TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors have a lot of questions to answer in the next two months.
Here's one: How do you measure 82 games of regular season success vs. a humbling playoff exit?
In the regular season, the Raptors had the same record and a better point differential than the Cleveland Cavaliers. Toronto was one of only three teams – and the only one in the Eastern Conference – in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
At the trade deadline, the Raptors seemingly became better fit for the playoffs, adding defense and versatility with trades for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. They proceeded to go 14-7 without their best player (Kyle Lowry) and when he returned, we were looking at the best Raptors team we've ever seen.
And then, after a tougher-than-it-needed-to-be first-round series with the Milwaukee Bucks,
But the Cavs shot better because the Cavs have better shooters and the best player in the world passing them the ball (and shooting 48 percent from 3-point range himself). A healthy Lowry would have given the Raptors one home victory at most.
The difference between Cavs vs. Raptors in regard to regular season numbers and Cavs vs. Raptors in the playoffs is another reason – in addition to the issue of rest and player health – to reevaluate the length of the season. If what these two teams did over 82 games was rendered so meaningless in the first seven days of May, then how important were those 82 games?
That's a question for Adam Silver. The question for Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri is where his team goes now. There's no easy answer and there might not be a right answer either, because James will continue to be in the way for the foreseeable future.
As James and the Cavaliers made clear over the course of four games, it's a huge step from where the Raptors are now to truly contending for a title. But is contending for a title the end-all, be-all in the NBA, where seven franchises have won 33 of the last 37 championships?
Wouldn't the Sacramento Kings love to be where the Raptors are now? Wouldn't they love to get back to where they were 15 years ago, making eight straight trips to the playoffs, though never making it to The Finals?
No, you don't want to be on "the treadmill of mediocrity" in this league, but the Raptors are not mediocre. They're one of the league's top eight teams by any measure and that shouldn't be taken for granted.
Ujiri surely wants more, but how does he get that? Does he make a coaching change when the coach he's got (Dwane Casey) is one of only four to have his team in the top 10 on both ends of the floor twice in the last four seasons?
Can a successful playoff offense be built around DeMar DeRozan? The last three years, in which the Raptors have scored an average of 9.7 fewer points per 100 possessions in the playoffs than they did in the regular season, would tell you that the answer is "no." But DeRozan is under contract for at least three more years.
Is it better to let Lowry leave or give him a contract that will be paying him more than $40 million when he's 35 years old? Does keeping Serge Ibaka (another unrestricted free agent) and playing him at center raise the Raptors' ceiling? If so, what becomes of Jonas Valanciunas? And if Tucker (an unrestricted free agent, too) is your new defensive stopper, how do you deal with the now burdensome contract of DeMarre Carroll?
The Raptors' outlook is complicated. Maybe Ujiri's the decisions would be easier if his team wasn't so good in the regular season or if it wasn't so outmatched in the conference semifinals. But that -- good but not good enough -- has become the theme of this era of Raptors basketball, which may or may not be over.
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