The Struggle For Relevance

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Let’s face it; the Toronto Raptors don’t get a lot of respect. In Canada, basketball is routinely overshadowed by hockey, both on a national level, and specifically in the city where the Raptors ply their trade—a city where the Maple Leafs dominate the sporting landscape. South of the 49th parallel, where basketball commands a much larger audience, the Raptors are a mere blip on the NBA radar. Forget the fact that Toronto is the 5th largest city in North America, and thus should be regarded as a good-sized market, to Americans the Raptors may as well be playing in some semi-frozen colonial outpost that lacks modern technology and access to NBA League Pass. Or least that’s what Chris Bosh thought. http://sports.nationalpost.com/2010/11/11/chris-bosh-accumulating-treasure-chest-of-dumb-quotes/)

That Toronto isn’t a popular destination for free agents is well known. Many who have played in Toronto develop a genuine love for the city, and realize that it’s possible to have universal healthcare without worshipping tractors or enforcing collectivization. But there seems to be a feeling among many NBA players, that Toronto, and Canada more generally, is far removed from the hub of the action—that players can’t maximize their marketing potential and build their personal brands playing for a non-American franchise. To some extent that may be true—basketball just isn’t as popular in Canada—but that doesn’t explain everything.

Toronto’s lack of appeal for the NBA’s elite stems from something a little more fundamental than simple geography. More important is the sad fact that the Raptors have been an awful basketball team for a long time now.

Good teams get national and international exposure regardless of the market they play in. Oklahoma City is a relatively small market, but they have two top-10 players and made it to the NBA Finals last season, so you’ll see them on TNT and ESPN a lot. Because of the casual ignorance about Canada, the Raptors may have a harder time than most in attracting marquee free-agents, but if they start playing basketball in April, May, and June—instead of fishing—they will get far more exposure and will eventually become a more attractive destination.

In the past week the Raptors found themselves on American national television twice, in Brooklyn’s home opener and against the Thunder—both times the focus being overwhelmingly on their opponents, of course. And that’s probably the last time you’ll see the Raptors show-cased for such a large audience this year. Of course, it didn’t help their future prospects that they were comfortably beaten in both of those games.

But even as the rest of North America, and to be honest, much of Canada, ignores the Raptors—not helped by their 1-4 start—Raptors fans, and those in the know, realize that there are some things to be quietly optimistic about. It sounds like a cliché spewed out by a coach or general manager trying to deflect attention away from the failings of the team, but the Raptors have looked better than their record would suggest. They lost by two points to a tough Pacers side, and put up a good fight against a surprisingly resurgent Mavericks team on Wednesday.

But forget scores, records, and results for one second; the Raptors have been pretty darn fun to watch this year. That’s no substitute for winning basketball games, of course, but for a team that’s been both losing, and entirely forgettable for the past few years, being entertaining is more than simply a trite consolation.

The fact that the Raptors have been a very watchable team through the opening few games of the season, is largely thanks to one man: Kyle Lowry. If you haven’t seen Lowry play—and this is addressed to anyone who loves basketball but doesn’t watch the Raptors—do yourself a massive favour and check him out. Lowry is an exceptional talent. He’s a point-guard who can dish the basketball, create his own shot, penetrate, rebound (he’s only 6ft tall and he can rebound!) and steal the rock like it’s the most valuable thing on the planet. After witnessing Jose Calderon stroll up the court for the last few years, watching Lowry, a point-guard who loves to run and push the tempo, is like a breath of fresh air.

Lowry plays with an energy that’s infectious; an energy that appears to be rubbing off on his teammates. Just as importantly, he genuinely seems to give a shit. That last point may seem trivial, but for Raptors fans, who for 15 years have paid good money to watch certain high-profile stars saunter and sulk their way through games, it’s not something to be taken for granted. Lowry’s a baller, plain and simple.

Before he rolled his ankle stepping on Serge Ibaka’s foot—thankfully a low rather than high ankle sprain—Lowry was on an absolute tear. He’s averaging 18 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals per game. Of course, last year Lowry was playing at an all-star level for the Rockets before an injury derailed his season, and a feud with coach Kevin McHale/Daryl Morey’s master plan, made him expendable. For Bryan Colangelo, Lowry was meant to be the consolation prize—the backup plan after Steve Nash turned down Toronto’s advances—but without any hyperbole, Nash choosing the Lakers was better for the Raptors in the long run. Nash would’ve been fantastic from a promotional/marketing perspective, but Lowry is the better fit for the future. He’s young, with tremendous upside, and the potential to get even better, while his current contract is an absolute steal—$5 million this season, and $6 million next year.

If Lowry can return healthy and keep up his level of play this season, the Raptors could have an outside chance of sneaking into the playoffs—and turning a few American heads in the process. But eventually the Raptors are going to have to pay Lowry some big money, which makes the decision to lock themselves into a 4-year, $38 million deal with DeMar DeRozan even more puzzling. DeRozan, to his credit, has played well since he signed that contract, but it would’ve made far more sense for Colangelo to let him enter restricted free agency at the end of the season. DeRozan would be playing for a contract, which usually motivates players, and the Raptors would be able to decline or accept whatever offer he received on the free-market.

Colangelo has a reputation for rewarding the players drafted by the organization (see Andrea Bargnani’s bloated contract)—perhaps overcompensating for the fact that good free-agents don’t often choose Toronto—but the locking-up of DeRozan, a shooting-guard who’s an average shooter at best, and who doesn’t do a whole lot else, seems very risky. In-fact, with the drafting of swingman Terrence Ross, DeRozan appeared more expendable than ever at the start of the year.
The Raptors are thus committed to Bargnani, DeRozan, and Landry Fields (somewhat by accident) for the near future, but it’s Lowry that absolutely has to be the lynchpin of the franchise moving forward.

Hopefully in leading the team, Lowry will be joined by the rookie, Jonas Valanciunas. Despite his poor performance against the Mavericks—he’s a rookie so he’s bound to go missing once in a while—Valanciunas has shown signs that he can be the type of player that the Raptors desperately need going forward. Like Lowry, Valanciunas is defensively sound and brings a ton of energy to the table. He can block shots, rebound—essential playing with Bargnani in the frontcourt—and moves very well for a big man. With a little more refinement to his offensive game, and a season of adapting to the rigours of NBA basketball under his belt, Valanciunas could develop into a very solid NBA centre.

Ultimately Lowry and Valanciunas represent the future for the Raptors. The franchise needs to continue to draft well—remember, players have to play for you if you draft them, regardless of whether they like Canada—trade for the future, and scour the market for solid free-agents. They may not be successful in their quest to return to the playoffs this year, and they probably won’t attract free agents like LeBron James until they are, but there’s a good foundation in place for the future.

The centre and point-guard positions are the two most important in basketball, and with Valanciunas and Lowry, the Raptors have massive potential at both of those spots. There’s still going to be plenty of tough nights to come for the Raptors, but there is light at the end of that long tunnel. The rest of North America may not be watching, but with Kyle Lowry on the team, that’s quickly becoming their loss

 

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