Former Toronto Raptors head coach and NBA commentator Sam Mitchell once opined that the worst place to be in the NBA is the middle.
The teams at the very top are contenders, or perhaps one or two tweaks away. Teams at the bottom pick high in the draft and have the best chances at selecting a franchise-altering talent.
Mitchell’s former team, as well as several others, find themselves in a very difficult spot.
The Raptors are very squarely in the NBA’s “middle.” They’re not near the bottom where they have increased odds of finding a superstar in the draft, but they’re not contenders, either.
The Cleveland Cavaliers drove home this point with sobering clarity.
TORONTO – For the second straight year the Toronto Raptors saw their season come to an end at the hands of LeBron James and the mighty Cleveland Cavaliers but, as many around the team have rightly pointed out, the feeling is different this time around.
When they ran into the Cavs in last year’s Conference Finals, they had already exceeded – or, at minimum, met – most reasonable expectations. Not only had they won the franchise’s first ever best-of-seven playoff series, but they won two, and the experience of sparring with the soon-to-be NBA champions would be an invaluable one, win or lose.
They set out to win, of course they set out to win, but in the end, there was no shame in losing to the best, and there still isn’t, for what it’s worth. A year later, expectations have changed and – now more than ever before – if they’re not going to win, it matters how they lose.
By the time Sunday’s Game 4 began, with Toronto on the brink of elimination, the Raptors had turned in just three competitive quarters over the course of three contests, all of which were decided by double figures.
Make no mistake, the Cavs were always supposed to win the series, even before taking their game to a level we hadn’t seen from them since last spring, but the Raptors believed they had narrowed that gap enough to at least put up more of a fight. They were wrong. After stealing two games from the champs a year ago, Toronto was swept and there’s just no sugarcoating the reality: the result – and, most importantly, what led to it – should be considered a major disappointment.
“It’s not a step forward,” said Patrick Patterson, one of several Raptors to have a dismal series. “I can’t really say right now if it’s a step back, I just know it’s not a step forward.”
Using Mitchell’s theory, the embarrassing sweep was worse than a step backward–it was a step sideways. To make matters worse, the Raptors appear to be financially locked into their “treadmill” team; treadmill teams are middle-of-the-road teams that go nowhere.
The Raptors have $139 million committed to DeMar DeRozan, and they have a decision to make on point guard Kyle Lowry. Do they pay $250+ million for two fringe all-stars in the backcourt, or do they let Lowry walk and take steps in blowing up their lukewarm squad?
It isn’t an easy decision, and it isn’t unique to the Raptors. Several teams have had to pay superstar money to non-superstar players because of the NBA economic model; elite players are rare, so teams end up overpaying for good players to avoid being really bad.
But perhaps, paradoxically, being really bad should be the goal. Former Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Sam Hinkie intentionally made the team god-awful in order to accumulate several high draft picks.
Philadelphia lost its stomach for the super-tank philosophy and fired Hinkie, but he could end up being vindicated, because the 76ers have intriguing young talent in Joel Embiid (Rookie of the Year lock until he got injured), Dario Saric (Rookie of the Year contender), and Ben Simmons (missed the season due to injury, but is likely the Rookie of the Year frontrunner for next season).
The dilemma many of these treadmill teams face is a lot of elite talent is concentrated in Golden State and Cleveland, two teams headed for a NBA Finals collision course. Neither team has lost a game through two rounds, and there aren’t many credible threats to keep them from meeting in the finals for the foreseeable future.
The Warriors and Cavaliers could legitimately meet in four or five (or more) consecutive finals. They could end up having ‘Best-of-Seven’ series of series!
While the obvious elites battle it out over the next few years, teams like the Raptors should give thought to blowing it up and assembling a lot of young talent to be at the forefront of the next wave of contenders.