The Raptors should be the Clippers of the East. The two franchises’ trajectories diverged this summer with Toronto hanging on to their franchise point guard and Los Angeles trading theirs away, but for a few years they had been mirroring each other across the conferences, keeping their cores intact and flirting with championship contention without ever making a totally convincing push for a title. The Clippers, at various times, couldn’t hang with the Spurs, Thunder, or Warriors. The Raptors can’t beat LeBron’s Cavs. (And the Kyrie Irving-led Celtics are now ascendant.) Both organizations understand through repetition and experience what it means to be upper-middle class in the NBA.
But the Raptors aren’t the Clippers. Not just because the Raps have reassembled the gang once again and the Clips are entering the demi-hell of a post-Chris Paul reality, but because where the Clips made playing not-quite-great basketball look like an extravagantly difficult trip to the laundromat, the Raps have always seemed to be having fun. Paul and Blake Griffin tolerated each other—and sometimes couldn’t even manage that much—while Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan share a bond and a sense of humor. Doc Rivers is grumpy like a millionaire who gets doused in shrimp bisque at the end of a slobs vs. snobs comedy, and Dwane Casey is grumpy like a sympathetic, nearly retired police sergeant who’s had it up to here. Drake may not completely know it, but he’s a superior comedian to Billy Crystal. And so on.
If Masai Ujiri is forging a path to ultimate glory, it’s one only he can make out, but even if this Raps squad won’t ever be top of the heap, it’s hard to argue that they should have split up over the offseason. The organization already made the decision to slightly overpay DeRozan last summer, signing him to a five-year deal worth $139 million. If you’re going to lock in Store Brand Kobe for that long and at that price, you might as well surround him with talent. So Ujiri brought back Lowry for three more years. He signed recent acquisition Serge Ibaka to a three-year deal as well. That caps the Raptors out, but it sets them up nicely, if not perfectly. At the end of the 2019-20 season, a 35-year-old Lowry will be a free agent, as will a 31-year-old Ibaka. DeRozan will be thirty and have a one-year player option available to him, which he’ll likely to turn down in favor of a lucrative deal that carries him into his mid-thirties. That will be the end of an era. The Raps can commit to DeRozan through the end of his prime and find him some new running mates, or they can let him walk and enter a rebuild.
In the meantime, Ujiri has built a solid roster for the medium-term. Norm Powell has been ready for more playing time for a couple seasons now, so he’s replacing Cory Joseph at the backup point guard spot. Jonas Valanciunas, at twenty-five, looks like he isn’t going to be much more than a Marcin Gortat-level starting five, but you can do a lot worse than Marcin Gortat. C.J. Miles will add some three-point shooting and passable defending on the wing. The rotation is a man or two short: Bebe Nogueira is merely a tall, athletic body; Bruno Caboclo turned out to be more Christian Eyenga than Giannis Antetokounmpo; and Jakob Poeltl had an uninspiring rookie year. Casey will throw a number of bodies at the seventh and eighth spots in the rotation. Maybe someone sticks. Twenty-third overall pick O.G. Anunoby might provide some defensive mettle, if little else, and there’s an outside shot K.J. McDaniels can give the Raps a handful of decent bench minutes.
The Clippers, gloomy as they appeared, didn’t opt out of their upper-middle class status. It was taken from them when Chris Paul told management he wanted to leave, so the team worked out what was essentially a sign-and-trade deal to Houston. Franchises that are already mediocre tend to have little problem fully bottoming out, but pretty good ones cling to their pretty goodness—as the Clips, case in point, are attempting to do by indirectly replacing Paul with Danilo Gallinari—because they appreciate how difficult it is to get into the echelon they currently occupy.
The Toronto Raptors have flaws, some of which are unfixable. For instance, Serge Ibaka is a nice player, but he’s not a proper third star and paying him $65 million over the next three seasons is a tad expensive. But Ujiri knows that you rarely get a chance to make perfect deals; you have to take or leave the opportunities that are given to you. He could have blown up his roster this past summer, told Ibaka and Lowry to find new teams, put DeRozan and Valanciunas on the trade block. Maybe if he had done that, the Raptors would be in a year one of a drastic reconstruction effort that would leave them, some five or six seasons from now, in better shape than they are now. If you’re not employing four All-NBA caliber players like the Warriors or the greatest player of his generation like the Cavs, you can always imagine how you could be doing better.
But dwelling on that and letting it inform your decision-making will lead to ruin more often than success. You can strive for an ideal, but rending yourself to nothing simply because you’ve fallen short of it is self-immiseration. The Raptors are fine, and fine is a hard place to get to. They’ve got three more years of Lowry and DeRozan, three more years of playoffs. That’s more than most, and everything else they could have is illusory.
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