The NBA is the most social of all sports leagues. It’s about talking. It’s about gossip. It’s about rumors. It’s about fun.
The offseason is often just as entertaining as anything that happens in the regular season.
To be a player you have to be in the middle of it. They must be connected.
And by players I don’t mean individual players. I mean being a player in the league, being a team that matters, being a team that is noticed beyond the borders of your country.
Masai Ujiri said at the end of last season that he didn’t enjoy watching the Raptors play. You don’t often hear that from a team president.
He didn’t like what he called selfish behavior. He thought, as so many executives in sports think, that the collection of players was bigger than the team itself.
Now a new season begins with almost no outside expectations, and few believe the Raptors are going anywhere other than paddling in circles in the NBA’s muddy middle, almost the worst place a franchise can reach in professional sports.
Ujiri could rant a little and say he likes this team. He has to say that. It’s his team, his sales.
But around the NBA, at the start of a season, there are all sorts of bold predictions and thoughts and cries in all the usual places – there’s just not really any talk about the Raptors.
They have a new coach in Darko Rajakovic and no one really knows who he is or what he is capable of. Ujiri already took a gamble once when he hired Nick Nurse to replace Dwane Casey. It worked out wonderfully in the beginning, with the championship and the Coach of the Year award, but not so wonderfully in the end when the team Nurse put on the field was the one Ujiri couldn’t stand to play.
What will Darko do for the Raptors? We’re not exactly talking about the NBA.
And maybe that’s a good thing.
You come in as a new coach and sometimes you need time to figure out who you are and what you can do and what style your group might need to play to be successful.
The NBA is all about shooting and offense, and the Raptors are one of the league’s worst shooting teams and seem offensively challenged at times.
With their first-round pick in June, they selected a shooting guard, Gradey Dick. Four months later, there’s no telling where he’ll fit as an NBA scorer or if he’ll fit in at all.
That’s another question that doesn’t get asked in the NBA. Nobody really cares where Dick fits in with the raps.
This doesn’t happen because you play in Canada, where Vince Carter once captured America’s attention, but because you play in the lower reaches of the NBA. You fall in the middle and almost disappear.
There are only two places you really want to be in the NBA: you want to be great and compete for championships or you want to be a threat in the league.
The Raps had a remarkable run under Ujiri, Casey and Nurse. In a seven-year span that includes Kawhi Leonard’s championship season, the Raps won 48, 49, 56, 51, 59, 58 and 53 games. They were one LeBron James away from being more explosive than just a title. Within five years they averaged 55 wins per season.
If they win 40 this year I will be surprised. Being .500 in the NBA means you might get a play-in game, maybe even a crack at the postseason. It doesn’t mean much more than that unless you’re the Miami Heat and the Raptors aren’t the Miami Heat.
We don’t know what the Raptors are. We don’t know what they will be. And it’s not at all like the start of the Maple Leafs or Blue Jays season, where you know the roster has options and you can’t wait for the playoffs when Game 3 comes around.
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What I’m looking at now are the seasonal encounters. When is Nurse returning to Toronto? When does Shai Gilgeous-Alexander play here? When are the games against the champion Denver Nuggets featuring Nikola Jokic and Kitchener kid Jamal Murray?
I heard a national radio show in America the other night that showed an hour-long preview of the NBA without mentioning the Raptors. I read The Athletic’s seemingly bold predictions and their performance ratings for the start of the season. They have the Raptors ranked 21st in the league, they are not mentioned in the thousands of words written in their preview post.
So here we go again: Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr. and OG Anunoby are all facing free agency at the end of the season. They have something to care about – their future.
They are all good to great NBA players, but none of them are big enough to change teams the way great players can change teams in the NBA. All of them are complementary stars.
They want to be great in the NBA and compete for division titles or, ultimately, the championship. Or you want to be terrible and end up in the draft lottery and hope you find the next big thing.
21st place means standing still in a race with Penny Oleksiak. This doesn’t get you anywhere.
The worst part is being irrelevant, lost and forgotten in all the gossip, posts and rumors that make the NBA so fabulous and different. These are your Toronto Raptors.