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Torontoist Roundtable: How Do You Solve a Problem Like The Raptors?

The Raptors are in the middle of a depressing losing streak. Who's to blame, and is there anything that can be done?

Periodically, things happen in Toronto that demand more than one perspective. Enter the Torontoist Roundtable.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/ontheleftside/2036413882/"}ontheleftside{/a}, from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/pool/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

CHRISTOPHER BIRD: As I write this, the Raptors have just lost to the Brooklyn Nets—a team that was itself on a five-game losing streak—by fourteen points. The Raptors are now a pitiful four-and-nineteen on the season. They’ve lost twelve of their last thirteen games. Were it not for the Washington Wizards generously losing on the same night, the Raptors would now be the worst team in the entire NBA. And remember, this was supposed to be a competitive season: Bryan Colangelo went looking for talent in the off-season and was very firm that this was going to be the Raptors’ year, and that we would contend for a playoff spot. (Sneaking in as the eighth seed might seem like a low bar for a “competitive season,” but this is a Toronto sports team we’re talking about here: the standards have never been lower.) At this point the playoffs seem nearly impossible: in order to even have a shot, the Raptors effectively have to win two out of every three games for the rest of the season. So: whose fault is this? And what do the Raptors do now?

CHRIS DART: There really is so much blame to go around here, but I think the bulk of it has to be laid at the feet of Bryan Colangelo. He came in with a reputation as a smart, shrewd executive, and while he’s made some brilliant moves, he also traded the pick that would become Roy Hibbert for Jermaine “No Knees” O’Neal, and more importantly refused to let go of the hope that Andrea Bargnani would turn into the next Dirk Nowitzki. More than any of his other draft picks, Bargnani was HIS guy, and he just refuses to acknowledge that you can’t build a team around a seven footer who refuses to rebound. He’s also sabotaged (whether intentionally or not) his own hand-picked head coach, by selecting a coach known for his defensive acumen, and then sticking him with Bargnani, who just doesn’t care about defense, and Jose Calderon, who, in spite of his best efforts, manages to make every opposing point guard look like John Stockton.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yup, Colangelo has to fall on his sword for most of this mess. It’s not as if the 2006 draft with Bargnani had the most talent or anything, but would the Raptors be better off if they had taken LaMarcus Aldridge instead? In hindsight, probably. First overall draft picks have a way of defining general managers, and this one has certainly helped to tarnish the reputation he had built with the Suns. It seems so long ago now that he was named Executive Of The Year. That was in 2007, when the team won the division. There was so much hope then. What everyone needed this past off-season was a reason to get excited again. Signing Kyle Lowry has produced some flashes of greatness, sure, but if Colangelo had managed to actually put together a deal that brought Steve Nash to Canada, there’s no doubt it would have created the kind of buzz in the city that we hadn’t felt in years.

CHRISTOPHER BIRD: Actually, I have to disagree with you there, Kevin. The problem with Colangelo’s entire reign as GM is that he has always gone for “win now” rather than “rebuild,” and that he doesn’t know how to “win now” anyway. He didn’t trade Chris Bosh when everybody knew Bosh was going to jump to Miami because Colangelo made himself believe that he could re-sign Bosh. He overspends on average players (Bargnani, Landry Fields, Hedo Turkoglu—the list goes on and on), because he convinces himself that if he does, somehow he’ll get stars: either the money he spends will turn them into better players or star players will see that Colangelo is willing to throw money around. But he’s been doing this for seven years and it hasn’t worked yet. God, what if he had succeeded in getting Steve Nash? We’d have used up all of our salary cap space on an ancient point guard who has been injured for essentially the entire season. No: I think if the Raptors are going to be successful, he has to do it through trades or drafting. So brainstorm for me: how do we trade/draft our way to a competitive team (even over a couple of seasons)?

CHRIS DART: Yeah, Steve Nash would have been a deathblow. The first thing they do is fire the GM. After that, Bargnani has to go. And I think we should be really, really realistic about what that’s going to look like. They’re not going to get anything good for him, so they have to manage expectations a little. If they can just get a player with a shorter contract, I’m sold there. Jose Calderon, on the other hand, does have value, as his deal is expiring. I feel like they should be able to leverage that into a mid-first round pick. From there, they can suck enough to get a top-three pick. (I’m currently working on a name for this year’s “Tank Nation” bandwagon. I’m down to “To the Cellar for Zellar,” or “Less Wins for Nerlens.”)

