NBA teams are loath to admit defeat in the first place, so imagine what fantastical sense of security and perspective it must take to cop to a generational defeat.
The Toronto Raptors are just about there. The team augmented its Game 3 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers with notes from Kyle Lowry on LeBron James’ looming presence, as told to Adrian Wojnarowski at The Vertical:
“They’ve got LeBron James,” Lowry told The Vertical late Friday night. “Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.”
Mind you, this was still placed with the Raptors working with a game left in its season. The whole point of a Game 4, even with Lowry on the pine after his attempt to ignore the debilitating pain in his ankle proved too much of a task, is to close “the gap” on LeBron James. Lowry was already past that. He went on:
“I don’t know when his prime is going to stop,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon. I think he’ll be able to continue what he’s doing for a long time. But that’s basketball. You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.”
“LeBron ain’t breaking spirits here, but he’s just that good.”
Few would posit that the Toronto Raptors – winners of three straight Atlantic Division titles between 2014-16, a 51-win team in 2016-17 – are anything less than “good,” but the fact remains that LeBron and his Cavaliers absolutely outclassed the Raptors in four postseason contests this time around, winning by a total of 61 points in a four game sweep. Toronto is about to find out what certain personalities, general manager Masai Ujiri and Lowry sharing equal billing in this regard, do when they hit the wall.
All the hallmarks of this particular autopsy are well-worn, in ways that predated Cleveland’s surgical, seven-day elimination of the squad that also fell (in six) to the eventual champs in 2016.
Kyle Lowry would have opted out of the $12 million player option for 2017-18 even had LeBron James gone into dentistry, and for the first time in this relationship it appears as if the decision to retain Lowry as a Raptor for next season and beyond might not be the Raptors’ decision to make.
Lowry’s willingness to talk himself into committing to his 30s in Toronto, at the rate of in upward of $200 million, is for the summer to reveal. As is Raptors GM Ujiri’s insistence on retaining the team that was handed to him with prime parts in place back in 2013: Lowry on board, DeMar DeRozan developing under what grew into a wildly reasonable contract, Jonas Valanciunas already in hand.
DeRozan will make over $27.7 million a season between now and 2021, though, while Valanciunas (despite those nice enough 14-point, six-rebound contributions against the champs) can’t play on a lot of playoff nights. Recently-acquired Serge Ibaka looks but hardly plays like a perfect fit, something about working two different defensive positions for the Raptors during the postseason, while he and fellow big Patrick Patterson will work as unrestricted free agents this summer. The same goes for P.J. Tucker, defensive maven who still could not get in the way of LeBron James during this latest semifinal loss, same as DeMarre Carroll (two years, $30.2 million left). Every prominent option – the half-rebuild, keeping prominent parts like Lowry and/or Ibaka, any deals sending DeRozan and/or Valanciunas out – leaves the team wary of rubbing up against the luxury tax.
For a team that likes each other, but … you read what Kyle Lowry said.
Fresh starts are hard to come by for semifinal losers, the walk down the path toward destruction rarely comes without complication and regret. With DeRozan, Carroll and Valanciunas still under contract, the team isn’t exactly replete with salary cap room should Lowry, Ibaka and Patterson leave. More compelling is the idea that still wouldn’t exactly be Masai Ujiri’s team if he went for the half-rebuild: Toronto has waited for four years to see what Ujiri can do with a clean slate, and though this is the closest he’s come to a clean slate, the 2017 offseason hardly ranks as kitchen-clean.
Whatever he has left, whatever the Raptors have left to look forward to with Lowry on board, it won’t give the Cleveland Cavaliers pause. LeBron James seemed more bothered by his team’s third-string point guard situation this season than he did a Toronto team put together with the knowledge that championship contention (let alone NBA championships) would come through LeBron.
And if that deadening realization – that James and his defending champs treated Toronto’s would-be usurpers like room temperature pate at a convention nobody wanted to be at – wasn’t enough, then look what Cavs coach Tyronn Lue left Raptors fans with over the weekend:
“There’s a reason why guys like Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller don’t have championships, because of Michael Jordan. And now, in this era, because of LeBron James.”
