The NBA has always been defined in a sense by its established powers—Russell’s Celtics, Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics, Jordan’s Bulls, the Young Kobe Lakers and the Old Kobe Lakers, etc.—but there have been interregnums, periods where there were no heavy title favorites. The entire 70s were a mad scramble for the then-Walter A. Brown Trophy. The post-Jordan era was chaotic for a single, lockout-marred season while Shaq got settled in Los Angeles. The mid-aughts were amorphous until The Big Three 2.0 assembled in Boston and Pau Gasol got traded to the Lakers.
We are deeply, assuredly not in the middle of one of those interregnums. While the league is more fluid than it has ever been in some respects—shorter contracts, rampant asset-flipping, more franchises willing to enact radical overhauls and rebuilds—it has also never been more calcified than it is at this moment. It belongs firmly to the Warriors and, to a lesser extent, the Cavs. We’re looking at the first Finals matchup threepeat in NBA history. The Dubs have four of the best 15 or so players in the league and LeBron and Kyrie don’t have a worthy foe in the East. For this next little while, there’s no hope for aspirant title-chasers.
If you’re an executive or coach at any other franchise, you’re trying to make your own way in the world without being overly concerned with what’s beyond your control, but it would be an abdication of duty to not recognize the Warriors as the impending dynasty they are. A team that’s already quite good and wants to take its shot at greatness better be signing or trading for an All-NBA player. Some bench scoring or a wing defender who can shoot isn’t going to affect significant change. Perhaps this is why the league has an inordinate amount of franchises on standby. These teams aren’t tanking, per se, but they haven’t gone all-out in the free agency market and wouldn’t be too bothered if they got off to a slow start this season and slid into the lottery. A title window might open up a few years from now, but at this juncture, there’s ostensibly no point in trying to force your way through it.
So it’s refreshing, then, that the Raptors are surging forward anyway. Last season was the most successful of their two decade-plus history and it featured their most exciting squad at least since Vince Carter’s early-aughts heyday. Masai Ujiri has brought the gang back less the newly too-expensive Bismack Biyombo. DeMar DeRozan is now making the kind of money that causes you to cock an eyebrow and ask how much for DeMar Derozan? but the market sets the price and he did have an excellent contract season, putting up a career-high in points while boosting his efficiency. And he’s improving year-by-year, with a three-point shot that’s a whisker below league-average and a midrange game that’s contest-alteringly streaky.
To the extent that athletes are permitted to be weird, the Raptors are an idiosyncratic bunch. Kyle Lowry, who had a whispered-about reputation as a bit of a jerk before he came to Toronto, has developed a comedy routine rapport with DeRozan. DeMar’s the sunny ham and he’s the skeptical straight man. Jonas Valanciunas belongs to a long line of goofily, obliviously sweet giants from former Soviet republics. DeMarre Carroll, below the radar, dresses every bit as loudly and ridiculously as Russell Westbrook. All of this eccentricity contrasts beautifully with Dwane Casey’s had-it-up-to-here police sergeant aesthetic. You get the impression on nights when Lowry commits four or more turnovers, he has to trudge into Casey’s office with his head down, produce a water pistol and plastic sheriff’s badge, and place them on Casey’s desk.
Biyombo’s absence will hurt the Raptors in terms of interior defense and sparkpluggy rebounding off the bench, but it probably means more minutes for Valanciunas, who, heading into his fifth season, is still straddling the line between promise and disappointment. Carroll is likely to improve on a sub-par first year in Toronto during which he was seemingly always playing through mild injury. There are worse backcourt bench options than Cory Joseph and Terrence Ross, and Norm Powell is coming off a decent rookie season. The Raptors were the only team to finish within touching distance of the Cavs last year, at 56 wins. They might take a half-step backwards with the Celtics adding Al Horford and the Hawks dancing blindly into the Dwight Howard Homecoming Era, but it’s not deathly important where they finish in the conference hierarchy. They’ll play well, win a bunch of games, and get bounced from the playoffs in a series they endeavor to turn into a scrap.
There’s a whiff of American condescension whenever announcers remark on the fevered crowds who pack the Air Canada Centre and the viewing area near the arena that’s been branded Jurassic Park, a bit of surprise, like Mike Breen doesn’t expect Canadians to like basketball this much. But brushing past the ain’t-it-cuteness of the spectacle, it really is something that a solid Raptors team draws like it does, that the attitude around the franchise is so overwhelmingly positive. They’re not going to win a title with this squad, but in our lives we have to accept when absolute success is beyond us and resolve to have fun regardless. The Raptors aren’t waiting around for anything. They’re making the best of the league they’re living in.
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