Then in the off-season they move Kyle Lowry—because there’s no goddamn way he’s re-signing here, and if he is, we don’t want him—ideally for a 2014 pick and a small forward, and amnesty either Linas Kleiza or Amir. (I’m thinking the small forward in this case would be Danny Granger, who expires in 2014 anyway.) With the two 2013 picks, they go best player available, probably Shabazz Muhammad, then try to nab a point guard with the second, ideally CJ McCollum, because there’s no way a guy who plays in the Patriot League is a lottery pick. I’m just not buying it. The new GM will probably fire Dwayne Casey, which sucks because I like him, but that’s life. They should replace him with Mike Brown. Now, we’re looking at one season of intense pain—this one—and then a core of DeMar, Jonas, Ed Davis, Terrance Ross, Shabazz Muhammad and CJ McCollum, plus the veteran leadership of Danny Granger, Mike Brown as coach and a pick to replace the one they gave up to get Lowry in the first place.

KEVIN SCOTT: It’s not that a move to land Nash would have made any real sense in the bigger picture, though I am sure Lakers fans will tell you it certainly helps if said ancient free-agent acquisition can actually stay healthy (thumbs up in your direction, Peyton Manning). It’s more that casual fans like myself who aren’t able to provide any real insight into which of those draft picks has the most potential upside are getting increasingly frustrated and—let’s face it—a little bored by the kinds of teams being assembled each year. At least when we had marquee names like Vince Carter, Chris Bosh, or even Damon Stoudemire, there was a sense of having one player the fanbase could rally around. They could say, “At least we have that guy.” It always felt then as if the front office was no more than a few moves away from putting the winning pieces together. That’s why staring down the barrel of an overhaul is so disheartening. It doesn’t help that free agents now seem increasingly wary of considering Toronto as an option given our track record. Should we just acquiesce to Vince Carter’s suggestion that he might return or does that feel too much like some sort of devious ruse where he comes back only to figuratively (or perhaps literally) douse us in pig’s blood a la Carrie?

CHRISTOPHER BIRD: Not Carter. Vince Carter may have reached the point where Toronto fans might only want to secretly murder him in the dead of night rather than stage an open sacrifice in the Air Canada Centre, but he’s still Vince Carter. More importantly, he’s Vince Carter of 2012 (a capable sixth man) rather than in-his-prime-superstar Vince Carter, which is what Toronto fans crave. Besides, we’re not going to get a superstar by spending money on a free agent anyway, because NBA players are wary of Toronto—both because of its losing stigma and because the city itself has gained a reputation for being a bad place to live during the season (cold and wet, not exciting like New York). That latter is honestly kind of unfair, because Toronto doesn’t have any climate issues or lack of excitement that, say Chicago doesn’t have (e.g. yes, it’s cold and wet in the winter, but it’s a fun place), but then again the Bulls have six championships and we don’t. So we draft or we trade.

I tend to be sympathetic to the idea of tanking, but I am mindful both of casual fans’ reaction and also the potential interference by the NBA itself in any trade we might make that is too obviously a tank trade. (Example: we trade Lowry to Orlando for injured Al Harrington and multiple draft picks. Works for both teams, but for us it’s too obviously a tank move and would have a good chance of being vetoed by David Stern.) I agree with Dart that a rebuild will need multiple picks. The problem, though, is that 2013 is a fairly thin draft year. Dart mentioned basically everybody who justifies tanking, and that’s a short list. Toronto needs to pick sure things, not make-work projects like Terrence Ross.

2014, though—2014 is an insane draft year, and I think the Raptors need to focus on it. Mostly this is because of Andrew Wiggins, who is—say it with me now—Canadian, and also heralded as either the next Lebron or the next Kevin Durant depending on who’s doing the heralding that week. A superstar-level player who’s also from Thornhill should be a no-brainer. The Raptors want a superstar brand? There you go: “Maple Jordan.” (It’s an awful nickname but unfortunately Vince took “Air Canada.”) The problem with this plan, though, is that everybody else wants Wiggins too, even though the 2014 class has multiple other players on or near his level. The second problem is that draft picks are NBA trading gold, and we’re not going to be able to offload Calderon straight-up for a pick because half a season of Calderon is not worth a first-round pick. And the third problem is what Kevin identified: we can’t be sure that casual fans be willing to wait to see if the Wiggins game plan pans out.

