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Will we ever get an answer on whether the current Raptors are good or bad?

The Raptors started the season strong, rallied through injury, and then started falling apart. Which version of the team is it possible to believe in as they defend their championship?

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NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard’s first visit to Toronto since winning the 2019 NBA championship with the Raptors was an emotional night. How could it not be? In less than a year, Kawhi landed in the city, remade the basketball team in his image, won the title, and then dipped. Ever since, we Raptors fans have been picking up the pieces of what was left behind, a legacy that includes astounding once-in-a-lifetime memories — but also a sizable hole. Much like seemingly everything else about Kawhi, it’s a complicated and mysterious situation filled with feelings that are not always easy to reconcile.

So yes, emotions were running high. Here at HQ, our editor Sean Woodley helped cover the game with me last night — his superb recap is here — and afterwards had an opinion or two about the post-game column from the Globe and Mail’s Cathal Kelly.

The offending words in question are here. They paint a picture that is not entirely unfair, even if — as is typical of Kelly’s shotgun blast columns — the finished work is unflattering to the Raptors, and by extension the city of Toronto itself, his favourite target. In other words, Kelly is dissing us once again. (The last bit Woodley mentions there is directed at Yahoo’s ridiculous decision to lay-off a few extremely talented employees, people who did nothing to deserve such an outcome, their names seemingly drawn at random to satisfy some draconian corporate bottomline.)

Now, full disclosure: I enjoy Cathal as a writer and person. I thought his book was a fun read too. (It was a singular delight to tell him I had gotten it from the library rather than a book store.) He’s one of the few Toronto scribes who regularly cuts through the bullshit sold to us by management and other interested business parties. He’s a bit of a troll — or, if you’re feeling generous, a cynic in the classical sense — but I believe his heart is in the right place. If nothing else, Kelly can usually be found punching up at our corporate overlords, rather than at, say, the players. (Compare his approach to, oh I don’t know, rhymes with Beve Bimmons.)

Still, Kelly’s cynicism is a lot to take. Woodley is not wrong to be ticked off that every time the Raptors want to celebrate their momentuous 2019 title achievement, there’s Cathal ready to throw a bucket of cold water. It runs directly counter to Sean’s governing “It’s Fine” ethos which preaches a Zen-like approach to whatever befalls the Raptors. In this case, of course, Kelly’s words are particularly galling because giving a ring to and having a ceremony for Kawhi Leonard is the definition of It’s Fine. We were all looking forward to it. Yes, even though the Raptors then went out and got destroyed by Kawhi’s new team, the Los Angeles Clippers.

What’s fascinating though is that while Kelly’s brand of nihilistic, none-of-this-really-matters writing appears to stand at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from Woodley’s “It’s Fine” approach, both are born in the same place. The two viewpoints are constantly reminding us of the bigger picture, the larger forces at work, the longer arc we have to keep in mind at all times. Woodley would (and did!) say a bad performance like last night is an aberration, while Kelly would imply that a good one is actually meaningless. Not to invoke Schrodinger’s cat here, but this may be why watching the Raptors right now post-Kawhi — particularly if this recent swoon continues — can feel so confusing, or even frustrating at times. It’s akin to emotional whiplash, or to put it a different way: If these post-title Raptors are good, how can they be bad at the same time?

So then, what’s the solution? Unfortunately, there isn’t one. I do think Sean’s “It’s Fine” panacea sometimes goes too far in providing a convenient catch-all for all the problems with the Raptors — be they real or not. The team is clearly in need of something, even if it is somewhat hard to diagnose what exactly that something is (or, as is more likely the case for now, impossible to actually acquire). Meanwhile, buying into Cathal’s worldview requires a certain detachment from, well, anything and everything. It’s not wrong to question things, of course, but that doesn’t mean we have to jump into the barrel with Diogenes. Instead, let’s recall that it feels healthy to invest sometimes, to embrace joy, to love something from afar — even if it’s impossible to confirm the return of that love.

I’m given no choice then but to propose a third way. Along this path, we acknowledge that not everything will be fine. The Raptors could continue to miss way too many open shots, could get hurt, could continue to lose more games in unhappy fashion — maybe not more than they win, but enough to rankle. In this scenario, we have to admit that the high of 2019 will likely not be recreated in 2020. We will indeed be reminded of defeat, that old Toronto companion, once again. There’s just no fine way to put that. It sucks.

But also, and this is key, all is not lost. The Raptors will continue to work, and struggle, and insist that they have a shot at glory. They have to do that, and we in turn don’t have to give up completely. Not even failure can kill that collective belief. If Kawhi’s brief time in Toronto taught us anything, it’s that. We have to just carry on to the next one.