With Casey out, should the North blow it all up?
FILE - TORONTO, CANADA - MARCH 18: DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors looks on before the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 18, 2018 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images)
Is the North cursed? And have they just made things worse?
The Toronto Raptors once again fell way short in their bid to exorcise the ghost named LeBron James. For the third straight postseason, the Raps found themselves on the losing end against LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers, this time in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Consequently, Toronto also recently fired long-time head coach Dwane Casey.
Despite winning 59 games in the regular season and pocketing the East's #1 seed, Toronto still found a way to shoot themselves in the foot against the King and all his men. It's a baffling scenario, not in the least because the Raptors -- by all intents and purposes -- are very good. No #1 seed should go out being swept, and certainly not even before they reach the Conference Finals, but that's exactly what transpired here. Not surprisingly, it seems much of the blame has been heaved on Casey.
This unfortunate series of events, therefore, begs one question -- should Toronto just blow it all up and rebuild from the ground up, especially with Casey now out of the picture?
It's a tough question, of course, and Raptors GM Masai Ujiri is surely not among the world's most envied men right now. Should he succumb to the knee-jerk tendency of pressing the reset button, or should he hold out some more and keep the faith, especially with the possibility of James's leaving Cleveland anew?
Here are some pros and cons about the decision to blow up this team north of the border.
Address the salary cap
This is maybe the most enticing reason to shake things up in Ontario. Toronto rolled the dice on the core of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas, and now they've kinda locked themselves up with those hefty contracts. The team has $138 million guaranteed for next season and a little over $160 million for 2019-2020. Unless they are willing to trade either Ibaka or Valanciunas (the duo will combine to make $38.1 million next season, and $40.8 million the season after that), then the Raptors will have to move either of their two All-Star guards. The only way I see them keeping all four key pieces is by trading away nearly all their supporting cast players for maybe picks or "buy low" talents. That, though, is much easier said than done, and more so now with their coaching spot up in the air.
Blowing up this team by trading away either Lowry or DeRozan for whomever they can get with commensurate value will, at the very least, help the team generate more realistic expectations next season. In all honesty, had it not been for their losing to LeBron yet again, they could have looked back at this 2017-2018 campaign as maybe their best ever (and perhaps Casey would still be on board). This was their winningest regular season, where they set franchise records for most home wins, road wins, and total wins. They finished first in the East for the first time. There were a lot of things to be positive about, but it's slowly getting clear that maybe they've reached their ceiling. An overhauled roster will reset all those expectations instead of setting themselves up for another postseason heartbreak.
If Ujiri does decide to blow things up in Toronto, it most certainly means the team will get younger. As things stand, their roster's average age of 25.5 years is close to the league's mean of 24.9. Trading away some aging players like CJ Miles and/or Ibaka or maybe even either Lowry or DeRozan can surely give the Raptors an even fresher look and more longevity for the foreseeable future. Of course, the flipside is Toronto will have to ramp up player development and see if whichever young gun they get can actually blossom into something special.
They're still a very good team
Everyone knows Toronto was by no means a bad team this past season. They just couldn't get over the LBJ hump. Still, perhaps that's a good enough reason to blow things up. If they do, however, then they should brace themselves for what is almost definitely going to be, at best, an unstable and, at worst, a throwaway season mainly because rejigging team personnel means a high level of adjustment thanks to Casey's departure. The trick for Toronto is to decide as a franchise if they can make do with consistently strong seasons (but not strong enough to be a title contender) for as long as DeRozan and Lowry can still be effective, or if they want to give themselves an opportunity to maybe level up, even if they'll have to accept a far-away maturity date.
How much change can really happen?
Even if Ujiri decides to clean house, so to speak, how much change can people actually expect from the Raptors? They've pretty much tied themselves to Lowry's contract, and it's pretty much the same with Ibaka and Valanciunas. Even if they let DeRozan go for, say, another potential All-Star, is that really the kind of change they want to see? For a team like Toronto, stability and continuity seem to be ingrained in the squad's collective character, and that will be mightily tested in the offseason. By pulling the trigger on a blow-up, Toronto may not even have a drastically different/improved roster next season, which means they would have short-changed nobody but themselves. Perhaps this is also the reason for Casey's getting the axe. Maybe Ujiri knows the options to change the players are limited, and so he resorted to a change in the brain-trust.
Too big a risk
At the end of the day, for a team that achieved so much in 2017-2018, changing too many things may prove to be too risky. Despite their futility against the Cavs, Lowry and DeRozan have proven that they are among the league's best backcourt tandems. Despite maybe already reaching their zenith, these Raptors can still ensure All-Star selections and Playoff games, which will surely help raise the image of the franchise. From being just "the team that drafted Vince Carter," the Raptors can carve out a new niche and, who knows, may even be a perennial top 4 team in the East for the better part of the next five seasons. That would certainly not be a bad thing altogether.
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