NBA·Analysis

Time for the Raptors to try something new

This was supposed to be The Year for the Toronto Raptors. Instead, a team with promising playoff prospects made another early exit. So what next?

Changes needed after another quick playoff exit

Head coach Dwane Casey has fashioned the Raptors into a formidable regular-season team, but he hasn't been able to help them over the hump in the playoffs. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Well, that didn't go well.

In the end, it never seems to for the Toronto Raptors.

After winning a franchise-record 59 games during the regular season, this was finally supposed to be The Year for the Raptors — the year they silenced the American pundits, who Toronto fans feel never give their team enough love; the year they finally earned the respect the franchise has sought since joining the NBA in 1995; the year they finally shook off their shaky playoff history and vanquished LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers.

It didn't happen. Instead, the dream season came crashing down with a 35-point shellacking on Monday night in Cleveland to cap off a four-game sweep.

Game Wrap: LeBron, Cavaliers beat Raptors to sweep series

4 years ago
Duration 1:50
Cleveland defeats Toronto 128-93, wins series 4-0. LeBron James 29 points and 11 assists. 1:50

The script was all too familiar: a great regular season eclipsed, for the third year in a row, with a loss to LeBron and the Cavs in the playoffs.

"It's disappointing. Top five [ranking] in offence, top five in defence [during the regular season] and it's almost like we flipped a switch. Everything we tried to do just didn't click," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said afterwards.

In Toronto's 23 seasons in the NBA, the team has reached the Eastern Conference final only once. After a record-setting regular season that landed them the top seed in the East, it seemed like the Raptors were capable of going beyond that.

Winning in sports is often a fleeting intersection of skill and opportunity. And after the first round of the playoffs, things appeared to line up nicely. The defending conference champion Cavs, coming off an inconsistent regular season, seemed vulnerable — even with James leading the way. The Boston Celtics were without two of their best players after injuries sidelined Gordon Hayward and former Cav Kyrie Irving, while the upstart Sixers appeared talented but inexperienced.

But the Raptors quickly realized, as they seemingly do every post-season, that the gap between success in the regular season and the playoffs can be vast.

"It's a different game in playoffs, it's a totally different approach," Casey said.

"We couldn't get it clicking like we did in the regular season," added top scorer DeMar DeRozan.

The curse of LeBron

There seemed to be a sense among the Raptors' coaches and players that they were the victim of bad luck — the curse of having to face James, one of the game's all-time greats, for the third year in a row.

"That's a big part of it. It's a matchup nightmare for anybody," Casey said. "Everybody thought they were vulnerable, but as long as they have him they have a chance."

Added DeRozan: "Maybe they just have our number. Things just don't go right for us, whatever it is."

In the wake of the latest playoff meltdown, it's now time for a summer of hard questions about what's next.

LeBron James has been an insurmountable foe for Toronto over the last three years. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

"We can't let this series define us. We did some good things this year," Casey said. "There's another level we need to learn to get to and make that commitment to get to as an organization and as a team."

But how should the franchise be defined at this point?

After watching the same story unfold three years in a row, can the Raptors head into next season with this group intact?

The answer can't be yes.

Is it time for the dreaded rebuild? Time to blow things up and start again? Not quite. I don't think anybody in Toronto has the will or the patience to re-enter the NBA wilderness.

But change is needed.

Break up the core?

After four straight 50-win seasons, Casey's regular-season track record can't be questioned. But he's been unable to get the team to the next level in the playoffs.

"There are no moral victories in the NBA," Casey admitted.

It's hard to contemplate parting ways with someone who may win Coach of the Year, but maybe it's time for a new messenger in the locker room. And a new playoff plan.

And what about the roster? The franchise has committed tens of millions of dollars over the next two years to three high-priced players: DeRozan, guard Kyle Lowry and forward Serge Ibaka.

The hard-working DeRozan is saying all the right things after another playoff fizzle-out.

"I am going to sit down and evaluate myself from top to bottom and try and figure out, understand, study and come back a lot better," he said.

As well he should. But maybe it's time to consider moving him to another team and breaking up this core. Sometimes, the only way to improve your roster is by moving some of your best players. 

The franchise could also reward its loyal fan base by opening up its wallet. In recent years, the Raptors have opted to keep their payroll below the NBA's luxury-tax threshold while other top teams, like the Cavs, have been OK with paying the tax in order to maximize their rosters.

Whatever the direction, something has to change. This formula clearly isn't working.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC

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