I used to play a lot of “what-if” games with my clients when I was a therapist. It wasn’t always easy and there was a fair share of angry, bitter moments, but the exercise in itself was beneficial. One thing was certain—the conversations were a lot easier when things were good and we were analyzing how things could have been much worse if they followed a different course.
In sports, the “what-ifs” are all interwoven in the cynical narrative of the suffering fan. As a big Minnesota Vikings backer, looking back at my clamoring for Russell Wilson during the draft leaves that script strongly replaying in my mind, as it does for about 25 other teams and countless fans. And each team has their moment of what-if, be it recent or the long-suffering variety, which shaped the franchise in positive or negative way. And the memory doesn’t tend to go quietly.
Again, the conversations are far more pleasant when you are looking back with relief instead of regret. For the Toronto Raptors, the overwhelming noise at the beginning of the season was that the prudent option for them was to concede an inability to compete and blow up the roster. An aggressive and forward-thinking new GM with a successful track record was certain to put “his” stamp on the team, wasn’t he?
After a tough start, I was resigned to that line of thinking; there was no way that GM Masai Ujiri was going to be caught in a no man’s land of competent enough to stay out of the cellar but merely average enough to pose no threat to the powers. A perpetual no man’s land was Ujiri’s hell. I was convinced he saw his Raptors as firmly relegated to it.
Then, the big move, which Uriji probably figured would have a negative trickle-down effect on the team, ended up having the opposite. And here they are, optimistic and hopeful, looking back on the what-if as a positive turning point in this franchise’s recent history.
But what if they had blown it up? It’s easier to think about now that things look good, but I have been thinking about that question a little of late. The outlook would be much different, that much I know, but how much different in terms of personnel and timeline for relevancy?
I specifically remember reading, after Rudy Gay was traded but before the Raptors really took off, that DeMar DeRozan was being shopped, albeit not as publically as Kyle Lowry. Imagine if the Raptors brass deemed it appropriate to rid themselves of everyone but Jonas Valanciunas in an effort to get a high pick in a loaded draft and, hopefully, Canadian golden boy Andrew Wiggins?
Suddenly, Wiggins doesn’t seem quite so mythical; frankly, neither does the entire draft class that GM’s were willing to move planets for. After the romanticism of the draft, all that’s left are players, and the mystique wanes as reality sets in. Sure, the Philadelphia 76ers may be constructing something unusually special with their “asset without discrimination” approach, but they have a hell of a lot more questions than the Raptors.
So what could have been, you ask? Gay leaves and the Raptors can’t play, struggling mightily to score. The low energy at the thought of a lost season rubs off on the already temperamental Kyle Lowry and he is shipped off to the New York Knicks for maybe Tim Hardaway Jr. and some scraps. Then they feel like DeRozan isn’t the kind of piece you can build around and they put him up for sale. The league, seeing him as a one-dimensional volume scorer a la Gay, hardly offers good value. Uriji, though, firmly entrenched in his master plan, bites the bullet and makes a deal that’s ok. But it doesn’t return players.
So maybe they lose a ton. Maybe they win the lottery and get the Canadian shining star. But would Valanciunas and Wiggins and whatever they got in those trades really move the needle more than what they have planted right now? At some point, people become deaf to the idea that “yes, we’re struggling, but in three years….” The Raptors abandoned that narrative when things finally aligned, even if they didn’t intend for them to align. I like their current course.
Thank you Rudy Gay for taking that “instant offense” to any reasonable taker. You’ve been warned, Sacramento Kings. But I think they know what they’ve got.