The stage appeared to be set for the Toronto Raptors to break through this season and make it to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. Their nemesis, the Cleveland Cavaliers, struggled for much of the regular season. So much in fact that the blew up the roster at the trade deadline.
Since they still had LeBron James, they won a lot of games anyway. But it was clear that the Cavaliers had chemistry issues. They were not playing as a team should. It was LeBron James and whoever they put on the court with him.
It still wouldn’t be easy, but the door was open. With home-court advantage and a much more cohesive roster than the Cavaliers, they had a golden opportunity in front of them.
But once again, they couldn’t cash in. The Raptors were competitive in Games One and Three but were embarrassed in the other two—especially Game Four. Just like that, despite setting a franchise record for wins in a single season (59) and holding onto the No. 1 seed for much of the regular season, the year was over in the Conference Semifinals.
Cleveland has been responsible for Toronto’s playoff exit in each of the last three seasons. While the Cavaliers roster has changed dramatically over the years, it is fundamentally the same because they still have one guy: LeBron James.
James has owned the Raptors in the playoffs. Three years ago, he wasn’t as big of a factor with an average line of 26 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 6.7 assists in the six-game series. But the last two seasons, he has almost single-handedly doomed the Raptors playoff hopes.
Both seasons ended with the Cavs sweeping the Raptors. In those eight games, LeBron James scored less than 30 points just twice and had an average stat line of 35 points, 8.25 rebounds, and 8.25 assists.
There was some immediate speculation following the blowout loss to the Cavaliers in Game Four as to what the Raptors should do next. Clearly, with five consecutive playoff berths, they were doing something right under head coach Dwayne Casey. Year in and year out, they were one of the teams to beat in the Eastern Conference. There is something to be said for that.
But no one makes being one of the good teams a goal. That is basically what the Raptors had become under Casey— good, but not great.
Yes, the team had won four of the last five division titles. They won 50+ games in each of the last three seasons. Everything has been looking up for the Toronto Raptors. But a case could be made that there is a fundamental flaw in the system.
Making the playoffs in each of the last five seasons is a great accomplishment, but their record in those playoff games is 21-30.
When you get to the playoffs, you don’t have any soft opponents that can help you pad your win total. Every team that makes it is good. The best are the ones that make it to the NBA Finals. What makes them the best can vary. It could be because of superior coaching that gets the most out of every player on the roster. It could also be about star power. Ideally, it would be a combination of the two.
That leads to one question—what is it that the Raptors are missing?
The organization has made it clear that they hold Dwayne Casey at least partially to blame for their inability to beat the Cavaliers in the playoffs. Even though he had one year left on his contract, he has been fired.
According to local media reports, the decision to fire him centered on a perceived inability to make in-game adjustments, an inability to break from the norm and try new things, and that he was soft on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
Apparently, there are some within the organization who feel that both players need to be pushed out of their comfort zones a little more. There also appears to be some frustration over DeRozan not being held accountable for his defensive lapses.
With that in mind, it seems like getting the right coach is all they need to do. Then again, it wasn’t Casey’s fault the Raptors missed five shots in the last seven seconds of regulation in Game One, which would have secured a win.
It’s also not his fault Fred VanVleet missed a shot in overtime that could have secured a win in Game One. He wasn’t the one that allowed LeBron James to get off his circus shot of a buzzer beater that won Game Three.
The players failed to make plays. Does that mean some roster changes could be in order?
Next to the head coach, the blame must fall on the team’s stars, which in this case are Lowry and DeRozan. Neither were impressive during the latest series with the Cavaliers. Each had a game where they scored less than ten points. Neither averaged more than 18. Since they aren’t known for their rebounding or assists numbers, it’s hard to hold those against them.
But they are the stars, and they are supposed to score points—and neither did. So, why is Casey taking the blame and not them?
It could be because they performed like they normally do. DeRozan shot 45.6 percent from the floor during the regular season. Against the Cavs, he shot 43.5 percent. Lowry was a 42.7 percent shooter in the regular season; against the Cavs, he hit 57.1 percent of his shots.
They must not have taken as many then, right? Well—Lowry averaged 12.1 shots a game during the regular season; against the Cavs, he averaged 10.5. DeRozan averaged 17.7; against the Cavs, he averaged 16.5.
There’s a difference, but not enough of a difference to account for the outcome of the series.
DeRozan averaged around six points less a game (16.75 relative to 23), but Lowry beat his season average (17.75 relative to 16.2). Since they played close to how they did all season, can we blame them for the losses?
Time to blow it up?
Whoever becomes the next head new coach of the Raptors is going to face some tough calls. There is talent on the roster, good talent, but is it good enough to win? Yes, it is a little unfair that they can’t be just good enough to own the best record in the conference. They have to be good enough to beat LeBron James in a best-of-seven series.
The results speak for themselves—they are not good enough. That means the new head coach will have to convince the team to acquire another offensive weapon or somehow figure out how to get the current ones to play better.
Toronto’s current payroll ($116.9 million) ranks 13th in the NBA. If they want to stay under the luxury tax threshold, they will need to stay under $126 million. That doesn’t leave a ton of room to go after another scoring threat, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find one.
Cutting a few guys or trading for one could be an option as well.
It would be surprising if the team were to hire someone who tells them they need to spend more money on the roster. That means the next head coach is going to tie his/her future to the talents of Lowry and DeRozan. If that person can get more out of them, their job will be secure for years to come.
If not, when the front office blows the roster up in a few years, they will be hitting the unemployment line.