Though the last week of Raptors basketball has been a let-down, there are few reasonable minds who could turn losses to the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers into full-fledged panic. In the former, they ran into a buzzsaw by the name of Jimmy Butler, who scored 40 points in a half and broke a franchise record held by the greatest basketball player who ever lived. In the latter, played just 26 hours later, they went up against the best team in their conference, who, by the way, have LeBron James and a finally-healthy Kyrie Irving.
Though knee surgery to DeMarre Carroll obviously gives pause, there is little to gripe with when discussing the Raptors in the here and now. Their bench is starting to perform at a higher level, with Terrence Ross playing up to his extension and Patrick Patterson finally finding his stroke. Cory Joseph and Luis Scola have been diamonds in the rough, expanding on their existing games in meaningful ways. Jonas Valanciunas continues to play efficiently and he finally has a legitimate backup in Bismack Biyombo.
Most importantly, though, the team's two best players are playing career-best basketball. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have been individually great, but what's equally reassuring is their interpersonal relationship off the court. These guys genuinely like being around each other, with Lowry admitting on Zach Lowe's podcast last week that he sits next to DeRozan on the team plane, discussing the team, life, and whatever else friends do.
So when yesterday's Tim and Sid show on Sportsnet questioned the team's passion for defense, then compared DeRozan to "the modern day Rudy Gay", both Lowry and DeRozan were quick to react.
You can watch the full segment below (skip to 3:30 for the part in question).
The segment was in reaction to Casey's comments after Monday's loss, where he inferred that certain players were valuing offensive touches over defensive effort. Both Micallef and Seixero linked these comments to the Raptors' two best players and the structural problems they create, then diagnosed those problems by suggesting that the firing of Casey and/or trading of Lowry and DeRozan is imminent.
After making the DeRozan/Gay comparison, Micallef went on to say:
They're both [DeRozan and Lowry] All-Star calibre players who need to figure it out if they want to be winners.
Assuming they heard about and watched the segment together, Lowry and DeRozan responded within a few minutes of each other. Lowry's response is a bit of a subtweet, but it's timing couldn't refer to anything else.
Do the research before you speak... Lol— Kyle Lowry (@Klow7) January 6, 2016
DeRozan, on the other hand, was very direct in his since-deleted tweet.
I could be off base with Toronto's sentiment of this team. I'm sure there is a segment of Raptors fans who still feel like the team is fundamentally flawed, in both Dwane Casey's coaching and in the players they've built the team around. I'm sure there are those that broad-brush DeRozan as a me-first player, despite his career-best 4.1 assists per game and 21.3% assist percentage this season.
While those thoughts aren't necessarily valid, they obviously exist. In my mind, though, you can't watch this team as currently constructed and question their desire as a group. It's a team that's added new bodies, have had major injuries to two starters, but are still in the running for the Eastern Conference's two-seed. Lowry and DeRozan may not be thought of as elite talent, but they're two of the league's top 18 players in scoring and top 15 in win shares. For this team to even have conference title aspirations with the roster they have is impressive, and the will to improve as a unit on defense and share the basketball on offense is part of that. Have they perfectly figured it out? No, not even close. But we've seen the will to improve and, as pointed out above, the last two games are not hills to die on.
This conversation also brings up the idea of "championship talent" and the commonly-held belief that DeRozan and Lowry won't figure it out. The fact is, though, in today's NBA, you need existing talent to draw in more. Both players are laying the groundwork for Toronto's attractiveness to off-season free agents. The more these two improve and show they're willing to share the spotlight, the more blue chip free agents look at the Raptors as a viable place to win a title. Championship talent is incredibly difficult to acquire -- just a brief look at the NBA's history shows us that -- and blasting the two people who are most influential in drawing that talent in, even as they both improve in a team environment, seems like folly from this perspective.
Where do you fall on this, though? Are Seixero and Micallef starting the right conversation? Or are they as off-base as Lowry and DeRozan think they are?