It's been a long time since the Toronto Raptors have been a sub-.500 team at the quarter mark of the season. For so long the organization was a pillar of stability in the NBA. The Raptors' seven-year playoff streak is the second-longest in the NBA trailing the Houston Rockets. But now, they sit at 7-11, well overperforming their 38.9% win percentage, but still in 11th in the Eastern Conference.
For a team that used to find creative ways to win games, this team has seemingly done the opposite this year. They've been unable to find a stable rotation, they've repeatedly blown double-digit leads, they've lost on last-second missed shots, battled some injuries as of late, and have had a blowout or two mixed in there as well.
"I think we're still just trying to figure things out," Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. "It's just a tough spot to be in because we're used to being the team that's whatever 15 and 3 right now, whatever, we used to being that team."
The last time the Raptors were this team was 2013-14. That team ironically had a pretty similar record to these Raptors, starting the season 7-12. Then, on December 9, 2013, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri made the trade that would change the course of Raptors history. He traded Rudy Gay, along with Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray, to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Greivis Vásquez, John Salmons, Chuck Hayes, and Patrick Patterson.
It was a trade to tank. Ujiri wouldn't use the forbidden T-word at the time, but it was apparent to everyone that was the objective of the deal.
"The one thing I can say is that we will not be trapped in the middle," Ujiri told reporters after the Gay trade. "We will not be stuck in no-man’s land.”
Had things gone according to plan, Lowry would have been the next player moved, shipped to the New York Knicks for a package that included some attractive future assets. The problem, if you will, was that Lowry trade fell apart last minute, and all of the sudden the Raptors started winning. Instead of tanking, the Gay trade opened things up for Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors snuck into the playoffs and haven't left since.
Now the Raptors are in an eerily similar spot. They have young interesting pieces in Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet, and some thinking to do about the future. While it's a little bit easier to be in the middle these days thanks to the league's new play-in playoff tournament and a smoothing out of the lottery odds, it's always better to have a clear direction.
So it might be time for fans to recalibrate. It's going to be weird. Ask Toronto Blue Jays fans what the past few seasons were like. That team went on an incredible run in 2015 and 2016, reaching the American League Conference Series in back-to-back seasons, but then the teardown happened and things got bleak. Fans had to reorient themselves from cheering for a win-now team to an organization stocked with exciting young prospects.
Winning is always the most fun, but there's still something special about watching young players find their footing in the league.
"My joy, honestly, is watching Norm, Freddy, Pascal, OG, grow," Lowry said Wednesday. "That's my joy.
"I just am proud of those guys and the growth and the steps that they're taking to become better basketball players and become better men, and becoming fathers, and etcetera, etcetera," he continued. "That's where I get the pride and joy."
It's still early. It's a weird year in which lots of talented teams have struggled. But regardless of what the next few weeks look like, a recalibration is coming for these Toronto Raptors.