The Raptors, these wonderful accidental pseudo-contenders, have fundamental flaws beyond playing in the same conference as LeBron James. The makeover starts now, in a summer fraught with difficult choices that will chart the franchise's course over the next half-decade.
"The summer is huge," Masai Ujiri, the team's GM, told ESPN.com after Sunday's game. "But every summer is huge. We are trying to keep up with the big boys."
Toronto scored 101.3 points per 100 possessions in these playoffs, 14th among playoff teams, and almost nine points below its strong regular-season mark.
Toronto scored 99 points per 100 possessions in last year's playoffs, dead last among teams that won a series, and eight points below its strong regular-season mark.
Toronto scored 95.4 points per 100 possessions in the 2014-15 playoffs, next-to-last among playoff teams, and a hideous 13 points below its strong regular-season mark.
You can explain this away if you want. The sample sizes are small. Toronto shot horribly on wide-open 3s against the Cavs; if a few more go in, the series would have been at least semi-competitive.
Kyle Lowry was gimpy when the Wizards Avada Kedavra'd Toronto two years ago in another sweep. Lowry missed the last two games of this year's loss to LeBron with a badly sprained ankle. Toronto made the conference finals last season, and an optimist might consider this an equivalent outcome: the Raptors lost to the presumptive conference champs a round earlier, and would have (perhaps) been favored against Washington or Boston had the seedings broken right.
Maybe they are still the second-best team in the conference.
But at some point, the rationalizations grow strained. Something about the Raptors' offense just doesn't work in the playoffs. Their run to the conference finals last season was among the least inspiring in history: seven-game squeakers over one mediocre team and one forgettable 48-win Miami team. The great William Lou of the blog Raptors Republic has taken to calling Toronto "Clippers East," but they are not really on that level despite advancing a round further.
Their ceiling has never been as high. They have never had anyone as good as Chris Paul or peak Blake Griffin. They have never conquered a playoff team in the same universe as the defending champion Spurs that LA outlasted in a classic 2015 series.
Toronto's All-Star backcourt underperforms every postseason, to the point that the team's public relations department included in its game notes last week a nugget showing how many times DeMar DeRozan failed to reached double figures in the playoffs.
Perhaps the pressure unnerves them, though DeRozan responds to every stinker with a 30-point explosion. Maybe the lack of collective playmaking in Toronto's low-assist system is more of a handicap in the playoffs, when teams trap DeRozan and Lowry, and dare Toronto to beat them with passing and shooting the Raptors don't have. Is that on the coaching staff for building that system, and failing to adapt? Or is that style in the DNA of Toronto's star players?
Regardless: The offense fails in April and May, and the team as presently constituted is miles from threatening Cleveland. The Cavaliers give no thought to anyone in the East beyond John Wall and Bradley Beal. This is not just about missing open shots; the Raptors actually shot 39 percent against Cleveland on semi-open 3s, with the nearest defender between four and six feet from the shooter, best among all teams in the conference semifinals.
The Raptors enter a pivotal offseason with clarity. They just have to decide what to do about it.
"I have to evaluate," Ujiri said. "It's hard to answer that question right now."
What they won't do: Bring back this same group. Doing so would vault them at least $30 million over the luxury tax, for a total bill of something like $250 million. You don't pay that for a noncontender.
It will be hard for Toronto to duck the tax if it retains Lowry and Serge Ibaka, even if its other two core free agents -- PJ Tucker and plus-minus god Patrick Patterson -- walk away. Salary-dumping DeMarre Carroll was always the Raptors' get-out-of-the-tax card, but Carroll's decline has been so severe they would likely have to attach a first-round pick as a sweetener. Trading Jonas Valanciunas loomed as the alternate cost-cutting measure, but no one needs a center. The most likely Valanciunas deals would return someone else's unwanted big fella.
Toronto could move Cory Joseph's $7.6 million deal in a hot second, but that alone wouldn't get it under the tax if both Ibaka and Lowry re-sign. The Raptors' ownership group is flush with sweet, sweet hockey cash; it can afford going $5 million or more over the tax. But even that brings some roster-building restrictions, and well-run teams usually don't pay the tax when there are easy paths to avoiding it.
