Extinction of the Raptors that start with a “C”

Today I listened to a couple of respected NBA pundits who discussed a rather long short list of eight teams they considered to be prospective finalists next season.  They thought the length of the list was remarkable because the experts can normally isolate half that number as plausible contenders at the start of a season.  

What I found remarkable was that last year’s champions, the Toronto Raptors, kept all but two of its players, yet weren’t considered to be top eight prospects.  In effect they were saying that this season’s outcome is twice as hard to predict because of the unexpected way that free agents relocated around the league in the past two weeks.  No other factors seemed important to them.

It reminds me of the way political pundits and pollsters hedge their bets when the old assumptions fail.    Rather than admit that past predictors won’t work in the future, they simply widen the scope of possible outcomes to improve their odds of being right – or at least their odds of being less wrong.

Just as NBA experts see twice as many contenders for the championship, we see twice the usual number of Democrats contending for their party’s presidential nomination.  Political experts seem to be as mystified as NBA experts about what has undermined the reliability of their predictions. Despite having been unable to explain past occurrences in the swing back and forth between the Obama years, the 2016 Trump victory, and the Democrats’ 2016 midterm triumph, they are still reliant on the old formulas for new predictions.  

When you can’t adequately explain the past or predict the future, it’s time to question your assumptions.  Trump defied conventional wisdom in 2016, just as the Raptors did in 2019. Why aren’t the experts getting the message?  Just as the mainstream media assured the world that Trump couldn’t win in 2016, the bigheads on ESPN seem to forget that they left the Raptors off the list of probable finalists last year too.  How wrong do you have to be before they take your prognosticator license away?

Unlike the current Raptors, the old Raptors, operating under the old assumptions about team recruitment, management, and coaching, were very predictable.  I like to reminisce about when my son was small and forbidden to use the word “crap.” One morning the little wag found me reading the sports section of the paper and asked, “say, Dad, how are the Raptors-that-start-with-a ‘C’ doing?”  His little joke worked because the Raptors were crap back then.  

In terms of post season accomplishments, they remained the Craptors, following the spoken and unspoken rules governing which franchises would win and which must lose.  It was all fairly predictable within a narrow range of possible outcomes.

It used to be that the team with most all star players, barring managerial incompetence, were repeat contenders.  Think of the Lakers under Kareem, then Magic, then Shaq, and then Kobi, appearing year after year in the finals. 

Then, as the players gained power and started assembling their own super teams, the assumption that team destiny depended on the pedigree of superstars players became gospel.  Think of the Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh version of the Miami Heat as the prototype of these player-driven powherhouses.  

Accordingly the smart money followed the dominant few players in an almost mathematical relationship between a few elite player’s rankings and their teams’ rankings.  According to this two dimensional analysis, Lebron, AD and the Las Angeles Lakers are likely to meet Kawhi, PG and the Los Angeles Clippers in the final next year.  

Not in the running, by this formula, are the two previous finalists, the Raptors and Golden State.  They are presumed not to be greater than the sum of their parts, so the loss of a few parts renders them noncompetitive.

To summarize, according to the expert consensus, the Raptors weren’t supposed to win it all last year, given their relative paucity of star players.  But they did. And today, they aren’t expected to make it to the finals again, and aren’t even among the eight top ranked teams.  

Think of that – eight teams out of 30, a prediction that includes 27% of possible outcomes, but excludes this year’s champions, and last year’s.  Here’s why these predictions are becoming less precise and more misinformed. The Raptors rewrote the rules for success.

Masai Ujuri recruited a team that didn’t rely so heavily on its best player that he was burnt out and susceptible to injury when it counted in the playoffs.  In fact, none of the Raptors competing in the finals were high draft picks in their rookie years. Their most expensive player had virtually missed the previous season with injury and sat out more than a quarter of their regular season games in 2018-19.  Despite this, they won 58 of 82 games, finishing ahead of 28 other teams in the overall standings.  

That weird recruitment strategy should have been clue number one that something strange was afoot.  Another clue was the willingness of a coach to tinker with starting lineups, employ a “janky” defense and a “democratic” offense, as the various strategies of Nick Nurse were named. 

If it wasn’t apparent before the playoffs, it should have become obvious that the Raptors had taken a different path to the championship than their defeated opponents.  Golden State followed the superstar formula, relying heavily on them during the regular season while the Raptors rested Leonard on back to back nights.  

