As part of SB Nation’s Best Teams To Never series, we’re looking back at the 2017-18 Raptors, one of the entrants in the tournament’s Flameout Region. This Toronto squad earned a few other nicknames along the way to their franchise record 59-win regular season and dramatic dismantling in the Eastern Conference playoffs — and here’s one more: they remain the best Raptors squad to never win an NBA championship.
Prologue - A Team of Maybes
Maybe it could have gone differently in the Eastern Conference playoffs of 2018. Maybe instead of the four-seed, the Cavaliers could have managed to muscle their way into third. Maybe they don’t pull off a seamless roster re-work mid-season, allowing them to regain their form down the stretch. Maybe, just maybe, LeBron James has an off week.
That’s really the only way to look back at the 2017-18 Toronto Raptors — a hopeful team of maybes who eventually found some certainty. What they discovered, however, was not what anyone in Toronto wanted, needed, or thought was coming to them. Could this iteration of the team, led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, have won an NBA title? It felt distinctly possible at the time. But the real answer became an extreme and hard no after the Raptors’ second round match-up against LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
In that, this version of the squad from 2017-18 remains an anomaly in Raptors history: the best team to never win a championship — and the catalyst that led them directly to ultimate victory the following year. From that comfortable vantage point, we can reflect on what might have been.
Chapter 1 - Limiting Lowry
Since arriving in Toronto in 2012, Kyle Lowry has fought and clawed his way to the top of the Raptors’ heirarchy — and that of the league’s as well. By his 2015-16 season he had undoubtedly made it. Lowry was an NBA All-Star starter and the undisputed engine of a Toronto squad that went all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, losing to the Cavaliers 4-2. Sure, he had to destroy himself over an 82 games season and comically drawn out playoff run to do it. But no one could take that accomplishment away from Lowry.
The Raptors, however, had to do it. As a franchise, they had to figure out a way to not rely on Lowry, already smaller, slower, and less athletic than most other point guards in the league, so as to preserve the skills he did have — elite shooting, play-making, and off-the-charts basketball IQ. Toronto had already seen what happened when Lowry was overworked during the long haul of the regular season. In the 2015 playoffs, after carrying the Raptors to their most successful season to date — a then-franchise record 49 wins — Lowry broke down. Though the higher seed, Toronto was swept by the Wizards in an embarrassing fashion. Lowry had clearly not been himself.
In basketball years, though, that was a long time ago. The Raptors bounced back from their 2015 disaster with that surprising ECF run, the sweep long forgotten by the end. And though 2017 brought more disappointment, it continued to clarify to the Raptors and Lowry what needed to be done. That was the year Toronto acquired P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka, veteran pros with skills the Raptors lacked, and looked ready to go all the way once again. Instead, Lowry missed 21 games with an injured wrist and the team never quite came together. Toronto would get swept again (with Lowry missing the final two games after tweaking his ankle), this time in the second round and with LeBron’s Cavaliers looking even more vicious than the squad they’d faced the previous year.
The 2017-18 season called for a new plan. Toronto would bounce back again, looking better than ever. And Lowry would be preserved too, his scoring and minutes load taking a considerable dip as he kept his eyes on the prize at season’s end — another deep playoff run, another date with the LeBron and the Cavaliers, and another chance at a title.
Chapter 2 - The Bench Broskis
In retrospect, it is astounding how deep and talented the Raptors’ 2016 Las Vegas Summer League team turned out to be. The roster was stocked with Toronto’s four first round picks from the past three drafts — Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright, and Bruno Caboclo — plus their second round steal Norman Powell, and the undrafted Fred VanVleet. Just for fun, Lucas Nogueira (Bebe!) also joined them in the desert, practicing with the team throughout the tournament.
All seven of them were on the team in 2016-17, finding ways to be useful at different times throughout the regular season. None of them had much of a role to play in the 2017 playoffs, however — save Powell, who moved into the starting lineup for a few spectacular games during the run, and Wright, who contributed some solid spot minutes. Little was expected, as this group of Raptors was still young and unpolished. Each showed flashes in their own way, though, and it was possible to squint and see how they’d fill a need for the Raptors as they developed. Despite the crushing defeat of 2017, Toronto remained optimistic.
For the 2017-18 regular season, that optimism paid off. Led once again by Lowry and DeRozan, the Raptors relied on the rookie skills of OG Anunoby, their first round addition from the 2017 Draft, and the stalwart consistency of Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas — but that’s not all. Toronto began to shape its identity around a plug-and-play group of reserves fit for seemingly any scenario. Or, as was often the case, Toronto would simply roll out an all-bench lineup and blow other teams away (including the pre-makeover Cavs on national TV). These were the new-look fun and good Raptors.
Toronto’s bench group ran seven deep at times, led by VanVleet and his steady demeanour. His backcourt mates were the explosive Powell, still quite capable of blowing games open by himself, and the quiet Wright, who filled in various gaps for the squad, doing everything from play-making to offensive rebounding. Meanwhile, the unit’s frontcourt had a pair of gregarious buddies in Siakam, then just exploring the limits of his talent, and Poeltl, a big man in the classic sense. To round out the group, the Raptors added C.J. Miles for veteran seasoning and his sharpshooting ability, and kept Nogueira around for a dose of unpredictability (and comic relief). As they helped Toronto reach a new franchise record of 59 wins and their first ever one-seed in the East, the Bench Broskis were born.
Chapter 3 - The Problem with DeMar and Jonas
Most franchises would kill to have a “problem” like DeRozan and Valanciunas. By the 2017-18 season, the two players, both drafted by Toronto — DeRozan ninth overall in 2009, JV fifth in 2011 — were in or approaching their prime, having mastered a bevy of skills necessary to thrive in the league. If Lowry was the engine of this (and every) Raptors team, we can extend the car metaphor to say DeRozan and Valanciunas were the wheels. When they were rolling, Toronto was tough to stop.
