There aren’t many teams – in any sport or in any city – that have grown in popularity as much as the Raptors have in Toronto over the past decade. Under Masai Ujiri, Canada’s lone NBA club has gone from a punch line in the league and an afterthought in its own hockey-obsessed market, to a source of national pride. We The North.
They’ve enjoyed the most successful run in franchise history – qualifying for the playoffs in seven straight seasons – and brought the city and country together as NBA champions in 2019. Fans are still riding that high, but – as the survey results show – there is some level of concern creeping in as the team reaches a crossroads. They’re off to a slow start to the 2020-21 campaign. Pascal Siakam is facing scrutiny coming off his performance in the bubble. Kyle Lowry is in the final year of his deal. Meanwhile, Ujiri’s contract is also set to expire, and he’s yet to sign an extension. This is a transition year for the organization. The question that’s clearly on peoples’ minds is; what comes next?
29—How do the Raptors being in Tampa Bay affect your interest?
It won’t be the same—38%
Won’t really care until they’re back—14%
Well, this is good news for the team, considering Tampa will be its home for the foreseeable future. It’s definitely strange – watching games with little-to-no atmosphere in the building, but that’s a product of the pandemic more than the Raptors’ temporary relocation. Even if they had been cleared to play in Toronto, Raps fans still would’ve had to watch from their couches. The move to Tampa isn’t ideal, for the team or its fans, but it shouldn’t really impact interest level.
30—Can the Raptors afford to lose Masai Ujiri?
No, he’s the most important person in the organization—85%
Yes, they’d be fine with Bobby Webster and Co.—15%
How do you really feel, Raptors fans? This is a pretty telling – though not especially surprising – disparity, and one that speaks to the faith people have in the architect of the most successful run in franchise history. Masai said he’d deliver a championship, and he did. He said he’d change the culture and perception of the organization, and he has. Executives don’t hit threes, grab rebounds, or take charges, but the good ones are major difference-makers, and the Raptors have one of the best – if not the best – in the business. So, yeah, losing him would be a hard pill to swallow.
31—If Masai leaves, what will it do to the image of the franchise?
It will be a major step backwards—54%
Slight change. Others could follow—39%
Nothing. Masai’s culture will live on—8%
While I don’t disagree with the consensus, allow me to play devil’s advocate. Bobby Webster and Dan Tolzman are very capable and extremely bright young basketball minds. They’ve had a hand in just about everything the Raptors have done over the past seven years, from the salary cap minutia to finding and developing the team’s home-grown stars. More than anything else, if Masai were to leave, Toronto would undoubtedly miss his leadership, his calming yet inspiring presence, his influence, and his unique ability to cultivate relationships – and those are not insignificant qualities.
32—Who’s the most important member of the franchise right now?
You saw this coming. Not a shocking result, given how the last couple questions played out. My vote would also go to Ujiri, for what it’s worth, but once again, allow me to push back a bit. Lowry is the greatest Raptor ever, he’s been the heartbeat of this team for nearly his entire tenure – spanning almost a decade – and his No. 7 will be hanging in the rafters one day. Even at 34, going on 35, he’s their most important player. I’m surprised Lowry didn’t get more love in this poll. Interesting that the top-two vote getters are both non-players.
33—How do the Raptors continue to be successful?
Trade Lowry and other vets and begin a re-tooling phase—33%
Keep the current playoff team intact and wait to strike when the time is right—29%
Add more role players and hope Siakam and Anunoby take a leap forward—26%
Look to trade young assets for a win-now player—13%
Seriously? Raptors fans that lived through the Andrea Bargnani era and remember what the five-year playoff drought was like should know better than this. Re-building, or re-tooling, or whatever you want to call it, isn’t fun. It can be a long, painful process. Nothing is guaranteed. There’s obviously some recency bias here – they’re off to a slow start and some fans are getting antsy, but you’ve got to give it more time before hitting the reset button becomes a reasonable option. For now, there’s value in staying the course and waiting for that opportunity to push your chips in – they’ve had success with that approach before.
34—How do you view Pascal Siakam?
Second-best player on a championship team—45%
Role player that needs at least two better players to win a championship—43%
“1A” player on a championship team—10%
This is fair. Even before his struggles in the bubble, I’m not sure how many people would’ve argued that Siakam was destined to lead the Raptors to a championship as their best player. But, depending on who their No. 1 guy is, he can absolutely be the second or third-best player on a title-winning team. What makes me say that? He’s already done it!
35—Is Kyle Lowry a future hall of famer?
36—Is it important to you that Kyle Lowry finishes his career in Toronto?
Depends on the direction of the team—41%
No, it’s a business—34%
Yes, at all costs—25%
Neither Lowry nor Ujiri are the sentimental type. They both have their own short-term and longer-term ambitions, and if at any point those goals no longer align, you could certainly see them amicably parting ways. The key word there is “amicably”. However and whenever the relationship ends – whether it’s via trade, in free agency, or in retirement – I’d imagine the decision would be a mutual one. There’s too much respect and admiration between them for it to go any other way. It would be nice too see them ride off into sunset together, though.
37—How did you feel about the Raptors losing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in free agency?
Hard to see them go, but I understand it—53%
They should have done more to keep them—32%
Not a big deal—7%
My feeling on this falls somewhere between the top-two options on this list. We know the Raptors prioritized their cap flexibility over retaining the veteran bigs, and I can understand why, especially with the Giannis dream still alive at the time. But I’m surprised they didn’t pursue Ibaka more aggressively (as was he, clearly) and offer more money on a one-year term. That was a rare misstep for this team’s front office, and it looks worse in hindsight – with Toronto’s underperforming centre replacements, and Giannis signing his extension in Milwaukee.
38—Which of the Raptors’ new players are you most excited about?
I can’t believe 16% are still excited about Aron Baynes.
39—What’s a realistic expectation for the Raptors this season?
First round of the playoffs—56%
At this rate, it’s looking like we should have offered a fifth option: none of the above. Kidding (mostly). Despite the slow start, I’m still of the belief that they’ll figure it out and, at minimum, squeeze into the playoffs. The East isn’t exactly running away from them, and with the play-in tournament, as well as some of the roster uncertainty in the COVID-19 era, it shouldn’t take much for them to re-enter the mix.
40—Will Malachi Flynn be a rookie of the year candidate?
They’ve got to play him first.
41—With all the stories coming out of Los Angeles, how do you feel about Kawhi leaving now?
I wish he had stayed—68%
The Raptors dodged a bullet—32%
I actually think the reports out of L.A. were more of an indictment on the Clippers than on Kawhi. Every superstar in the league gets preferential treatment, that’s just the reality of the modern NBA. Kawhi got away with the same things, or similar things in Toronto. Privately, a few of his Raptors teammates weren’t thrilled about some it (the load management, etc.), but the team did a good job of managing expectations and keeping everybody focused on the common goal. If the Clippers did their homework – and the number of Raptors press passes they collected suggests that they did – they should’ve known what they were getting themselves into and prepared their players accordingly. If Kawhi is high-maintenance, he’s worth it.
42—Will the Raptors win another championship in the next 5 years?
The safe bet here is; no. But, then again, how many people would’ve voted yes to this question before the Raptors traded for Kawhi? Point being, things move quickly in the NBA and you never know when the balance of power is going to shift. Every few months it seems like a different star player becomes disgruntled with their situation and wants to be traded. That’s the argument in favour of remaining competitive and maintaining flexibility. The Raptors have a smart, opportunistic front office that fans clearly have a lot of faith in. If and when there’s a sensible move out there that could re-open their window to contend for a championship (without completely mortgaging their future), trust that they’ll pull the trigger.