By: Dan Grant
The Toronto Raptors took another step towards solidifying their recent success last week, as they extended the contract of hugely popular team president Masai Ujiri. Terms of the deal were not immediately released, but Ujiri still had two years remaining on the five year contract the he signed when he came back to Toronto from Denver, so it’s safe to say that he’ll be running the show in Toronto for the forseeable future. While Jeff Weltman was promoted to the title of General Manager and Bobby Webster to assistant GM, the buck on basketball decisions will still stop with President Ujiri.
This is undoubtedly a win for a Toronto team that has enjoyed its greatest successes over the past three seasons. The core of a Conference Finals team is intact, a homegrown All-Star in DeMar DeRozan has just re-signed long term, and fans are looking forward to the continued development of burgeoning big man Jonas Valanciunas, who turned 24 in the midst of last years playoff run. It’s not just a good time to be a Raptors fan, but the best time ever.
Still though, a little voice wonders: ‘What’s next?’
It’s a selfish voice. One saturated in the self-loathing of the Toronto sports fan. It’s a voice that can’t be content with the fact that for the first time in their history, this Raptors team has a chance at sustained success. It’s a voice that wants MORE; a path, a plan, an ace in the hole. It wants to know, just where exactly, is this ship heading? With LeBron in the East and still in his prime, can this Raptors team ever top last season? Is this all for naught?
He’s a wee arsehole, but he sort of has a point, maybe.
Just to shut him up, why don’t we take a look?
The thing about the NBA, is that more than any other professional sport, there are prescribed routes to success. When the Cleveland Cavaliers won the big one this past season, they became just the 18th NBA franchise to capture the title in 70 years. If you look back over the list of winners, you’ll see weird iterations, like the Syracuse Nationals (now the 76ers), and Rochester Royals (now the Kings), but those don’t count as different teams. You’ll see nicknames in the wrong cities too, like the Philadelphia Warriors and Minneapolis Lakers; again these are the same franchises. You’ll also see what looks like decent parity over the past thirteen seasons, since the Shaqobe juggernaut was toppled.
What you won’t see, even with the appearance of parity, is the names of nearly 50% of the leagues teams. You’ll also see that out of the 18 franchises who have won the title in 70 seasons, four have won it five times or more. The Boston Celtics (17), LA Lakers (16), Chicago Bulls (6) and San Antonio Spurs (5). That’s it. Your other 13 winners are Philadelphia (3), Golden State (3, as Philadelphia), Detroit (3), Miami (3), Houston (2), New York (2) Washington (2), Cleveland (1), Atlanta (1, as St Louis), Dallas (1), Portland (1) Milwaukee (1), Oklahoma City (1, as Seattle), Sacramento (1, as Rochester). Out of those lesser winners, the New York, Washington, Portland, Atlanta, Milwaukee and OKC franchises haven’t won since 1979 or earlier. That’s not parity — that’s a damn gauntlet. If the Toronto Raptors want to run that gauntlet, I know that the We the North fan-base is ready to do it with them… but some clarity on how they intend to go about it would be nice, since so many have tried and failed.
The Normal Routes
Well the first option is to tank and hope for a generational superstar. Hey, it worked for Chicago, Cleveland and San Antonio! Unfortunately, for this group of Raptors, coming off back to back 50 win seasons, that train has sailed.
Become a World Destination
Look, Toronto is amazing. I’ve lived and traveled around the world and it’s still my favourite city, in terms of livability. The people are great, the amenities are nice. Amazing food, lots to do. The traffic and transit suck the big one, but that’s the case in most major North American cities. But still, it’s unlikely Toronto will ever rival LA, New York, the Bay Area, Miami or even state-tax free Texas as a major free agent destination. Not the route for the Raptors. They’re always going to have be creative, which is why it’s a good thing they inked Ujiri.
Draft a Generational Superstar 7th overall, Watch as He Beats the Odds in Overcoming Potentially Crippling Ankle Injuries to Become the Two Time MVP and Best Shooter of All Time, All While Batting Basically 1.000 on Other Draft Picks…
…but Golden State has already done that to death.
