The Toronto Raptors aren’t a great team. They went 48-34 in a weak conference. The Nets tanked into sixth place to face them in the first round. Kyle Lowry is a nice player, but he’s not exactly Russell Westbrook. The Pacers are in the midst of an identity crisis, but as long as LeBron James can run up and down a basketball court, there’s a hard limit on how far the Raps’ playoff run can extend. And anyway, they’re already down a game in their series against Brooklyn.
Yet you won’t find many unhappy Raptors fans. When new GM Masai Ujiri was hired away from the Nuggets in May, it was unclear whether he would start a teardown or keep the roster intact. As it turns out, he split the difference, trading away two overpaid un-stars in Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay. The Bargnani deal was inexplicably lopsided, more or less a salary dump — the Italian made $11 million this season and will make $12 million next year — in which the Knicks also sent the Raptors a 2016 first-rounder. The Gay trade similarly got Toronto out from under a lousy contract, and it netted them a few rotation players in Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes and Greivis Vasquez.
Ujiri sent Gay to the Kings when the Raptors were 6-12. At the time, it looked like they were bottoming out while also trying to free up cap space. (The Oklahoma City rebuilding model, essentially.) There were whispers — wishes, maybe — that Lowry or DeMar Derozan might be leaving next, but Ujiri held onto them. Patterson, Vasquez and Hayes fit into the squad surprisingly well. They put together a strong December. They started to run away with the Atlantic Division.
Perspective is a tricky thing, because if you acquire too much of it, you start to become depressed. The modern NBA fan understands that a team can win by losing and vice versa. That space between being an awful team and a title contender is one you don’t want to inhabit unless you have an ascendant squad. In one sense, the Raps’ post-Gay trade rally is impressive and in another, it might be setting the franchise back. Championships require superstars, and Toronto could have acquired a potential one in this upcoming draft. Instead, they’re the third seed in an artificially poor Eastern Conference. They can build on this, but it’s going to be difficult and not at all straightforward. Ujiri’s going to have to get even more creative. The Raptors have changed course over the past few months, and perhaps not for the better.
Actually, that depends on how you define “better.” Experiencing a title is supposed to be the climax of fandom, but not all of us get there. Eight franchises have won an NBA championship in the past 30 years. (The Raptors, who entered the league in 1995, haven’t even come close.) To obsess over wanting to win absolutely, unless you root for the Lakers, is to set yourself up for more misery than enjoyment.
As a pack of fans were preparing to enter the Air Canada Centre on Saturday afternoon, Ujiri played the role of provocateur. “I have one thing to say before we go into the game,” the GM said. “F— Brooklyn!” The crowd seemed about as filled with emotion as sports can make you. Some of them went into the arena, others watched on a big public television nearby. The Raptors lost 94-87, which reminded everyone of something they knew in the back of their minds: Their team isn’t great.
You’re eventually going to get sick and die. I’m eventually going to get sick and die. The sun’s going to obliterate the solar system, and no one will be alive to remember you or I existed. Too much perspective can make you depressed. The Raptors are in the playoffs and better than they’ve been since the days when Vince Carter could fly. They are making their fans feel things in a way the Magic or Celtics are not. This is no common or unremarkable thing. It is why we bother to care about a team in the first place.