In a press conference today, Raptors president Masai Ujiri said, “I feel talking now is BS, why we need to do this today, might as well talk to me in a month,” but nevertheless offered some 6,303 words of speculation on his team’s future. Those words were interesting, if fogged in layers of nuance, hedging, and veiled intent, but he sustained one through-line: something needs to change. “We need a culture reset,” he said. “The style of play is something that we need to change,” he said.
Here is the state of affairs that needs changing. The Raptors trotted out 48-, 49-, 56-, and 51-win teams over the last four seasons, only to lose in the first round, first round, conference finals, and conference semis, respectively.
On the other hand: what work exactly is “only” doing in the above sentence? It’s true that there’s a ceiling. It also seems to be true, for them and for every other team in the Eastern Conference, that the ceiling is, as DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry acknowledged in flashes of bleak honesty, LeBron James himself. He has put them to bed twice in a row now, effortlessly and often with a cruel sense of humor.
Is there any shame in losing to LeBron James? Generally, no, it is not shameful to lose to the greatest basketball player of all time, but probably, at least a little bit, if you’re getting swept in four with perhaps the deepest squad you’ve assembled to date, with Bron looking even more blasé than ever: spinning the ball before pull-up threes, oop-ing the ball to himself off the glass, pretending to sip a beer on the sideline. Probably this means some things do need to change. But does that warrant blowing everything up? Does it render expendable the steady supply of a good on-court product to a market previously starved of good basketball?
Should those fans go hungry again, fed only the promise of a brighter, always distant future? That’s a matter of fan temperament—do you prefer consistent entertainment on your television screen, or long-term return on investment, as measured in titles? Ujiri seems to be growing weary of the former, and may have even hinted at a scorched-earth do-over today (emphasis mine):
Now we have to figure out how we can win in the playoffs. That’s the goal... We need to figure out how to beat [the elite teams]. That’s our job, and that’s what we’re going to try and figure out, whether it’s now or in the future, I have to figure that out.
But one could easily make the case that the Raptors can become better than they are not by blowing the whole thing up, as some think they should, but by making discrete shifts, continuous with the current roster.
One obvious way to start would be to hire a coach, one not named Dwane Casey, capable of designing and deploying good basketball plays, so as not to strand your talented players in ISO-ville, indefinitely. Though Casey has shepherded this team to their first-ever four consecutive playoff appearances, it’s not clear that he can take them any farther than that. Ujiri for one, sounded fed up with that style of play:
We have to figure that out, the one-on-one basketball we play, we have to question that, we have to really look at it, look at the league and evaluate the way we play and say, is this working?
Other possible steps could be as simple as helping DeMarre Carroll fully rehabilitate, or coming to terms with the fact that Serge Ibaka may have aged out of playing the 4, both ideas Ujiri also floated. Or investing more money in player development, since the new CBA makes roster impulse-shopping a much more forbidding prospect, as Ujiri conceded. Maybe it’s accepting that you won’t be able to re-sign all four free agents—“it’s unrealistic,” said Ujiri—but presenting a compelling case to the most important one, Kyle Lowry, who has a history of butting heads with the coach you ought to consider replacing anyway.
Maybe this Raptors team is, like any other perennial playoff contender, just a few lucky breaks from a Finals appearance, and the goal is to iterate on an already decent team, and gamble on those lucky breaks rather than on the outcome of drastic, irreversible, high-variance changes. There is value merely in winning ball games, and nothing particularly “wrong” with a team that falls short of titles. A basketball team is, at its core, an entertainment concern, and there is a lot to lose by ignoring that fact in the service of all-or-nothing title-chasing.