It’s been weird, to say the least, seeing the onset of this year’s NBA preview content, from media sites hither and yon, and to catch nary a sight of the Toronto Raptors, the 2019 NBA champions. There are obvious reasons for this, of course. The main driver of that title win and the reigning Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, is now in Los Angeles, which suggests the Raptors as currently constituted, while still good, have no real shot at defending their title. They’ll likely make the playoffs, maybe even win a round, but the firepower they need to get back to the Finals and win it all is gone — and, as such, the Raptors are yesterday’s news.
I’m here to tell you though: that’s OK.
No, I haven’t turned into some moon-eyed Pollyanna on you (and this isn’t a classic Woodley-esque “It’s Fine” defense). It is indeed a shame the Raptors are due to slide back down the rankings of the Eastern Conference, a repeat title out of reach. And yet, I have a hard time getting mad about this outcome, mad about the lack of national or international coverage the Raptors are due to receive this season. I know the narrative in Toronto for so long has been “nobody cares about us!” and so a part of my mind always reverts back to it. (I ctrl-F-ed this column from the Ringer recently just to see if Toronto or the Raptors got much of a mention; they didn’t.) But that feeling has, in general, disappated from my sports fandom consciousness.
Obviously, watching the Raptors win the 2019 NBA title is the main reason why. Now and forevermore, we’ll be able to peer into the basketball history books and see our city’s name there. A feat that felt impossible as recently as two years ago actually happened. We ascended to the mountaintop. And while it may take years to get back there, it’s the emotional situation the fanbase now finds itself in, granting us all a new sense of freedom. We don’t have to get mad about the lack of respect or attention anymore. We don’t have to care about whether the Raptors will ever win a championship. They’ve done it. It’s done. Everything that happens now can be enjoyed for what it is: a basketball team trying its best to be, well, its best.
If we allow ourselves to view the coming season, or the next few, or even the vague notion of the endless future in front of us, through that lens, suddenly it all seems so joyful. There are questions to ask, of course, and uncertainty remains in certain quarters. A renewed sense of failure may even reappear. But part of the fun of 2019-20 will be in seeing how exactly it will work out. Will Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol continue their mind-meld with each other and the rest of the team? Will Pascal Siakam continue his ascent through the ranks of the league? Will OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, or Fred VanVleet find a new level of play? How will all the newcomers fit in with the squad? How will coach Nick Nurse juggle it all? And, with Masai Ujiri still at the helm, what could change in the next six months, a year, in 2021 and beyond? Much could go right or wrong, but there’s pleasure to be had in watching how it will play out. Especially now with the championship pressure decidedly off.
Circling back to that last question remains the surest source of optimism in Toronto — yes, beyond even Siakam’s show as the team’s undisputed number one option. Ujiri’s reign in Toronto has seen the franchise move from also-ran to perennial playoff team, right on up to champion. As is well-documented now, Masai was ready to tear the team apart back in 2013, but when things went a different way he was also ready to pivot in a new direction. In the process, Ujiri continued to place his bets well (for the most part), and find solutions to problems in both the short and long term. Over the past six years in Toronto, half of the team’s seasons have ended in disappointment, and yet there was always a way forward — even when that path emerged in total surprise, as with the DeMar DeRozan-for-Kawhi trade. That Masai was able to transition from tanking, to building (or re-building), to the highest level of competition in such a short time — and without bottoming out! — makes it easy to believe he and the Raptors could do it again.
So, take heart. There are reasons to stay optimistic in Toronto, both now and in the future. Who knows what the team will do on the court this season. And who knows what the offseason of 2020 and beyond will have in store. Now, I realize I definitely do sound like a moon-eyed Pollyanna but I also can’t help it. The Raptors are the 2019 NBA champions and that can never be taken away from them. Even after all the players from that specific squad move on, we’ll still be here.
In the mean time, Raptors Media Day is this Saturday, September 28th. It will kick off the team’s 25th season in the league, one that will open with a banner raising and a spirited defense of, well, the spirit of that title win. We already know how it will end in Toronto, but that too is a comfort. It means we can just enjoy the ride.