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