one on the floor playing the game, but he is responsible for putting together a winning strategy and inspiring his players to step up their game in the playoffs. We’ve seen none of that in the last three postseasons, even when they made the conference finals in 2016.
2) FIRE THE HEAD COACH
For the main reasons I’ve already stated above, Toronto may look at its head coaching situation and decide it’s best to move forward.
In all honesty, while blowing it up seems like a potentially smart move, it is also the most desperate; there’s no way that the Raptors, fresh off five straight postseason appearances, gut everything and in Drake’s words, start from the bottom again.
However, firing Casey and getting in some fresh blood to infuse a new personality to the team may be in its best interests. There are plenty of head coaching candidates available that could potentially give the Raptors a new identity…like a particular G League coach who has a history with the team already (*cough* Jerry Stackhouse *cough*).
Or, they could go with a grizzled veteran coach like Mike Brown. He has proven his worth on the bench serving on Steve Kerr’s staff with the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Or, they use the Villanova connection with Kyle Lowry to bring in his former coach Jay Wright, who is the current toast of the town in NCAA men’s basketball. Either way, there are plenty of solid options for Toronto to choose from if they part ways with Casey.
3) KEEP THE STATUS QUO
Of all the scenarios, this is tied for second-worst.
You see the potential of their young pieces in Fred VanVleet, Malachi Richardson and OG Anunoby. You have proven veteran leadership with DeRozan, Lowry, Valunciunas and Serge Ibaka. And Dwane Casey has managed to win consistently, with a franchise record 320 wins and four division titles to his name.
Here’s where you’re probably asking, “How is this a bad thing?” Let’s break it down.
Even if LeBron does leave the Eastern Conference after this season, there is no guarantee that the Raptors will make a deep run. The Boston Celtics will have a healthy Gordon Hayward AND Kyrie Irving, to go along with a core of Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier.
The Philadelphia 76ers are right on the cusp of perennial postseason success, and the Indiana Pacers are surprisingly ahead of schedule. To add to that, we already have five seasons worth of evidence that the status quo in Toronto isn’t working.
But Director of Player Operations Masai Ujiri. In a press conference after Game Four, Ujiri expressed faith while also displaying disappointment in the overall performance.
“We believe in what we’re doing here, honestly. We believe in the growth …. ” Ujiri said. “Because you know what? People can make fun of anything they want on the Internet, make fun of the team, make fun of getting beat and all that stuff. Hey, there’s only one team, one team in the NBA that is going to win the NBA championship and 29 teams are going to not be winners, and 29 teams are going to be disappointed, and we’re one of them.”
For Ujiri, there is no doubt that this off-season will be one of the hardest to manage. Ujiri has made it clear he does plan on tanking, but it begs the following question: what are you going to do if you fail again?
The Raptors have a lot to think about after this season comes to an end…a season that again will not see them in the NBA Finals.