Even before making a trade that turned their season upside down, the Toronto Raptors were already in the midst of a year in flux. After starting the season 4-19, the Raptors lost three primary starters – Kyle Lowry, Andrea Bargnani and rookie Jonas Valanciunas – to injury. But in subtraction they found all the pieces they needed to start winning again – on their own bench. Efficient Spanish point guard Jose Calderon and big men Ed Davis and Amir Johnson helped not only to steady the ship, but make it cruise faster: Toronto went 12-11 and were suddenly looking like a potential threat to make the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
The return of Lowry boosted the team’s form, but 31-year-old Calderon, now in the last year of his contract, remained in the starting role. DeMar DeRozan’s steady improvement continued, Landry Fields returned to the lineup, and the Raptors – though still no world beaters – were at least having fun again.
And then came the trade.
Suddenly, Toronto’s best playmaker (Calderon) and their exciting young big man (Davis) were gone, shipped to Memphis in return for Rudy Gay and backup Iranian Center Hamed Haddadi. Calderon was then rerouted to Detroit. A young team on the rise lost a potential future star in 23-year-old Davis, their most consistent leader in Calderon, and gained a player in Gay who comes in with big question marks and a bigger contract.
But to a team that hasn’t had an All-Star player since Chris Bosh bolted for Miami two-and-a-half years ago, this trade was a necessary risk. The Raptors – interesting as their roster was – were only heading for the mediocrity of a late lottery pick. They are a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2008 and hadn’t been past the first round since 2001. Despite carrying a large contract that Memphis was more than eager to displace, Rudy Gay is not an All-Star – at least not yet. But what the high-scoring forward can become for Toronto is their best perimeter player since Vince Carter.
It is mostly a star-driven league, where teams who have the most talented individuals usually succeed over the teams with lesser talent. There are exceptions to the rule of course: well-coached systems in San Antonio and Chicago have been breaking the mould for years. But not all squads are blessed with genius head coaches and a strong team-oriented mentality. For the rest, a roll of the dice is necessary to shake things up and provide some optimism and excitement to the fanbase. The Rockets decided to pay big money to James Harden, and Harden responded by becoming one of the game’s elite perimeter superstars. Gay may not have the same influence in Toronto, but there will be nights when he will be the most talented player on court. Raptors fans haven’t been able to claim that in ages.
Gay’s Toronto career has started on the right note. He logged 20 points off the bench in his first outing in a win over the Clippers, and he has shown why – despite not always overwhelming NBA critics – he is considered to be a premier scoring talent. Early observations have shown positive chemistry between him and DeRozan. Calderon’s absence has cleared the way for Kyle Lowry again and cleared the Raptors of their long-lasting point guard dilemmas. And even though they lost Ed Davis, they have the steady trunks of Amir Johnson ready to handle the big-man business.
Gay’s first start for the Raptors was against the Heat, in a game where Toronto welcomed back their former No. 4 draft pick Chris Bosh. Welcome is a kind word, for Bosh suffers boos and jeers for leaving the Raptors in his every visit back to Canada. They boo him because – before his unceremonious departure – he was the face of their franchise, their star player. Without him, they were a group of young talents without a steady, consistent leader.
In the same game, Gay was pitted in the fire’s pit, going head to head against LeBron James. LeBron dominated with 30 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists, but Gay was no pushover himself, as he played 41 minutes and scored 29 points on the reigning MVP. They lost that game, but the Raptors gained a star, the next face of their franchise. In taking his contract, the Raptors took a chance to replace their uncertain future with a more certain present.
Now, what do we do with Andrea Bargnani...