Scourge of the Toronto Rap­tors and the NBA’s Eastern Con­fer­ence

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - TIM BONTEMPS The Wash­ing­ton Post

At the start of ev­ery sea­son, in ev­ery pro­fes­sional sport, the goal for ev­ery team is to end the sea­son as cham­pi­ons. Af­ter all, the thrill of com­pe­ti­tion — and the joy of win­ning — is what draws peo­ple into sports.

But what if there is no path to win­ning? What if, in­stead of pur­su­ing a cham­pi­onship, teams are rel­e­gated to fight­ing for sec­ond place?

The Toronto Rap­tors are the lat­est ex­am­ple of this co­nun­drum. Over the past four sea­sons, Toronto has put to­gether the best stretch in fran­chise his­tory, win­ning three straight At­lantic Di­vi­sion ti­tles and achiev­ing what for them is an un­prece­dented level of post-sea­son suc­cess — mak­ing the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nals and win­ning play­off se­ries in back-to-back sea­sons.

The Rap­tors have one prob­lem, and it’s one shared by ev­ery other East team that doesn’t re­side in Cleve­land: LeBron James.

“If we had LeBron on our team, too, we would’ve won,” DeMar DeRozan told re­porters in Toronto af­ter Sun­day’s 109-102 win for James and the Cava­liers, com­plet­ing a rou­tine sweep that sends the Rap­tors into the sum­mer search­ing for an­swers as to how to pro­ceed, and the rest of the East won­der­ing when — or if — any­one in the con­fer­ence will ever stop James from reach­ing the NBA fi­nal.

Toronto was sup­posed to be a le­git­i­mate chal­lenger to Cleve­land’s throne this sea­son. Af­ter push­ing through to the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nals last year, and even tak­ing two games off LeBron James and the even­tual cham­pion Cleve­land Cava­liers, the Rap­tors en­tered this sea­son as the near-con­sen­sus pick to give Cleve­land its stiffest test among East foes in this year’s play­offs. That sta­tus was only strength­ened by a pair of ex­cel­lent trades at Fe­bru­ary’s dead­line to bring in for­wards Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker.

Yet Cleve­land cruised past Toronto hardly break­ing a sweat. The Rap­tors would be quick to point out their star point guard, Kyle Lowry, sat out the fi­nal two games with a sprained an­kle, but his pres­ence would’ve only made a mar­ginal dif­fer­ence.

Now, af­ter its most suc­cess­ful four-year stretch in 22 sea­sons, Toronto’s gen­eral man­ager, Ma­sai Ujiri, and his front of­fice must won­der what the next step is. Keep­ing this core to­gether seems like a no-brainer, given the rar­ity of multi-sea­son runs of suc­cess.

But, upon closer ex­am­i­na­tion, the choices are much more dif­fi­cult. Toronto al­ready has $78.2 mil­lion com­mit­ted to 10 play­ers for next sea­son’s ros­ter — and that’s with two of its three best play­ers, Lowry and Serge Ibaka, set to be free agents this sum­mer.

To bring back both would, con­ser­va­tively, cost the Rap­tors around $55 mil­lion per year, which would put them more than $12 mil­lion over the ex­pected lux­ury tax line even be­fore deal­ing with two other key free agents, Pa­trick Pat­ter­son and Tucker, both of whom will also likely be look­ing at eight-fig­ure con­tracts.

Sign­ing both would eas­ily push Toronto’s pay­roll north of $200 mil­lion and make the Rap­tors the most ex­pen­sive team in NBA his­tory, so it’s hard to see that hap­pen­ing. If the Rap­tors thought this group could chal­lenge for an NBA ti­tle, then per­haps bud­gets would be stretched to al­low a cou­ple more bites at the ap­ple. But the team’s fail­ure even to come close to de­thron­ing James and the Cavs will have an im­pact on all of its de­ci­sions.

At the trade dead­line in Fe­bru­ary, Toronto and Wash­ing­ton were cred­ited with be­ing ag­gres­sive and mak­ing moves to im­prove them­selves head­ing into the stretch run. The Bos­ton Celtics, how­ever, stood pat, de­spite ru­mours of in­ter­est in In­di­ana Pac­ers star Paul Ge­orge and Chicago Bulls star Jimmy But­ler.

Even with one of those play­ers, how­ever, Bos­ton wouldn’t have a prayer of beat­ing Cleve­land. So the Celtics de­cided to kick the can down the road in­stead, hop­ing to strike gold in the NBA’s draft lot­tery next week and per­haps ex­tend their time­line to sur­pass the 32-year-old James.

Teams such as the Philadel­phia 76ers, with Joel Em­biid and Ben Sim­mons, and the Mil­wau­kee Bucks, with Gian­nis An­te­tok­oun­mpo, Thon Maker, Khris Mid­dle­ton and Jabari Parker, are in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions. For teams with young core groups, the best op­tion to beat Cleve­land sim­ply may be to wait out James.

When a team is in the po­si­tion Toronto was in Fe­bru­ary — with a shot to make a run — they’re sup­posed to go for it. But as James con­tin­ues to roll through the Eastern Con­fer­ence, and seems all but cer­tain to make it back to the NBA fi­nal for a stag­ger­ing sev­enth straight sea­son, it’s hard to blame the rest of the East for coming to the same con­clu­sion:

As long as James is play­ing like this, what’s the point?


A lot of teams in the NBA East must be won­der­ing what’s the point as long as King James rules the game.

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