Can a team who finished the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference, and the second-best in the league, have more questions than answers at the end of their playoff run? Apparently yes, if that team’s name is Toronto Raptors. After another elimination in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Cleveland Cavaliers, or to put it better against LeBron James, the Toronto Raptors look like a team with very limited options for their future heading into the summer. Let’s take a look back and see what happened this season for Toronto.
Last summer Masai Ujiri decided to keep his core mainly untouched, re-signing Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell to multi-year contracts. Some critics thought that too much money was invested to keep together a core that wasn’t capable of reaching the finals in the Eastern Conference. But the team proved many people wrong during the regular season. Dwane Casey did an outstanding job fixing the Raptors’ offense, making the team much more of a threat on the perimeter and improving the playmaking in general. Rookie O.G. Anunoby, selected with the 23rd pick in the draft, immediately made an impact and impressed many players around the league, especially with his defensive skills.
The second unit, led by point guard Fred Van Vleet, was supremely impressive throughout the season and helped the Raptors destroy several opponents in the second half thanks to their amazing effort and will to win. Toronto played excellent basketball and deserved the top spot in the East, benefiting from the struggles of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the injuries to the Boston Celtics. But with the playoffs approaching, many critics still had doubts about the real chances of Toronto of making it through the Eastern Conference and ultimately to the finals.
After their first-round win in six games over the Washington Wizards, who had already proven true some doubts of the Raps, Toronto crashed once again. To make matters worse, it was against their nightmare, personified by LeBron James. All the issues and the limits that were amazingly masked during the regular season came out all at once, proving that the Toronto Raptors’ old habits were still in place.
Their frontcourt showed very little versatility and not enough physicality to stop the Cavs. Jonas Valanciunas suffered guarding Love for all the series, having troubles following him around the perimeter. Serge Ibaka, once again, came up short and proved that he is no longer the defensive enforcer that he used to be. The lack of defensive depth on the wings was too much to sustain for Toronto against LeBron James. The only useful enough wing on D, Anunoby, wasn’t enough and putting all of your chances to stop the best player in the league in a rookie proved to be a wrong decision.
Offensively, DeRozan proved once again, despite the improvements made during the regular season, that he’s not a decent 3-point shooter. DeRozan, in fact, shot only 28% from three during the playoffs. His effective field goal percentage dropped from 48.8% to 46.6%, per Basketball-Reference. Also, DeRozan’s Player Efficiency Rating dropped, from 21 to 17, showing once again that DeRozan’s basketball skills are not that effective during the playoffs.
After another elimination, the future for the Raptors isn’t looking so clear. Toronto already has $126 million in guaranteed salaries for next season and that’s without counting what restricted free-agent Fred Van Vleet could command on the market. The team is a lock to pay the tax next season unless a major move will be made. This would leave the Raptors with only the taxpayer midlevel and minimum salary deals to sign new free agents.
The Raps won’t have any draft picks in the upcoming draft. Their first-round pick will go to Brooklyn after the DeMarre Carroll’s trade, while their second-rounder is bound to Phoenix. Kyle Lowry will make 31 million next season and 33.2 the season after, Ibaka will make almost 45 million over the next two seasons and his deal looks even worse now than the day he signed it. And it’s also tough to imagine that Ibaka could have much of a market during this summer, Toronto would likely need to attach a young piece of the future core to him to facilitate a trade. And even then, it’s hard to imagine a great return for an aging player like Ibaka. Kyle Lowry is already 32 and this season his numbers dropped in basically every single statistical category. Unless a lottery team comes in with an out of the world offer, it’s hard to imagine finding a strong trade market for Lowry at this stage of his career.
The Toronto Raptors reportedly explored a trade for DeAndre Jordan before the trade deadline. They could try to open those talks again if Jordan will opt in the final year of his deal with the Clippers, but with Doc Rivers reportedly staying in L.A. it’s hard to see the Clippers giving up on Jordan for a package consisting of Jonas Valanciunas and a young piece.
Masai Ujiri didn’t blow out the entire thing last season and the results, especially in the regular season, proved him right. But with another playoff elimination and a very limited flexibility to increase the level of talent of the team, Ujiri might decide to take the route he refused to take since he got in Toronto. LeBron’s clutch shot in Game 3 of the series might not only end Raptors playoff run but it may also put an end to their recent history as an Eastern Conference contender. The upcoming summer in Toronto might just be franchise-altering.