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Why the Surging Raptors Don't Need to Rush the Process

If winning the title is the end goal this season, the Raptors are going to fall short. There aren't moves out there that can push this team to another level between now and April.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor's note: Welcome to The Rap Up at VICE Sports, where Alex Wong covers off all things Raptors. You can check previous installments here, and follow him on Twitter.)

One of the my least favourite and most contrived business sayings is "the 30,000-foot view," so in the interest of making the Raptors—currently on an 11-game winning streak—feel hopeless in the harsh reality of the NBA where only a handful of teams or less can actually entertain the championship as a realistic goal, let's swoop high above everything else and look on down at where the second-best team in the Eastern Conference should go.


Here's a start: The Raptors are not going to win the championship this season. The statement is neither dramatic or grandiose, just a matter of fact, I suppose. If winning the title is the end goal for this particular season, the Raptors are most definitely going to fall short. It's not a unique predicament. The Warriors are probably winning this whole thing. The Spurs will have a say, maybe. The Cavs (or LeBron) fired their coach despite being the best team in the East because they feel the desire to get to another level from now before they presumably meet the Warriors in the Finals. The Thunder? Maybe. After that we're already reaching to include any more teams in this conversation.

READ MORE: DeMar DeRozan Has Made the Right Adjustments to Become an All-Star

And that's OK. The Raptors are moving in the right direction. They're baby steps, but this roster that's been constructed and torn apart for repairs by Masai Ujiri over the last two-plus seasons is really good. The leap from really good to great, to let's include them in the championship convo is difficult, sometimes impossible. Teams hit a particular ceiling, and then, well, they hit reset. Consider teams like the Grizzlies, Clippers and even the Rockets. They've had a sustained run of regular-season success but have probably gone as far as their group can in the postseason. The teardowns are coming soon, and then the process of injecting optimism into the franchise with a new group begins.


The Raptors have vacillated between a team that's promised better things in the present but also kept an eye on the future. In other words, they are a fairly realistic NBA franchise led by a general manager who understands where his team stands. At some point, the fans would probably rather this team pick a side and go all in. Win now, that fan might say, while the Cavs are vulnerable, ignoring the fact that LeBron James—and not David Blatt—needed to be dismissed from his role in order to create an opening in the East. And sure, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are probably at their peak as a duo, so in that sense, this might be the window. But if the Raptors do want to win now, what exactly can they do between now and the trade deadline approaching in a few weeks?

Ryan Anderson? He's the guy averaging 17.5 points a game and shooting 40.2 percent from deep and in the last year of his contract on a Pelicans team that's out of the playoffs at the moment. The Lakers are shopping Roy Hibbert and Brandon Bass. The Nuggets would probably part with J.J. Hickson for the right price. Terrence Jones has played himself out of the rotation in Houston. Markieff Morris presumably has his bags packed in Phoenix already.

Off all those players, Anderson and Morris might be most intriguing, the former for what he can bring in small-ball lineups, and the latter because his trade value has never been lower and if resuscitated, could become another bargain pickup that benefits the team for more than just this season. But as a whole, none of the names sound particularly appealing. The Raptors would probably have to part with a pick, of which they have two first rounders in this upcoming draft at their disposal. To get anything of value, they'd probably have to entertain giving up Patrick Patterson, Terrence Ross or if things get serious, Jonas Valanciunas. At worst, they might make a lateral move with no long-term benefits. At best, perhaps an incremental upgrade that serves as emergency in case of injury, or if DeMarre Carroll doesn't return to full strength this season.


Valanciunas would be an attractive trade chip. But he's also a long-term asset with upside. —Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

So, the Raptors can try to lean in and explore what they can do to win this season, but it's hard to find a perfect fit at the trade deadline, a Rasheed-Wallace-to-the-Pistons-type deal that catapults a team into title contention. The tinkering is usually done between seasons, like Ujiri did two seasons ago when the Raptors surprised everyone, made the playoffs, and then saw enough to commit some long-term dollars to Lowry. James Johnson was signed in case there was a rematch with Brooklyn, and Joe Johnson needed to be stopped (he didn't). Lou Williams was acquired to add some extra punch in the postseason (he didn't). So, it was back to the drawing board last summer. Retool the roster with a focus on improving a putrid defence. Add in Lowry's stellar play and DeRozan's career year, and you have the Raptors closing in on the Cavs in the standings in February, with some clear separation from the other teams in the East.

There aren't moves out there that can push this Raptors team to another level between now and April, and that's fine. Strangely, this win streak has made me feel more encouraged about where this team stands beyond this season. Not that we should skip over whatever is accomplished this season.

A playoff run would be nice for the city, and especially for this core group, but at some point the Raptors will need to make some sort of power move to vault themselves to the next level, or reach a point where they realize this group has tapped out in terms of its potential. The Raptors have some young players (who are not playing) on their roster, they have future picks to offer, and their core group is signed (with the exception of DeRozan) to reasonable contracts beyond this season. If they can't earn themselves an invite to the big boys table for competing for a title, the Raptors can at least try and muscle themselves into the conversation should players like Kevin Love, DeMarcus Cousins and Blake Griffin become available. The best available route for the Raptors to acquire a franchise player has always been via trade, despite Drake's best attempts to recruit Kevin Durant at OVOFest. The success of this team and its continued growth this season will only help the organization put together an attractive package for when the opportunity presents itself.

READ MORE: Kyle Lowry's Transformation from Role-Playing Malcontent to Bona Fide Superstar

For now, though, with this current roster, it's perfectly fun to wonder whether this win streak demonstrates there's a team here that can go a bit further in the playoffs than we expected. Whether that is beyond winning a round, or pushing the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. It's on the table. We should all consider it, and all be excited for it. On Wednesday, at a Hoops Talk Live event in downtown Toronto, a panel consisting of writers Doug Smith and Michael Grange and analyst Jack Armstrong were asked what would define a successful season for this team. Winning a round in the playoffs was suggested as an answer, but one panelist asked: what if DeRozan sprains his ankle in a first-round series, and they lose. Is that a failure then? I'm not ready to debate that exact point of success and failure right now. But it does illustrate the thin line between winning in the playoffs or not for these Raptors.

After two straight first-round exits, they're going to strangely feel an exorbitant amount of pressure when the playoffs roll around. I've found comfort in knowing that a playoff series win might define this year. But the Raptors and their success between now and April with this current roster might help define this team and its path to finding a long-term solution of getting into that championship discussion.