NBA teams, like those in all professional sports leagues, will always — theoretically, if not in practice — head to where the wins are. If success is found in three-point shooting and positional flexibility, well then every team will gradually drift in that direction. It’s not an exact science, but as we watch more and more teams employ players with specific skill sets, while discarding those without, a pattern emerges.
But then there’s always a team that finds unlikely success going in the other direction.
The last team to effectively do this was the Memphis Grizzlies, circa two to four years ago. The Grit ‘n Grind Grizz worked to force teams into their style of play even as the league glided faster and faster away from them. The team still retains some of that old identity — war horses Zach Randolph and Tony Allen wheel on — but management has given Marc Gasol the greenlight to shoot 3s and begun to adjust the team’s style and pace somewhat to match the new tenor of the NBA. There’s nothing wrong with this, by the way — teams want to win at any cost — but there was something undeniably fun and lovable about the way the Grizzlies embraced going against the grain. Basketball fans far and wide appreciated it.
With that, if you’ll permit me: I contend the Raptors are next in line for the mantle of most lovable throwback team. As friend of the site Will Lou pointed out, they should be embraced as a breaker of convention, a team that finds a way to win despite not quite having the personnel to do it in the ways dictated by the modern NBA. (Caveat: this is not to say the Raptors are completely bereft of “modern NBA” elements — e.g. Kyle Lowry shooting the gotdamn lights out.) While the Raptors are not the number one team in the league, they have all the pieces in place to be, yes, number one in the hearts of basketball fans.
The obvious starting point here is DeMar DeRozan, the king of the midrange. Since before this season even started, before he even re-signed with the Raptors, there was chatter as to how good a team could possibly get with DeRozan as its leading scorer. He’s a shooting guard that doesn’t operate with a peak shooting range, which is anathema to the modern game. When DeRozan began the season posting 30-plus point games over and over again, it was thought to be unsustainable, impossible. But hello what’s this: it keeps happening.
Instead of forcing his game to fit the trends of the NBA, DeRozan has doubled down on the skills that have made him elite. To watch him work into his spots on the floor, dance his feet into an impossible sequence of pivots, and then use his pump fake to send defenders flying every which way, is a treat. In a league where the two-guard position is becoming defined by three-point bombers or one-dimensional ball hawks, DeRozan delights in a wholly singular way. There is pleasure to be found in that.
Now let’s shift the conversation from the aesthetic of numbers to one of narrative. The idea of the Raptors as outsiders is nothing new and I won’t rehash it here. I know how the fans feel about the perception of Toronto and the Raptors by the NBA and world at large. (It was actually Will who had concerns over the “please like my team” perceptions of this column.) If it’s not clear by now, we’re trying to highlight how the Raptors can be appreciated in a different way. The team has an outsider identity, sure, but one that is easy to root for in a wider context.
Case in point: The Raptors employ a bunch of players who have had to fight and claw for their spot in the NBA. It struck me as I read Eric Koreen’s piece on the Athletic about Norman Powell that there are a lot of dudes that fill this role in Toronto.
To begin with, Powell, a four year collegiate player, is a second round pick. DeMarre Carroll was picked 27th and spent a half decade of his career wandering the NBA wilderness before finding a place in Atlanta and then Toronto. Patrick Patterson has been traded multiple times in his young career, despite being a consummate pro and teammate, and is now consistently among the plus/minus leaders in the league. And of course Kyle Lowry moved through two teams before arriving in Toronto. In that time Lowry always found himself (angrily) behind one or two other players before becoming the all-star he felt he was meant to be. The Raptors have the underdog story down pat. (And this is without mentioning their most recent 27th pick Pascal Siakam and his remarkable journey to the NBA.)
I’ll end on a note of humour. The lynchpin to these “lovable outsider” teams is usually some throwback player, a dude with an odd personality or a game that marks him as something off-trend. (Again I think of Tony Allen in this instance.) The Raptors have that in one man: Jonas Valanciunas.
First, JV is slowly finding his game to be something of a relic in the modern NBA. He’s a tad too plodding — in both footspeed and awareness — to be a centre of the future. (Our man Harsh Dave refers to him, lovingly[???], as Baby Ostertag.) And yet, when Valanciunas gets cooking, when every rebound seems to come his way and his hookshot looks unstoppable (to say nothing of his signature pump fake), the Raptors undeniably move to another level. It wasn’t so long ago we lamented Valanciunas’ absence in the second round of the playoffs after some dominating performances.
Add to this an off-court profile that finds Jonas as one of the more reliably silly members of the team — equipped with cutting one-liners, impressions, prop comedy, and now a fresh batch of goofy-ass commercials to his name — and it’s hard not to find something to love here. It truly is a shame the cameras don’t usually capture this particular side of JV. While the ultimate ceiling of the Raptors will be determined by Lowry and DeRozan, it is Jonas who provides some of the team’s wildcard energy.
When you put all of these ingredients onto one team, under the stewardship of one of the finest (if not the finest) team president in sports in Masai Ujiri, driven by the guidance of Dwane Casey and his surplus of folksy sayings, supported by one of the more vocal fanbases in the league, the Raptors truly become something special.
Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone immediately falls in love with the Raptors. You’ve got your team, and I’ve got mine. But as most teams push further and further out in one direction, maybe the Raptors will be due for a reappraisal and an appreciation. Maybe they’ll becoming something of a darling team, one that can be enjoyed beyond their station purely for being, in their own way, one of a kind.