Can the Raptors reach the NBA Finals?

Toronto lost key players Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll in the offseason

Can the Raptors reach the NBA Finals?

It’s that time of year again: the NBA season is about to begin. Last season, the Toronto Raptors finished 51–31, which was good enough to lock up their second straight 50-win season and third place status in the Eastern Conference. Their impressive regular season success, however, didn’t translate in the playoffs in the way fans were hoping for.

After a tough six-game series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Raptors advanced to play a familiar foe in LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. While many were hoping for a competitive rematch, LeBron and company had different ideas: they swept them in four games.

After a long offseason, the Raptors were able to re-sign core team members Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell in hopes of climbing the Eastern Conference ladder.

Despite many players returning to the franchise in 2017, one familiar face won’t be back. The Raptors traded DeMarre Carroll and two 2018 draft picks to the Brooklyn Nets for Justin Hamilton.

After the trade was completed, Carroll told Postmedia, “I feel like a lot of guys didn’t trust each other, and a lot of guys, they didn’t feel like other guys could produce.” Raptors team President Masai Ujiri dismissed the comments and said that he takes them “with a grain of salt.” While many fans were also quick to dismiss Carroll’s comments, the numbers never lie — if we look at Toronto’s on-court stats, his statement seems to hold true.

The Raptors ranked dead last in assist percentage per game last season and were ranked second in isolation basketball. It’s easy to come to the incorrect conclusion that, since the Raptors won 51 games last year, their system works. You might be able to get away with playing isolation basketball during the regular season, but against tougher teams night in and night out during the playoffs, you need to be able to rely on other players.

The numbers show this to be true: the Raptors’ offensive rating ranked sixth in the regular season, while in the playoffs it was ranked third worst. Essentially, the Raptors were too predictable in the playoffs, which was almost their downfall against the Bucks, who ranked first in defense ratings in the playoffs, and it was certainly their downfall against the Cavaliers. Ujiri did try to address the team’s offensive woes by acquiring sharpshooter CJ Miles and drafting OG Anunoby. These additions add versatility to the wings and three-point shooting that is vital to making a deep run in the playoffs.

There’s been a lot of talk about how the Eastern Conference has become less competitive over the past decade, though with all the moves made this summer, you could argue that the notion is a thing of the past. The blockbuster trade of the summer happened between the top two teams in the east last year, the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The trade centred around star guards Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas. It’s too early to tell who won this trade, but we know that it gives Boston the star power they were looking for and Cleveland the depth they were lacking. For the Raptors, this means that their strongest competitors last year arguably got even better.

While many teams have decided to wait out the Golden State Warriors era in basketball, there are still some teams in the west that are competing and changing up their rosters in the hopes of taking down this dynasty.

Oklahoma City Thunder made the biggest splash this offseason by adding all-stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony; the Houston Rockets added Chris Paul to pair with James Harden; the Minnesota Timberwolves added Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler to their young core; and the San Antonio Spurs added Rudy Gay to add depth to their roster.

For the Raptors, the road to the finals is a long one. But the key to their success this year is moving the ball a lot more on offense. With a full training camp and preseason to get familiar with one another, it’s important that trust is built between players.

The emerging big market north of the border

Toronto’s major sports teams are ready to consolidate the city’s big market identity

The emerging big market north of the border

With the 2015–2016 regular season for the Raptors and Leafs coming to a close, we can look back at how important 2015 and 2016 have been for Toronto in the NHL, NBA, and MLB.

While the Leafs will never relinquish the mantle as the city’s biggest market, the season was an indicator of the potential for the Raptors and Blue Jays to become bigger attractions as well. For years, the city has seen the likes of Vince Carter, Chris Bosh, Carlos Delgado, and Roy Halladay leave for bigger markets to chase titles.

The year 2015–2016 initiated a shift in this mindset. The Raptors and Blue Jays have demonstrated strong regular seasons, playoff runs, and the ability to attract big name players.

This begs the question — does Toronto have the potential to become a serious contender in the NBA, NHL, and MLB? And if so, can the city become a desired destination for sought after free agents?

Both the Raptors and the Blue Jays were recently rebranded to consolidate the teams’ respective successes by bolstering regional pride.

The Raptors utilized the “We The North” campaign to gain fans while remaining relevant by assembling a competitive team able to surpass the Carter and Bosh eras. Two straight division championships and an inevitable third have put Toronto in the same conversation as Eastern Conference elite teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan, the Raptors showed their willingness to spend with free agent DeMarre Carroll joining the team in the 2015 offseason. Ticket purchases have been a key indicator of this expansion. The Raptors sold out season and postseason tickets in 2013–2014 and 2014–2015 and are expected to do the same during this year’s post-season. All Star Weekend was also a media boost to Toronto. Although the city embraces its ‘outside looking in’ approach to the NBA, the team has made an effort — especially this season — to be at the center of it all.

The Blue Jays also experienced a rebranding in 2012, but the team took a retrospective approach, returning to their 1992–1993 championships colours following an era of lackluster years as a fringe team. Their rebrand was met with blockbuster trades for stars like R.A. Dickey and Jose Reyes. Success after the rebrand was not immediate like the Raptors’, but last year’s trades for stars Troy Tulowitzki, David Price, and reigning MVP Josh Donaldson made significant contributions to the Jays’ first postseason appearance since 1993. The Blue Jays are title contenders and the city has taken notice through ticket and merchandise sales. The Jays’ 2015 season illustrated the dedicated fan base baseball can have in a non-American city.

The market value for the Leafs will likely never be a problem. Despite their struggles in recent seasons and a rebuild underway, the future is bright for the franchise.

The Leafs live in a hard salary cap era, but this has not stopped them from stockpiling talent. They accumulated draft picks, including potential star William Nylander, all under the watchful eye of arguably the best management in the league. GM Lou Lamoriello has won three Stanley Cups and coach Mike Babcock has won the Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals. The team has  a robust analytics department led by rising management star Kyle Dubas, which has modernized how we view hockey and player evaluations. The road to contention will be long and arduous for the Leafs, but they have the pieces in place to compete again, and the regional market to sustain them. 

The regional market has the ability to sustain the three major teams, similar to other big markets like New York and Los Angeles. While the more profitable and more popular team is rebuilding itself, their future is bright. The Raptors and Blue Jays are the contenders, and now they have the rosters and fan bases to show for it.