KEVIN SCOTT: Sorry if I’m messing up the rotation, but it seemed like my cue to jump in here. Realistically, we’ve reached a point where it becomes awfully hard for the casual fan to care any less, really. As far a rebuilding process goes, look: the Raptors have invested in high-profile players before—the Carters and the Boshes. They come through town, establish names for themselves, then leave with barely a note on the pillow. So fans are forced to settle for proverbial Milhouses in Bargnani and Calderon, players that are devoted enough to the cause, but inherently limited in ability. It’s going to take some time before casual fans are ready to fully commit to another bright young prospect.

That said, the Wiggins plan would appear to be a slam dunk (sorry), at least on paper. Is this a situation, then, where the team’s best option is really to experiment with a long-term tank plan (The LTT, or Super Tank, are possible catchy nicknames to consider) to be sure we can nab him? If that’s the case, it might be a good idea to try and latch on to some crucial piece of temporary deadweight to ensure failure. Maybe Lamar Odom. Or can they convince Hakeem Olajuwon to come out of retirement? A lot can happen in the time before the 2014 draft, so it would seem foolish to put all of the team’s eggs in that one basket. But if Wiggins should become a Toronto Raptor, it will instantly make an entire nation full of people who previously had no interest in the sport take notice.

What really seems to be lacking at the moment from this team—and maybe from every Raptors team in the history of the franchise—is a killer instinct. It’s evident in the way they lose so many overtime games and consistently blow halftime leads. After a while, a sports team starts to carry this stench of failure, the way the Cleveland Browns do in football, the Chicago Cubs in baseball, and our Leafs in hockey. It’s the kind of culture that perpetuates losing, accepts it as if the alternative was never to be expected anyway. It’s important that the Raptors shake this reputation, if only so they won’t be limited in luring players to town. Also, the fans aren’t as resilient as Leafs die-hards. They won’t keep showing up just because there’s a game to be played.

CHRIS DART: First of all, don’t get me started on David Stern. I have a huge hate-on for that man. Secondly, I think a trade would have to be a lot more flagrant than Harrington and picks for Lowry to get vetoed. It would have to be something ridiculous, like Aaron Williams, Eric Williams, the remains of Alonzo Mourning and two crappy picks for an in-his-prime Vince Carter. (Wait a second…) Also, just so we’re clear, the trades I just proposed are just me spitballing. I haven’t really thought them out in depth. They were just things I tossed out there to give folks an idea of the level of tear-down and rebuild this team needs. Also, I feel like Calderon’s expiring deal is worth something, even if he’s not.

The thing about “casual fans” is that by definition they come and go. The team has an unusually high number of them right now because the Leafs are locked out, but generally speaking, there aren’t a ton of casual Raptors fans. You’re either into them, or you’re only vaguely aware of their existence. They’ve been too crappy for too long to have casual fans. Every time Bryan Colangelo came out and told the fans this team was a Hedo Turkoglu or a Shawn Marion or a Jermaine O’Neal away from contention, he lied. That said, they also haven’t been quite bad enough to get a really transformative pick. They’ve just sort of limped along, consistently just missing the playoffs and consistently getting late lotto picks. As a result, they have two genuine NBA quality starters in DeRozan and Lowry, two more players that could turn into legit starters in Davis and Valanciunas, and a handful of decent rotational players. Let’s get off the treadmill. Let’s have a fire sale and start from zero.

