LeBron James did something on Friday that few other players would be capable of doing in today’s NBA.
By announcing his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers after a four-year sojourn in Miami, James not only sent shock waves throughout the basketball world, but he may have also changed the landscape for every team in the league.
In the Eastern Conference, the Heat are no longer the sure favorite to end up at the big dance in June as they have done the last four years.
For teams in the West, building a roster with the appropriate pieces needed to compete with Miami’s Big Three will no longer be a part of the thought process.
It won’t be until the next NBA Finals roll around that the impact of James’ move is truly felt in the Western Conference. In the more immediate future, though, it will be of great significance to a handful of teams looking to take a few steps up the ladder in the East.
One of those teams is obviously the Toronto Raptors. They should feel as happy about this as the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, and Washington Wizards, and really you can insert your team of choice here with reasons that make perfect sense.
As luck would have it
For the Raptors, in particular, the changing landscape makes their journey though the 2013-14 season all the more worthwhile.
A 6-12 start brought the Raptors to an early fork in the road, at which point “tanking” seemed like a plausible route to take. Fans would have had to endure yet another year without a playoff appearance, but there would be light at the end of the tunnel: the possibility of drafting Andrew Wiggins.
The trading of Rudy Gay was always going to be good, if only as a matter of addition by subtraction. But even if you thought the Raptors would be better with the depth that Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes, and John Salmons provided, this still didn’t look like a team that would go 42-22 the rest of the way.
It was at that point, and especially after the trade deadline quietly came and went, that general manager Masai Ujiri decided it was best to keep the team together and continue the improbable run towards a postseason berth.
Resistance was futile
If there was a downside to the Raptors’ success, it was knowing that eventually, no matter what they did, they were going to run into a road block set up by the Heat.
This was the kind of outcome that lent support to the idea of forgoing present success for the chance to nab a potential franchise player with a high lottery pick.
But in reality, the Raptors weren’t a team built to lose games last season. The core of DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson, Kyle Lowry and eventually Vasquez and Patterson was assembled to grow and develop and apparently not at the expense of winning.
In retrospect, Toronto’s run to the playoffs could not have happened at a better time. They can now draw on that experience next season, when the East will be wide open.
As for the teams directly impacted? I think it’s safe to say that the Heat won’t be as good and that the Cavs will be significantly better. Having said that, I don’t think that either team will be as good as Miami was over the last four years.
The time is right
This also makes what the Raptors were able to do in free agency all the more important. The signings of Lowry, Patterson, Vasquez and James Johnson, as well as the acquisition of Lou Williams, should have this team brimming with confidence.
Last season, the Miami Heat were the limit to how far any team could go in the East.
In 2014-15, that barrier to success will not longer exist.
The Raptors, as much as any other team, should be gearing up to take advantage of this opportunity.