It wasn’t dumb luck that he stayed strong through the post season while they suffered attrition through injury.  Kevin Durant simply broke – no one kicked his achilles tendon. Likewise, Klay Thomson’s ACL tear and hamstring pull were exacerbated by a season of wear.  The same goes for Boogie Cousins who simply proved the rule that big, overweight guys wear out their connective tissues faster than the rest of us. The point is that Toronto had a more durable lineup for the playoffs by design, made possible by a more balanced team than their superstar dependent counterparts.   

Nothing about this is absolute.  Obviously Kawhi Leonard’s standard of play was unmatched by his teammates for the most part.  The difference is that the Raptor’s strategy for success was less dependent on superstars than their rivals.  Indeed, they accomplished with one top 10 player what their rivals failed to accomplish with two or three each.  

It really struck me in the post championship interviews how differently Masai Ujuri was in his thinking about how to put a team together.  He was quoting Nelson Mandela and talking about the true internationalization of the sport. He spoke in the language of values when he could have been bragging about his accomplishments.  He didn’t talk about his players like they were racehorses, selected on the basis of stats and swagger. He knew their personalities, how they fit together, how hard they’d worked to improve, and what they were willing to do for victory.  

There was no squabbling, as there was between Draymond and KD in Oakland, or between Jimmy Butler and everyone in Minnesota.  That’s not the Raptor’s way. They are mission-focused, not distracted by personal dramas and internecine competition. That too was baked in by Ujuri.

If this de-emphasis of star power was understood by the experts, who hadn’t anticipated the Raptors’ ascent last year, they would appreciate the full dimension of Ujuri’s gamble.  He didn’t just trade away their best player and the coach-of-the-year in 2018. He was chose to employ a team-first strategy in the recruitment and development of talent, and adopted tactics on court, that would mitigate the difficulty of bringing top free agents to Toronto.  In doing so, he demonstrated the possibility of structuring salaries and managing prospects differently than other teams in the league, and differently than the thwarted “Craptors” of the past.

One further dimension of the Raptors success is that they are a learning team.  They are, from the top down, learning from the past and the present. At the executive level, this led to the shedding of Casey and DeRozan.  But it was just as obvious in the conduct of the coach and players.  

Nurse became notorious for experimenting with different lineups, defensive alignments, and plays.  This payed off against the 76er’s, Bucks, and Warriors when his players adapted more quickly than the other teams did.  

That’s why they didn’t panic when they lost early in each series.  They gained strength from the losses, returning with adaptive tactics that stumped opposing coaches and their superstars.  It was almost sad watching Joel Embiid crying after Philadelphia’s elimination, unable to comprehend why the Raptors didn’t follow the script and submit to the size and star power of his team.  You almost felt sorry for the Greek Freak, wallowing in self-pity when, by the sixth game, he still hadn’t figured out that the Raptors were never going to let him float down the lane for pretty dunks, or rack up assists with easy offloads.  The old formulas weren’t working against a team of fast and willing learners.

The Bucks, the best team in the east, lost the way the Raptors used to lose.  All season long, they’d rely on Demar and Kyle to drive the offense, and when they got into trouble, they’d let them play iso-ball until the final buzzer.  It was so demoralizing, year after year, loss after playoff loss, watching the same guys, employing the same tactics, with the same result. It was like the mesmerizing sight of waves rolling into a rocky cove, roaring in, crashing and subsiding, leaving no mark on the shore.

Which leads me to suggest that the Raptors may again surprise the experts and crack the top eight in the upcoming season.  Their rising star, Siakam, will fulfill even more of his potential. OG Anunoby will be back and ready to employ his great strength and agility under the tutelage of greybeard big man, Mark Gasol.  Powell and Van Fleet will rise to starter status. Then Ujuri can go shopping with some of the money freed up by Leonard and Green’s departures and backfill gaps with midseason acquisitions. Meanwhile, the next Siakam will emerge from the rich development program operating in the background and more happy surprises will occur.

The great thing about this is that the rest of the league will be surprised all over again if the Raptors again surpass expectation.  The league’s stubborn incomprehension, its unwillingness to break with tradition, works to Toronto’s advantage. From top to bottom, the organization is executing on a strategy that exploits the teams that blow all their money on a few top ranked players, on teams that ride their stars too hard, and who are vulnerable to injury (both physical and emotional). 

There’s something very Canadian about this organization’s style.  In fact there was something rather Canadian in Kawhi’s quiet confidence and courtesy.  Maybe that’s why support for the Raptors extended across the country, and why such loud fan contingents showed up in opposition arenas.  Let the LA and New York teams stack superstars up like cordwood. Toronto has found another way.

Let the games begin.

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