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For a successful future, the Toronto Raptors must look to the past

Like it or not, the Raptors are now in a transitional season. As they look to resolve their future, an answer for sustained success may actually be in their past.

Toronto Raptors open the season against the New Orleans Pelicans with a 130-122 overtime win Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Everything changed for the Toronto Raptors in the summer of 2018. The team was, once again, forced to confront the unfortunate reality that their consistent regular season success, savvy front office maneuvering, and team unity once again meant very little up against LeBron James’ generational talent. For the fifth straight year, the Raptors were in the playoffs, and for the fifth straight year, they were not good enough.

On July 18th of that year, however, the Board Man was acquired. Then, in the sixth consecutive year the Raptors made the playoffs, they were indeed good enough. Cue the parade.

In the NBA, team building philosophy is often made out to be awfully simplistic — if you have a star, do all you can to win while you have him. If not, do all you can to get one.

There are precious few franchises that have the location, history, and prestige to lure stars in free agency. The rest of the league must get creative. In recent years, asset acquisition has been the most popular method of mining superstar talent. Provided you have the stomach to endure years of losing, a team can, theoretically, eventually acquire enough draft capital and young talent to either (a) find a star with those picks or (b) flip a package of these accumulated assets for a star.

Had the Raptors, a team not considered a free agent destination, subscribed to that school of thought, the franchise would remain without a title.

Today, the team looks increasingly dissimilar to the one that won the NBA championship in 2019. In fact, their position much more resembles the 2017-18 Raptors. To get back to the highs of the 2019, the Raptors must use the past as a blueprint for the future.

Like the Raptors of the Lowry-DeRozan era, the team going into the 2020-21 season is good, but not great. With their basketball IQ, coaching, and night-to-night effort, they will shine in the regular season. It is likely they will have moments that suggest they could compete for an NBA title, but, like in 2018 and the four years preceding it, Toronto will lack the top-end talent that is a requirement for postseason glory.

By 2018, it felt as if the Raptors had run head-first into a brick wall five straight times and were gearing up for another go before Kawhi Leonard offered the team a hammer and chisel.

This year does not share the same inevitable despair. Pascal Siakam provides more for a basketball team than DeMar DeRozan, the face of the almost-good-enough Raptors, ever did. Siakam is also still improving, and he is surrounded by a versatile roster befitting of the modern NBA.

Everything the Raptors did well before 2019 — late-round drafting, player development, and the creation of a winning culture — was seen by the NBA community as something between cute and misguided valour. With a title, those qualities are now viewed as the foundation of a marquee, championship-level franchise, and they carry that into this season.

Additionally, the faith in Toronto’s leadership triumvirate of Masai Ujiri, Nick Nurse, and Bobby Webster is unwavering. A great coach is both a clever chess master strategically and an adept manager of egos — Nurse checks both boxes. Ujiri is revered like a deity. The sacred texts of Toronto sports will remember the flipping of Andrea Bargnani for a first-round pick and two seconds as a more impressive miracle than the flipping of water into wine.

Nonetheless, the song remains the same today as it did in 2018 – the Raptors need the star to put everything together. Since last summer, Toronto has had its eyes on a particular Greek star.

Just last week, Raptors fans had briefly given up hope of acquiring Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Milwaukee Bucks had obtained Jrue Holiday and Bogdan Bogdanovic and looked primed for a title run. The Bogdanovic deal, however, fell through and the Bucks front office was left looking incompetent. Hope in Toronto was revitalized.

The faces and scenarios may change, but unless Giannis signs the supermax with the Bucks before the regular season, this cycle will perpetuate until next summer. He’ll be coming for sure, and then he won’t be again, and so on. Fans will parse every word, read into body language, and overanalyze Giannis’ actions looking for clues.

The fact is that it is far more likely that Antetokounmpo signs a contract south of the 49th parallel that he does north of it. As a result, Giannis or bust simply cannot be the answer.

A shrewd front office, such as that of the Raptors, does not rest their hopes on free agency. Remember that the team spent five consecutive years in the playoffs without swinging for the fences, instead hitting singles and doubles and putting guys on base in position to score. Those singles and doubles came in the form of the player development successes like Fred VanVleet and Siakam. They came in the form of the deals that acquired Serge Ibaka or P.J. Tucker, for example, which made the team better in the moment but did not mortgage future success via an ill-advised move.

It was all about being in position and staying prepared. Masai and Bobby are big-game hunting, and that requires patience. Through the Lowry-DeRozan era, they staked out their knoll and waited. Even as potential kills trotted by, they did not make sudden movements or act impulsively to give up their spot. No, they waited until the prize emerged, and they were ready to strike. This time, they have their sights set on a great Buck. That said, should they miss and the summer of 2021 bear no fruit, they will stay patient and competitive, in position as they once were.

To many, for a team like the Raptors — a team in the middle — the path of Sam Hinkie, that of tanking and asset acquisition, is the obvious way to be a title team once again. It is the path Sam Presti has begun with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Some voices outside of Toronto have even theorized about trading Siakam or other key pieces and moving into a rebuild. That is malarkey.

The Toronto Raptors can follow an alternative pathway — the one that they carved out for themselves two years ago. That position has been called the “treadmill of mediocrity,” as it was suggested that, for all their effort, teams in the spot that the Raptors were once in would not actually go anywhere. Calling them mediocre, considering their playoff success, is far too harsh for that position. Instead of the treadmill of mediocrity, I move that we refer to those teams as being on the “Peloton of pretty good.”

Over the past decade, the Peloton has yielded one (1) more title than the Process and related undertakings.

Theoretically, the tank makes sense. Eventually it would have to work, right? Well, maybe, but it also comes at a significant price, a price that can have ramifications even when you have the talent that you’ve so long vied for. Just ask the Philadelphia 76ers.

That is why history takes precedent over theory. Coincidentally, I studied history in school, and teach it now. When a disillusioned student asks me why we have to study history in the first place, I always give the same answer: so we can understand the consequences of our actions.

The Raptors have seen the consequences of fielding a team that will compete, of avoiding reckless spending, and of investing in and being patient with their home-grown players. It doesn’t directly yield Larry O’Brien trophies, but it can easily put a franchise in position to capitalize when an opportunity arises. The Raptors are now in that position. They will be patient and smart, but should that window open, they are ready.