CHRISTOPHER BIRD: I think you’re overrating DeRozan a bit (as opposed to Bryan Colangelo, who overrated him a lot). He’s still inconsistent. Maybe not Bargnani-level inconsistent, but he’s not NBA starter level yet, except by the lowered Toronto standard. I like DeRozan, because he hustles all the time and because as a Toronto fan I am obligated to love a player who hustles, but hustling cannot make up for a lack of talent. DeRozan, while not untalented, is also probably not going to develop into a Rajon-Rondo-like “five years later he’s a star and nobody expected that at the beginning.” He could surprise me and have a higher ceiling than I expect, and I truly hope he does. But if he doesn’t, it’ll just be the latest in a long line of athletes who fit into the Toronto-fan mold of “we like him because he’s a hard worker so who cares how good he is.” That’s the attitude that lets the Maple Leafs put shitty teams on the ice every year so long as they put a few Domi-style grinders out there, and it’s one area where the fans truly are to blame, and it’s at least partly the reason Colangelo can get away with giving DeRozan $10 million a season for four years when DeRozan hasn’t earned it yet (to put it mildly).

And that brings us back to Colangelo. Here’s the thing: on an individual level most of his decisions aren’t truly bad or stupid except in 20/20 hindsight. Trading for Jermaine O’Neal could have worked out great if O’Neal hadn’t broken down almost immediately. A lot of people thought signing Turkoglu was a good idea. Trying to keep Bosh, picking Bargnani over LaMarcus Aldridge, signing Landry Fields in order to get either Steve Nash or Jeremy Lin to sign here—individually, none of these is a firing offense, and many of them are at least defensible. But the thing about sports is that nobody is unlucky all the time, and when someone has had as many unlucky moments as Colangelo, there’s something more than luck playing a part.

CHRIS DART: Wow, DeMar isn’t even an NBA starter in your mind? Damn. That’s harsh. I think on a good team he’s a solid third option. Anyway, yes. My core point is that as bad as this team is, they’ve never been bad enough to get better. They keep limping on with the lie that they’re a player or two away from “competing.” (So we’re clear, “competing” in this context doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to compete for the championship, just that they’ll be able to make games competitive, instead of an instant “W” for the opposition.)

That lie needs to be put to bed, and its primary perpetrator, Bryan Colangelo, needs to be removed from the GM’s chair immediately. The apathetic, defensively-challenged, rebounding-averse symbol of his regime, Andrea Bargnani, needs to be traded for whatever we can get, or barring that, deported back to Italy. Then, they need somebody to come in and tear this thing down to the ground. It’s not like a terrible season will kill the franchise. They’re already having a terrible season, and they’ve been having terrible seasons since the franchise was founded. Even when they were “good,” during the Vince Carter era, they were actually just slightly better than average. All I’m asking for is a controlled burn. No more building a team with the goal of sneaking into the eighth playoff spot, no more bringing in aging veterans as window dressing. Let’s blow this sucker up and start over.

KEVIN SCOTT: As much as the notion feels painfully familiar, it does seem like blowing this team up again would probably the best bet at this point. The idea of Colangelo being the guy behind another rebuilding, though, is a ludicrous one. Even as being he’s dragged away, I’m sure Colangelo will be yelling, “Just give me one more chance! I swear I’ve figured it out this time!” I’m sorry, Bryan, but you only get so many chances to build this house. As Bird said, after this many attempts, it can no longer be chalked up to luck or, even if it could, it doesn’t matter. These are sports we’re talking about here, and the only way to gauge success or failure is by the win-loss column. There can never be excuses.

Which brings us to the universal truth of the matter: winning has a way of solving nearly everything here. If they start putting together a couple of worthwhile seasons (and I recognize this might be a few years from now), those same players who wanted nothing to do with this mess will suddenly be interested in being part of a franchise on the upswing. Dart’s point about the Raptors not having any more casual fans is valid, too. There are two camps here: the loyal die-hards who will root for the team no matter what and an increasingly apathetic group whose interest wanes with each losing year. The latter group is not entirely lost, though. Many of them were once faithful supporters. Now they’re just waiting for a reason to return to the ACC, for a team worth cheering for. People will come, Ray—I mean Chris and Christopher—people will most definitely come…

CORRECTION: December 14, 2012, 5:20 P.M. This post originally contained the following parenthetical sentence: “I’m currently working on a name for this year’s ‘Tank Nation’ bandwagon. I’m down to ‘Bomb It for Muhammad,’ ‘To the Cellar for Zellar,’ or ‘Less Wins for Nerlens.’” It has since been pointed out to us that “Bomb it for Muhammad” (which was also repeated a second time, later in the article) can be construed in an offensive—and completely unintended—way. That phrase has been removed from the post. We apologize.

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