Lue (after one ring with James) isn’t fully aligning himself with the forces that made James’ previous championship runs so destructive, he’s just working as an observer in this field. This is what players like LeBron James tend to do to people – to teams, to cities, to generations of fans – when players like LeBron and Jordan get a team worth their time to run with.
What did Charles Barkley do with that? He got the hell out of Jordan’s bracket, forcing a trade out of Philadelphia and into Phoenix in 1992 after two semifinal losses to Michael Jordan’s Bulls, and a lottery appearance in Jordan’s first title year in 1991. Barkley moved west to the Suns for awfully little in return, unappealing-even-then rotation players and a fringe All-Star in Jeff Hornacek, but even the West provided a problem: Phoenix barely got out of the first round in 1993 prior to falling to Jordan’s Bulls in the Finals, and Western bracket failings in 1994, 1995 and 1996. Ujiri can’t even rank DeRozan alongside Charles Barkley’s MVP-styled play from 1992, even before considering what 2017’s version of a Jeff Hornacek return might look like.
Patrick Ewing stuck it out with his Knicks, signing a six-year deal in 1991 just a few months after Jordan won his first title in Chicago. Ewing committed (at $33 million total, the largest contract for a team sports athlete at the time) in full to lasting out Jordan’s prime on a Knicks team that had already lost twice to Jordan’s pre-championship Bulls. Ewing infamously (grinning, charmingly) guaranteed a Knick championship in just about each of his team’s failures to hit the summit, but not even three significant do-overs (the hiring of Pat Riley a year after Ewing’s contract agreement, a brief and uncommitted move to Don Nelson-styled ball in 1995-96, a full on championship-aimed rebuild behind Ewing in 1996) brought the Knicks to a title.
Reggie Miller stuck with his crew as well, signing a contract with the Pacers in 1991 and turning down Knick overtures during the summer of 1996 to stay with Indiana. By the time Miller and Michael Jordan’s Bulls met in the 1998 Eastern finals, Miller was actually beyond his peak and enjoying a bit of a second wind as a franchise star, and while those Pacers were one of two Eastern teams (the 1992 Cavaliers ranking as another) to take Jordan to seven games 1998, the Pacer impact (the team had missed the postseason the year before) hardly made a dent in Chicago’s championships run prior to the tussle in Jordan’s final year with the Bulls.
All three had their chances following Jordan’s retirement – Miller fell short in the 2000 Finals, Barkley’s last-gasp attempts with Scottie Pippen and an aging Houston club failed, Ewing wasn’t even on the court when his similarly banged-up Knicks met the Spurs in the 1999 Finals – but none got away with a ring. The Pacers, 76ers and Knicks have yet to win a title in the years since for reasons that can’t be blamed on the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, but the drought remains. Through the generations.
Fans in each of these outposts, though, still talk about the battles against as if they were recalling their team’s own championship run. Only eight teams have won an NBA title since 1991, which means huge scads of other NBA clubs have seen their championship drought outlast a pair (or more) of generations, but not every two-time loser gets to say they pushed Michael Jordan to the brink. Fans from New York and Indiana can certainly say as much, and they certainly appreciate their franchise’s move to sustain life as a thorn in MJ’s side, as opposed to the quick and sensible turnaround. Which probably would have only ended up with Joe Smith, anyway.
Toronto Raptors fans can’t say their team has taken LeBron James to the brink, though. Far from it. There is little to suggest that the Raptors have the makeup and versatility offensively to make the Raptors sweat, and though we don’t doubt the team’s temerity, signing up for another 82-game season for the right to stare LeBron (just a year and a half older than Kyle Lowry) down again seems daunting at this point. Enervating.
Then again, it’s only May, and the summer tends to change perspective for each NBA club. Still, it would be fascinating to see Masai Ujiri and the Raptors act upon what Kyle Lowry already told The Vertical, even if the team’s heart and soul was speaking at his lowest of professional moments.
Other teams that are gone until November:
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