It has come to this. The ravenous and dead-serious masses filling the Air Canada Centre and spilling out onto the adjacent plaza, the otherwise reasonable people eating up Masai Ujiri's profane demagoguery, have now taken on an air of quixotic adorableness. They're loud and admirably invested in their Toronto Raptors, but they must know in their hearts by now that they're cheering a four-seed that's likely to get bounced from the NBA Playoffs in the opening round. It is good that they're still screaming, but they are screaming for a team that has had a fizzled-out bottle rocket of a year in a league with a calendar so lengthy and voluminous that December success feels ancient by April. In the space of a season, the Raptors have morphed from a promising squad into a stalling, dead-on-arrival mess. The best thing to say about them, in a non-fan's indoor voice, is that their season is almost over.
It didn't have to be like this. The Raps are a living model of just how little a coach can do when he's handcuffed by his roster. For years, Dwane Casey has spoken frequently of defensive intensity and effort, but he's in charge of a squad that can't defend at all. The Wizards aren't untalented, but when a Randy Wittman-devised offense is plowing through your system like a diabolical burrito, it reveals some deep flaws that are inherent, not schematic. On the surface, the Raptors are rangy and athletic, but they can't stay in front of even medium-slow guards, let alone the dynamic John Wall. The brave but banged up version of Kyle Lowry has the lateral movement of a trolley. Frustratingly promising tall person Jonas Valanciunas might be big, but he's no rim protector. Pretty much everyone else is even worse. Whatever doubts persist about Casey's tactical expertise, he can't accomplish what he's setting out to do with the sieve-like players he has at his disposal.
This is not to let Casey off the hook. In the same way few NBA teams have superstar players, few have excellent head coaches. The regular purging and hiring ritual that takes place each summer confirms as much. What makes an inventive and charismatic coach is hard to pin down and probably beyond anyone who isn't intimately familiar with how teams function on a day-to-day basis.
Here are several thousand people whose fault it definitely is not that their team is kind of a drag. — Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
That said, it's clear after a few years, even to a layperson, when the guy at the end of the bench is less than a genius. A franchise might put up with this if they're sort of succeeding—that understandably human tendency explains why Scotty Brooks has only just now been fired by Oklahoma City—but why would a franchise that's treading water stick with someone who's demonstrably not great?
The Raptors' reconstruction over the past couple of seasons has been fascinating. The team it has wrought has been intermittently fun, but the broader project has lacked focus. Masai Ujiri is the hyper-flexible sort who looks to acquire talent and draft picks first, worrying about how it all fits together second. He's done just that, and has assembled a deep, competent collective that is nonetheless staring down the circa-2008 Atlanta Hawks Purgatory of 45 wins and an early playoff exit. The Sixers' embarrassing teardown model might not be the move to make, but one way or another, change must come.
This is obvious in some ways, but it bears mentioning: building a championship team in the NBA is absurdly difficult. All the hot air and ink wasted over fake trades and draft pick recommendations and prospective coaching hire scouting reports is serviceable distraction, but once you pull the camera back a bit, it all seems like in-bunker small talk as the asteroid penetrates Earth's atmosphere. We're all guessing at what might work—that includes folks working in front offices—and the guessing is mostly for sport. No one has cracked this whole Building A Championship Squad puzzle completely. Some have just been better guessers than others.
While it may be too early to know how good Masai Ujiri is at this particular guessing game, it seems a safe guess that the Raptors are going to flame out during this postseason, either at the hands of the Wizards, or shortly thereafter against the Hawks. They will have done so feeling discouraged, and knowing at some level that they're obviously not good enough to compete for the ultimate prize. Maybe they need to fire their coach. Maybe they need to make some signings or trades.
I don't know, and you don't know, and everyone who cares about the Raptors can only hope that Ujiri knows better than either of us. This is the conundrum of a team stuck in neutral: they know where to go, but not how to get there. All the fans in Toronto can do is hope someone in charge has a hunch.