Change in the NBA seems impossible until it isn’t. Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook were supposed to dominate a decade in Oklahoma City; Derrick Rose’s Bulls and the Miami Big 3 were meant to duke it out for the right to be the Thunder’s annual foil. Fragility — of teams’ ties players, of roster construction in a luxury tax world, and of knee ligaments — brought those burgeoning dynasties to the ground prematurely. From the rubble arose the Warriors, probably the best team ever assembled, and the Cavaliers, a team that has forced every team in the Eastern Conference to confront the same question: is it worth it to even try?
Aside from the Atlanta Hawks, no East team has been forced to consider this question more intensely than the Toronto Raptors. After a fourth-straight season in which the Raptors were good but clearly not good enough, this summer presented a fork in the road to Masai Ujiri and his management team. With core pieces entering free agency, and a stable full of young players occupying the back end of the roster, a pivot towards the lottery was on the table. Considering how far ahead of Toronto the Cavs proved themselves to be in May, a step back in the hopes of long-term top-tier contention was an attractive option for some Raptors fans.
We know now that the Raptors opted not for the strip down, but rather to invest in a three-year window of fringe contention. A Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and DeMar DeRozan core is good, enviable in the eyes of more than half of the league’s franchises. A legitimate threat to unseat a fully-powered Cavs team? Almost definitely not.
Over the next three years, Toronto’s path to higher success is going to have to come as a byproduct of NBA weirdness. It’s a tenuous gamble to be sure. If the Cavs monolith stands as strongly as it has for the last three years, the Raptors will enter their inevitable rebuild in the summer of 2020 with little more than some extra playoff shortfalls added to their resumé. For those who view their favourite team through a title or bust lens, that will surely disappoint.
As it turns out, betting on change in the NBA power structure is about as smart a bet as can be made. Friday afternoon’s report from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst suggests the deconstruction of the three-time reigning Eastern Conference champs might come earlier than expected. According to Windhorst, Kyrie Irving wants to be traded, with the Heat, Knicks, Spurs and Wolves highlighted as his preferred destinations.
The ramifications of this latest bit of Cleveland drama are still unclear. With cap space around the league almost entirely locked up, finding a partner — or partners — for an Irving deal won’t be a lickity-split process for new Cavs general manager Koby Altman. There’s certainly no guarantee Irving’s request will be obliged by the time the season begins.
If a deal does transpire, the LeBron-led Cavs would still be clear favourites to win the East once again, regardless of the return for Irving. LeBron kicking the East’s collective ass is one of the few things you can actually count on from year to year in this league.
But the situation in Cleveland that might have inspired Irving’s recent change of heart could very well bring James’ insane run of East dominance to an end soon, too.
Say the rumours of an Irving for Carmelo Anthony deal come true. Cleveland would probably be a worse overall team with Melo assuming Kyrie’s role as the Cavs’ second offensive option. And they’d certainly be more prone to death by Warriors in a Finals series given the defensive questions a James-Anthony-Kevin Love front court might present. Maybe Dwyane Wade gets bought out and signs in Cleveland to comprise three-fourths of a Banana Boat crew, and it’s enough to keep LeBron in Cleveland long term. If that’s the case, then the Raptors status in the East will remain the same barring some catastrophic injury, even though that hypothetical version the Cavs would appear to be a slightly less daunting foe.
Even if Irving does stay, there are no assurances that LeBron will extend his stay at home beyond next season. Without major changes to the roster, Cleveland seems destined to fall to 1-3 in Finals against Golden State, leaving the franchise confronting a similar existential conundrum as LeBron’s inferiors in the East have for the last seven years. With the damning smoke that has billowed out of Cleveland for the last two months, and the odds of bringing another ring to his hometown stacked against him, it seems entirely possible that 2017-18 will be the last season in which LeBron wants to live under Dan Gilbert’s greasy thumb.
I don't know what affected Kyrie's decision and what didn't— Carter Rodríguez (@Carter_Shade) July 21, 2017
But my feeling is that this probably wouldn't happen in a healthy organization
A LeBron departure to somewhere out West (as has been rumoured for months) would be the exact kind of NBA weirdness the Raptors are built to capitalize on. Being a sub-contender isn’t the ideal tier for a franchise to occupy. But hanging around in position to move up a class by default was the main argument for keeping the obviously flawed Lowry/DeRozan Raptors together for a few more kicks at the can.
Had the Raptors opted to take a voluntary step back, an early deconstruction of the Cavs would mark a massive opportunity lost for the organization. Yes, teams like Boston, Milwaukee and Washington still exist. But none of them carry the same air of inevitability that Cleveland did. For the last three years, Raptors fans and NBA neutrals alike have spent regular seasons talking themselves in the East being “wide open” at the first sign of trouble in Cleveland. In a years’ time, that might actually be true for the first time in ages. Toronto’s off-season ensures the Raptors will be in the conversation to push through an East in which LeBron doesn’t play for the Cavs.
That is, of course, if he doesn’t sign with Heat again.