Last week, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith told DeMar DeRozan that he (Smith) believed that if the Toronto Raptors had kept their 2018 team intact — meaning, they hadn’t fired Dwane Casey and traded DeRozan — they would have won the 2019 title.
DeRozan agreed, “most definitely.”
I’m sorry to tell you, DeMar… but you’re most definitely wrong.
We really shouldn’t have to litigate this five years after the fact, but here we are. Shall we run through the exercise, one last time?
The DeRozan-Kyle Lowry-Jonas Valanciunas Raptors, coached by Casey, achieved unprecedented regular-season success for the Raptors. They made the playoffs five straight years.
But they only made it past the second round once in those five years. The one time they did make the Conference Finals, they won two games against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but were the victims of the perhaps the sickest burn in NBA postseason history, when of those two Raptors victories that tied the series 2-2, LeBron James said, “I’ve been a part of some really adverse situations, and I just didn’t believe that this was one of them.”
And the thing is, it wasn’t just the postseason record — the Raptors’ general performance in those playoffs was constantly underwhelming. Heck, it was at times embarrassing. And it was never once confident or convincing. I’ll set aside 2014, as — even though the Raps were the higher seed — it was that team’s first playoff experience, and they were facing the much more seasoned Brooklyn Nets of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce; taking that Nets team to the final play of game 7 might have even exceeded expectations.
But 2015? Getting swept by the Washington Wizards in an absolute no-show? It’s still amazing Casey survived that one. One of my lowest points as a Raptors fan, and I watched the 16-win season and Chris Childs forget the score.
2016? It took the Raptors — as the higher seed — 7 games to beat the Pacers (and likely only did so because of a massive Frank Vogel coaching blunder, leaving Paul George on the bench too long in the fourth quarter of that game 7) (plus an uncalled offensive foul that went the Raptors’ way in the final minute) and another 7 to beat the Miami Heat. And in those Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, sure, they won two games… but lost the other four by an average of 31 points.
In 2017 they went down 2-1 to the Jason Kidd-coached Milwaukee Bucks, and then blew a 25-point second half lead in Game 6 before escaping with the win — only to get swept by the Cavs. (At least they only lost those four games by an average of… 15 points.)
In 2018 the Raptors, as the top seed, still needed six games to defeat the 8th-seeded Wizards in round 1, before again getting swept by the Cavs, a series featuring three unforgettable finishes — the “lid on the basket” game 1, where the Raptors had multiple chances at the rim to win in regulation, and a great look in overtime, but still lost; LeBron’s famous fading, buzzer-beating runner in game 3, where Casey allegedly set his defense up on the wrong side of the floor (and, according to some reports, was accosted by a livid Masai Ujiri in the tunnel after the game); and game 4, when, trailing by 25 points, DeRozan clotheslined Jordan Clarkson and got ejected.
Five years, three sweeps, and not one convincing playoff series victory. There’s absolutely nothing in that record that indicates that Raptors would ever have truly competed for a title (and that’s not even getting into DeRozan’s underwhelming stats). And sure, James moved West after 2018. And who knows what changes management might have made to that Raptors team, big or small, that might have had an impact.
But that 2018-19 team didn’t just swap Casey for Nick Nurse and DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. They also got Danny Green in the trade, who did the two things that DeRozan doesn’t do — play defense and shoot threes, both of which are pretty important in the playoffs — and traded Valanciunas, Delon Wright and CJ Miles for Marc Gasol, a trade that likely doesn’t happen if the Kawhi trade doesn’t happen.
Which is to say — the team that beat Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Golden State was very, very different — and not just because of Kawhi — than the team that lost to Cleveland every year.
To suggest that that 2018 team could have done what the reconstructed 2019 team did is… well, it’s crazy talk.
Which is not to say I fault DeMar for saying it. All great players believe they can win. You want your players to have that confidence and self-belief. I’d much rather have a player say he believes they can win than a player say, “well, I don’t think we can win” — especially when we’re still living in “Ringz Culture” where the only measure of success is winning titles.
So DeRozan isn’t at fault here. Smith is, for asking such a stupid “gotcha” question five years after the fact. Like, DeRozan has played on two different teams since then. There are only three players on the Raptors that he played with. It’s been a long time. The only reason to ask that question is to get a soundbite, whether it’s “I believe I should have won” or getting DeRozan to talk shit about Masai or tell us again how he was blindsided by the trade, or whatever.
Sadly, we’ll go through all of this again — even if DeMar is never asked about the Raptors and the trade again during his career, you know it’ll come up when he retires and the career retrospective conversations are being had. So I’m sure we’ll come back to it then.
But let’s put it to bed for now. DeRozan is one of the greatest players to ever wear a Raptors uniform, and he’s one of my all-time favourite players, and that run from 2013-14 through 2017-18, despite its hiccups, was a fantastic time to be a Raptors fan.
But DeRozan’s Raptors teams were never truly good enough to win it all.