Fresh off another dispiriting postseason performance, the Raptors front office had difficult choices to make last summer. Masai Ujiri loaded up the team at last year’s trade deadline, adding P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka to a core that was already capable of 50 wins on its own. Despite fielding seemingly its most talented roster during the last few seasons of success, Toronto still looked overmatched in the playoffs, losing to the Cavaliers in a sweep with only one of the four losses coming by fewer than 10 points.
After the unceremonious exit, Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson, Ibaka, and Tucker and all became free agents. With a team full of aging veterans and some uninspiring playoff defeats, Ujiri would have been well within his rights to look at LeBron dominating across the border and decide to rebuild on the fly. After all, the Raptors didn’t have the cap space to bring back all of their free agents, and Lowry—the team’s best player—was coming off yet another season hampered by injury. Toronto, however, surprised most people by bringing back Lowry and Ibaka on expensive (but short) contracts—with DeMar DeRozan on a max deal as well. And the result is a Raptors team that has its most realistic path to the Finals in the last five years.
Let’s talk about success for a second. Building a contender in the NBA is probably the hardest it has ever been. In one conference, you have LeBron James—arguably the greatest player of all-time—still putting up MVP-caliber numbers in the 15th year of his career. In the other conference, you have arguably the greatest collection of talent on a single team in league history, thanks in large part to some Stephen Curry ankle injuries and a completely fluky, one-time salary cap spike that led to the Kevin Durant signing. The NBA has always been a sport with little diversity in champions, because individual players affect the game more than in any other sport, and acquiring a superstar of that caliber is extremely difficult, especially for a often-not-coveted spot for free agents like Toronto.
So with all that being said, the Raptors have been a success the last five years. Dwane Casey has shepherded Toronto’s winningest stretch of basketball, and the Raps have been an exciting team to watch even when things went sideways in the playoffs. Making and winning the Finals shouldn’t always be the end-all, be-all judgment when discerning team success, and this era of Raptors basketball should be celebrated for what it’s meant to the franchise. But it would still be nice if they could make the Finals! And this season—with the 34–16 Raptors sitting at second in the East—looks like it could finally be Toronto’s year.
What’s different? Frankly, it starts with the competition. Cleveland is vulnerable. James is still great, but the defense is awful, so much so that the Cavs have a minus-0.7 net rating with James on the court. Boston is formidable, but the Celtics offense is plodding, which could hurt them come playoff time, especially with the absence of Gordon Hayward. Sometimes teams keep their aging cores together because if everything breaks right—an injury here, a small decline there—all of a sudden their chances of going further in the postseason increases. That strategy rarely works, but it’s paying off for the Raptors as we speak.
Toronto’s improvement from within has also been notable. Losing a 3-and-D wing like Tucker and plus-minus god Pat-Pat could have been tough to overcome, but younger players have stepped up into those roles admirably. OG Anunoby’s addition to the starting lineup has added some much-needed spacing and bounce to that unit. Ibaka and Jonas Valancuinas are playing much better together—with their two-man net rating increasing from minus-1.8 last year to 8.4 this season. Toronto’s bench is its own force, with Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, C.J. Miles and Jakob Poeltl forming a potent offense.
And the Raptors are also playing differently. Last year’s team was 22nd in pace, this year’s is 10th. Last year’s team took just over 24 three pointers a game, this year’s shoots nearly 32. Lowry is playing his fewest minutes per game since 2013, which should help keep him fresher in the playoffs. And DeRozan continues to answer critics by improving his game, most importantly by adding threes to his offensive arsenal this season. His 24.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists don't hurt, either.
It would have been easy for the Raptors to tear down last summer. It would have been easy to believe the critics who thought the team was mediocre at best. And honestly, even with what’s happening right now, it still may not have been financially prudent to give Lowry a contract that pays him $33.2 million in 2020.
I have a hard time believing even Ujiri thought the Raptors would be this well-positioned over halfway into the season. But Toronto’s decision to keep its team together has proved to be wildly successful. After four years of trying to break through the LeBron-enameled glass ceiling, the Raptors now have their greatest chance yet to punctuate what have already been the franchise’s best years.