By his 2017-18 season, DeRozan had transformed fully into an efficient scorer from anywhere inside the three-point line while also ranking second on the team in assists with 5.2 per game. His long-time teammate Valanciunas, meanwhile, had become one of the league’s best rebounders and an uber-efficient scorer in the post. Both were also dependable players who rarely missed games, much-loved teammates who wanted to be in Toronto, and players who never caused any real trouble on or off the court. For a Raptors franchise that had seen its share of dark days in the past — from its top players on down — DeRozan and Valanciunas were a godsend.
They were also limited as players, with a well-documented litany of issues working against them in the modern NBA: neither DeRozan nor Valanciunas had three-point range, neither were anywhere close to being consistent versatile defenders, and their strengths could be game-planned against by a savvy team. Raptors team president Masai Ujiri and then-head coach Dwane Casey would never admit this, but they no doubt knew the flaws in the pair — they just had to make it work regardless. So, while we can recount the various ways in which the other 2017-18 Raptors eventually let Toronto down against LeBron and his Cavaliers — the bench unit not being ready for the moment, Ibaka regressing from playoff warrior into commemorative statue, Casey never quite adjusting his lineups fast enough — it’s hard to deny that DeRozan and Valanciunas were intrinsic to the team’s failure.
Chapter 4 - LeBron Reigns
There is some solace to be found in the idea that Toronto’s series of defeats in three consecutive post-seasons came at the hands of arguably the greatest basketball player of all time. If you’re going to lose, you may as well lose to the best — and make no mistake: the LeBron James the Raptors faced from 2016 to 2018 was at the absolute peak of his powers as both a player and team general. He’d suffered defeats and been seasoned by them in the process, he knew which players would work best with his talents and had the front office leverage to acquire them, and most terrifying of all: with any game on the line, LeBron was always a threat to make the winning play. Against Toronto, there was just no stopping him.
The 2018 playoffs were supposed to be different, however. The Raptors entered this second round series against the Cavaliers as the better team — on paper, at least. They’d survived and learned from playoff wars of the past, they’d had time to develop team chemistry and continuity, they’d built a roster designed to be flexible and versatile, they were younger and faster, and were also playing with a sense of all-consuming urgency. As the conference bracket’s top seed, they even had homecourt advantage. Lowry, DeRozan, and the rest of the squad knew there’d be no escaping the East without confronting LeBron at some point. The whole season had been leading up to this exact moment.
And in Game 1 at home in Toronto, it really did feel like it was going to happen. For the entirety of the contest — all 48 regulation minutes — the Raptors led the way. They were doing all the things we knew they could do together. DeRozan was scoring, Lowry was orchestrating, Valanciunas was dominating down low, and the bench was chipping in from all angles. The Raptors had a 14-point lead in the first quarter, weathered Cleveland’s run in the second, pushed their lead back to 14 in the third, and then hung on for the fourth. But somehow, despite all their combined efforts, LeBron tied it up with 30 seconds left. Somehow Toronto’s five attempts to score in the dying seconds did not go down. Somehow Game 1 would head to overtime. Somehow Toronto would have to dig themselves out of a stressful mess. Somehow LeBron and his Cavaliers would win again. Somehow!
Now, it’s important to acknowledge here that this was just the first game of the series, not its climactic contest. Toronto could still look forward to Game 2 at home. And besides, they’d been in this situation before — down 0-1 after a loss at home — and had managed to come back to win the series. It wasn’t the end of the world. There was still plenty of time left for the Raptors.
Except we knew. We knew in Toronto that there was no coming back from this particular Game 1 defeat. There was no way the Raptors could give LeBron their absolute best shot — one good enough to stagger him back a few steps, maybe even wobble his knees a little bit — only to lose in overtime. Once that happened, the rest of the series was already over. The Raptors would go on to lose Game 2 by 18 points, getting crushed in the second half. They’d lose Game 3 too, despite an inspired Lowry-led rally, with James going out of his way to hit the most humiliating buzzer-beater of his life over the outstretched hand of Anunoby. And, naturally, the Raptors would go on to lose Game 4, the fighting spirit totally gone by then as Cleveland cruised to a 31-point win.
And just like that, it was over. The record-setting, hugely successful 2017-18 season in Toronto had been for nothing. LeBron had done it again. The Raptors had lost — and this time, as an entire franchise, they were well and truly lost.
Epilogue - A Golden Season
There’s still room for one more “somehow” in the tale of the 2017-18 Toronto Raptors. Yes, unlikely as it sounds, there is a happy end to this story.
As the 2018 NBA playoffs continued without Toronto, the city was thrown into its darkest funk in years. After five years of the “We The North” era, a period of wild and sustained success for Raptors basketball, it had become resoundingly clear that this team, led by Lowry and DeRozan, could not win it all and needed a change. The question hanging in the air, though, was obvious: what could Toronto even do? By June 2018, as the Warriors were defeating the Cavaliers on the way to their third NBA title, it felt like the Raptors had tried everything — and found that none of it mattered. The NBA world had moved on. The Raptors were yesterday’s news, or worse: the punchline to a joke.
Which makes what happened next the most surreal element of this narrative. If the adage is true, if it is indeed darkest before the dawn, then July 2018 in Toronto is the moment when the sun cracked over the horizon. Left for dead, the Raptors fired their long-time head coach, Dwane Casey (just before he claimed Coach of the Year honours), promoted Nick Nurse internally, and then stunned the NBA world by trading franchise cornestone DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard.
Everything slowly came together from there, all the way to the 2019 NBA Finals — which the Raptors would go on to win.