Another route is that of the 2011 Mavericks, which sounds great because it worked out — but was secretly infuriating to the ‘always a bridesmaid’ Dallas fans in every season from 2007-2010, before they finally broke through with an unlikely (but very deserved) title win in 2011. The Dallas model is actually a fine one. Good owner, mostly good teams, in psuedo-contention every year because of how good your best player is, not afraid to take big swings– these are things I can get behind. Some of the big swings wound up being big misses for Dallas, but if you’re going to tell me the Raptors can win 50 a year for the next fifteen years, I’m going to be on board. Still, Toronto lacks a player with surefire Hall of Fame talent of Dirk Nowitzki, so it’s going to be tough to exactly duplicate the model.
That leaves us with this:
This is seemingly the final option. It could be either iteration of the men from Motor City, really. The Bad Boy Pistons took advantage of the aging Celtics and Lakers, using a skilled back-court and punishing front-court to take two titles in the late 80’s. It was perfect timing for them — Jordan wasn’t quite ready to ascend, while Magic and Larry had spent the best part eight years killing each other. The 2004 Pistons were much of the same. The Shaqobe Lakers had won three straight titles and then went ahead and added Karl Malone and Gary Payton; past-their-prime versions, but still. The egos and the advent of the ‘disease-of-more’ was palpable. A season later, everybody was gone but Kobe, and the Pistons stood on top of the mountain. Detroit owned the Eastern Conference for a six year period in the first half of the aughts, making six straight Conference Finals, with two Finals appearances and that single title nestled in the middle. New Jersey, Miami, Cleveland and Boston knocked them off, but they always had to go through Chauncey, Rip, Tayshaun and the Wallace twins. Could the Raptors emulate this? It’d sure be nice!
It’s tough to find a formula among those five that fits Toronto perfectly. Detroit is the closest one, but only because the Raptors lack a true top 5 superstar. They have one on the cusp in Kyle Lowry, a multiple time All-Star in DeMar DeRozan and possibly a brewing one in Jonas Valanciunas, plus enviable role players in DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph. With Ujiri in place, and Coach Dwane Casey endorsed by the players (if not always the fans), Toronto is currently as solid a franchise as there is in the NBA, outside of the aforementioned champions.
So what do they do? What’s next?
There is one other option:
6. Be Boston, sort of
Notably absent from those options was any version of the four successful Celtic runs. The first is irreplicable, not just because of the way the team was built (around a bucket load of Hall of Famers in an eight team league) but because of the sociological impact of the 50’s and 60’s Celtics. The second, the two titles in the 1970’s, were built on the fumes of those glory years, with John Havlicek still on the team, so they’re out too.
The 80’s and late 2000’s Celtics however? They were built differently, but via the same principals: out-think your opponent. Zig, when others zag. Purely through shrewd management, those big swings that we mentioned before carried Boston to four titles in the post-merger era. Larry Bird worked out wonderfully, but he’s the epitome of a huge swing — after Boston took him 6th overall in 1978, they had to wait a year for him to come out of school, and even though he was good right away, he was a distant and disconnected 23 year old rookie, and the Boston fans didn’t embrace him completely, at least in his first two seasons. He finally connected with them during a rare display of emotion during the run to the 1981 title, and there was no looking back. The swing became a home-run.
Robert Parish and Kevin McHale were acquired during a heist of a trade in which Boston actually gave up the first overall pick in the 1980 draft, landing number three (McHale) and Parish from Golden State. Again, big swings connecting — Parish had been disengaged and surly on declining Warriors teams, and many expected first overall pick Joe Barry Carroll to be a superstar, or at the very least, better than McHale. We all know how that worked out.
Toronto will never have the history of Russell’s Celtics to fall back on. It’s what kept the Celtics relevant, even in the lean post-Bird years, or when Paul Pierce was pouting instead of calling out winning shots, while Kevin Garnett prowled the paint and Ray Allen’s jumper took smooth to another plane of existence. That history gave Boston what every team strives for: continuity. Red Auerbach ran the Celtics for over thirty years. Danny Ainge, a former Celtics player, has been at the helm since the end of the 2002-03 season. That infrastructure and consistency gave the Boston teams the ability to take long-term risks, something few NBA executives are afforded.
The Raptors have some questions too — Kyle Lowry can opt out after this season (and almost surely will) and key reserve Patrick Patterson is an impending free agent. But like the Celtics, they can now take the big swings.The infrastructure is in place. With Masai Ujiri at the helm, that’s what’s going to happen. That’s your answer.
He’s not going to be LA, or Detroit, or Dallas or even Boston. He’s going to be Toronto.
You ask ‘What’s next?’ He’ll tell you.
Building a legacy.