“Cautiously optimistic” feels like the defining phrase for much of the 2014-2018 Toronto Raptors.
Even throughout the routine postseason struggles, there has been a constant feeling over the past five seasons that the best is yet to come. And on some level, this feeling has held true. The Raptors have consistently improved on a year-by-year basis. But even still, it hasn’t been enough.
When the Raptors first exploded in the 2013-2014 season, the ripples were felt all over the country. At the time, the Toronto Raptors were considered a perennial basement organization, and they’d just traded their most talented player away for depth pieces. The post-Carter Raptors had collapsed. The post-Bosh Raptors had collapsed. The post-Gay Raptors were, on paper, one of the worst iterations of the team ever assembled. The Collapse felt inevitable.
That looming collapse is why I think there is an argument to be made that the 2013-2014 regular season is currently the greatest in Raptor history.
The joy of that 42-22 race to the playoffs came with no strings attached. There were no criticisms yet to be had of Kyle Lowry, who was suddenly, and unexpectedly, blossoming into one of the best point guards in the NBA. Few were complaining about Dwane Casey’s coaching strategies; most were ecstatic just to be following a winning team. On some level, there was a consensus that Canadians had to cherish those Raptors, because it was recognized that the team’s success was prone to vanish at any moment.
There was no history of playoff disappointment yet; there was virtually no playoff history at all! So, going into the first round against Brooklyn that year, there was no “cautiously optimistic”. There was only pure, unadulterated excitement. Helped along by a still-iconic marketing campaign, Canada rallied around the Toronto Raptors. The enthusiasm was infectious. You could feel Jurassic Park through your TV screen. Masai Ujiri’s out-of-nowhere “Fuck Brooklyn” landed at just the right moment in time. It didn’t hurt that the two teams on display were about as evenly matched as two teams can be. When Game 7 finally came around, it didn’t feel like the conclusion of round one. It felt like the NBA Finals.
Paul Pierce’s series-clinching block on Kyle Lowry felt like being woken up from a dream. I don’t think the joy of that dream has been replicated by any Raptors team since.
In the frenzy of that 2013-2014 season, most were too consumed with enjoying the magic to worry about the longterm future. When the Brooklyn series ended, nobody was talking about the next steps towards a championship. Fans just wanted the “We The North” Raptors to be real, when there were so many reasons to believe that it was all a mirage.
Amazingly, it wasn’t. The next season would prove that there had really been a hidden all-star in Kyle Lowry all along. DeMar DeRozan really had meant that tweet. It’s been almost five years since the Rudy Gay trade that ignited the spark, and The Collapse still hasn’t happened. The Raptors have routinely silenced the many analysts and pundits who’ve predicted a regression. In the subsequent four seasons since 2013-2014, the Raptors have won 49, 56, 51, and 59 games. This is, without question, the greatest era in Toronto Raptors history.
Unfortunately, it often hasn’t been great enough.
In three of the four seasons since The Block, the Raptors have been at the wrong end of a playoff sweep. It’s hard to find much solace in the one playoff run that didn’t end with four consecutive losses because it only served to create false hope. This hope was mercilessly curb-stomped by the sweep of 2017.
Somehow, the Raptors found a way to make the 2018 sweep hurt even worse. Like any emotionally abusive partner, they promised they’d changed. And it really looked like they had. There was a new, modern, system. DeRozan was hitting threes. They even managed to beat out Boston for the first seed in the East. The 2018 playoffs promised to be a vindication. It ended up being more of the same.
Entering this summer, the Toronto Raptors and their country-wide support group were in tatters. There was nothing to be cautiously optimistic about. LeBron James leaving the Cavaliers to go to the Western Conference should have felt like a big victory, but it felt empty. Firing Dwane Casey was justified, but that didn’t make it any less embarrassing to watch him win NBA Coach of the Year the following week. The roster felt like it had been pushed to its full potential. Whether true or not, it felt like the ceiling had officially been hit.
In 2014, Toronto’s fans were just blindly excited to be supporting a relevant team. It was so much fun to watch Canada’s only NBA team, a team filled with misfits we identified with, prove the world wrong every night. But you can only prove the world wrong so many times. Frankly, the Raptors need to stop caring about proving anything to anyone. It is not 2014 anymore.
There are many reasons that this team gets typecast as an underdog, some justified and some not. Sports channel politics, being the only international NBA franchise; everything plays a role. But on some level, the underdog mindset comes from within. It needs to stop. And it’s not just the fans or the media; it’s the players and coaches as well. There is no other reason for this roster to consistently implode against LeBron James in the dramatic fashion that it repeatedly has.
The Raptors are not punching up to their competition anymore. Teams are punching up to them. On-the-court and off-the-court alike, Toronto is an elite NBA organization. The phrase “cautiously optimistic” should never exist in relation to this team, because that’s how stagnancy starts.
Thankfully, Masai Ujiri was never satisfied with that magical 2013-2014 season. Nor was he satisfied with last year’s 59-23 season. In trading for Kawhi Leonard, he’s made it clear that he expects more from this team, and everyone else should too. The comments he made during Kawhi Leonard’s and Danny Green’s introductory press conference about being prideful were not only inspirational, but they were also necessary. In the words of the immortal Jack Armstrong, “This is an elite situation, so enough with the small-minded, silly inferior market complex. That’s utter nonsense. Stick your chest out and be proud”.
For fans, there should be no more fixating on comments made by sports pundits. There should be no fretting over anyone’s perception of the team. Stop worrying about where Kawhi Leonard is going to end up.
For the players? Well, great teams aren’t concerned about proving anything to anyone, because they already know how great they are. Ever notice how little LeBron James seems to care about where his team seeds? Or how relaxed every regular season has been for the Warriors since they went 73-9? Teams who should be molding their identities around regular season success are teams like the 2013-2014 Raptors. The 2018-2019 Raptors should be long past that. More than anything this season, I want to see a Toronto Raptors team that exudes swagger.
In (a hilarious) episode five of “How Hungry Are You” with Serge Ibaka, Serge asked a few members of the Bench Mob what they felt would be the key to advancing in the playoffs this year. In Norman Powell’s words, “Just play, I feel like we get caught up too much in what people are saying, [what the] media is saying, whatever it is, just go out on the court and lay it all out there”. I couldn’t agree more. The Raptors’ toughest opponent is themselves.
Barring a lot of surprises, it’s going to be another great regular season. Possibly the best in Raptors’ history. That does not matter. Division banners are nice, home-court advantage is helpful, but none of it actually matters. Winning 70 games this year would not change that.
Every game until the beginning of the first round is practice. The season starts in April.
I hope the Raptors figure it out this time. There’s no Paul Pierce to wake us up this year.