Raptors’ satisfaction with being stuck in the middle makes no sense

MONTREAL, CANADA - OCTOBER 14: Vice-Chairman and team president of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
MONTREAL, CANADA - OCTOBER 14: Vice-Chairman and team president of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

On the afternoon of September 27, many NBA fans were finally given a conclusive ending to one of the most noteworthy sagas of the 2023 offseason. Damian Lillard was shipped off to the Milwaukee Bucks in a blockbuster trade. Unfortunately, the Toronto Raptors were not in the hunt for him when the final bell sounded.

Lillard found a new home in Milwaukee in a three-team deal that saw the Blazers snag Jrue Holiday (later traded to Boston in a swap completed October 1), Deandre Ayton, and a collection of draft picks. The Phoenix Suns managed to build a robust bench thanks to the addition of several role players.

While this seemingly benefits all three of the teams involved, one team that won’t be celebrating anytime soon is the Raptors. Rumors had been picking up over the summer regarding the club’s desired plan to acquire Lillard. However, it had also been speculated that Lillard was not open at all to the idea of playing in Toronto.

Despite the roadblocks, the Raptors losing out on an available star point guard (and member of the NBA 75th anniversary team, no less) hurts, as fans can see the makings of a potentially franchise-shaking move fall to the wayside. And now it poses the question for many Raptors fans: what exactly is the middling front office cooking?

Why are the Toronto Raptors OK with middling performance?

After a 41-41 finish to the previous season, which saw them miss out on the playoffs in their play-in loss to the Chicago Bulls, you would think Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster had big moves on their mind to bring out some much-needed change. Toronto fired champion head coach Nick Nurse, replacing him with former Grizzlies assistant coach Darko Rajakovic.

When it came to significant roster changes, aside from adding Gradey Dick in the draft, you have forward Jalen McDaniels, veteran guard Garrett Temple, and recently crowned FIBA champ Dennis Schröder. Sure, these are solid pickups in their own right, but truthfully do any of these acquisitions scream needle mover at all?

They seem like very lateral moves associated with a team simply smoothing out a roster already deemed to be in championship contention, and respectfully speaking, the Raptors, in their current construction, are simply not in that upper echelon.

Is this the be-all, end-all? A middle-of-the-pack team with energy and spirit who are just good enough to make the playoffs? This is essentially what teams like the Pistons and Magic were in the Eastern Conference not too long ago before they stuck to their guns and delved into full-blown rebuilds.

This is where a very gloomy vision of the future can rise. The team would be thrust into a state of NBA purgatory. With a 29-year-old current franchise star in Pascal Siakam, who awaits discussions for a multi-year extension, an expiring contract in All-Defensive forward OG Anunoby, and their former Rookie of the Year in Scottie Barnes, the team has a lot of soul-searching to do to truly figure out a worthwhile and logical direction to go in with all the factors involved.

The Lillard trade talks may have been the Raptors’ last chance in the current state of the NBA to acquire that missing piece to the puzzle that could have catapulted the team into the championship tier.

Toronto still has all the makings to be in the playoff hunt even with their present squad. We have yet to see what new head coach Rajakovic has in store with his new collection of NBA talent. We could see a huge junior leap from Barnes, a big help in the 3-point shooting department courtesy of Dick and Gary Trent Jr.

But for now, these remain as what-ifs. And if history throughout the NBA shows for anything, an NBA franchise can’t bank on what-ifs. At some point, the front office of a franchise needs to step up and follow through on a difficult decision.

Be that as it may, it is simply too early to pull the plug on the team at this current stage, but we will certainly have many answers and probably even more questions for the Toronto Raptors at the conclusion of the 2023-24 NBA season.