Everything starts with Lowry, Toronto's best player, and one of the most important in franchise history. Toronto can offer Lowry a five-year, $200 million-plus deal; rivals can offer only four-year deals starting at the same maximum annual salary of around $35 million. Ujiri has always erred on the side of retaining players, even if it's just to trade them later -- as he famously did with Nene Hilario in Denver.
DeRozan wants Lowry back, but won't lobby him, he told ESPN.com on Sunday. "I didn't call or pressure him the first time, and he didn't do that to me," DeRozan said. "I'm just gonna be there for him as a friend."
DeRozan insists these Raptors are close, despite the sweep. "We're not missing much," he said. "I'm gonna come back better, like I always do. The rest is on the front office to figure out."
The Raptors would be right to feel queasy offering Lowry the full boat. He is 31, with some nicks and bruises. Point guards don't tend to age well. Ibaka is younger, and will probably get around $20 million per season on his next contract -- much less than Lowry.
Play hardball with Lowry, and he might leave -- just like Al Horford bolted Atlanta after the Hawks haggled over that dicey fifth season. Lowry's a prickly, proud dude, and he will have suitors -- including his hometown Sixers. He signed what turned out to be a wildly below-market contract in 2014, and he (justifiably) wants to be paid as a franchise guy. He led the sad-sack Raptors out of the sullen Andrea Bargnani era, to places where they had never been.
Say goodbye to Lowry, and there is little reason to pay Ibaka. Barring a major salary dump, the Raptors would not have enough cap room even with Lowry gone to add shooting around the DeRozan-Ibaka core.
Ibaka is trending the wrong way. He's a good spot-up shooter, but opponents still mostly leave him open. He doesn't have the sort of gravitational pull that changes the geometry of the floor. His defense has fallen off. He can't post up, and he still has zero playmaking skills. Pass him the ball in open space, and the music stops. He holds the ball, the scrambled defense resets itself, and every window closes.
If Lowry leaves, the rational move, as painful as it would be after this era of good feelings, is a full teardown. LeBron isn't going anywhere. Boston, Washington, and Milwaukee are rising. Toronto has collected a bunch of interesting young players in Norman Powell, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright. Unleash the kids, lose a lot of games, and play the high lottery again.
Remember: These Raptors are an accident. Ujiri has long acknowledged that. Trading Rudy Gay in 2014 was step one in a possible tank job. Sending Lowry to the Knicks would have finished it, but the deal fell apart. Ujiri isn't satisfied with being good, and he has shown a willingness to take extreme measures in pursuing championship-level greatness.
There should be a tanking window again next season. Philly hopes to make a leap. Brooklyn will chase veterans in free agency. The Lakers will dangle prospects for Paul George. The Suns, Wolves and Kings will try to win games. The path from the playoffs to a top-4 pick is open.
That path probably requires trading DeRozan, beloved among fans and within the team. He's good enough to drag the kiddos and remaining veterans to 30-plus wins -- too many for a proper tank.
Flipping him for great value would not be easy. He's due $27 million per year through 2021, and he's a tricky piece: a non-shooter who needs the ball. The wayward Bulls already have a better version of that player. Ditto for the Thunder, searching for Russell Westbrook's co-star.
DeRozan would make an awkward fit next to Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota. DeRozan's hometown Lakers are hungry for a starry splash, but DeRozan is not a Luke Walton-style player; if Walton has any juice in Magic Johnson's world, a DeRozan deal might be a no-go. Boston will not spend its precious assets on DeRozan.
The Hornets would have to send out ugly matching salary. Bryan Colangelo drafted DeRozan and loves him, but DeRozan is an awful fit next to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The Kazoos are on hold until they sort out the Carmelo Anthony fiasco. Denver and Dallas might look, but it's hard to find a workable deal; the Nuggets love Gary Harris. New Orleans has nothing to trade. Maybe the Raptors could try hoodwinking the Kings again.
This path is unpleasant. It is pain. It is empty seats, dull crowds and dino sadness as the Maple Leafs rise. Bottoming out guarantees nothing. Sometimes you get Tim Duncan. Sometimes you get Bargnani.
Staying good is safer. Staying good is OK. There is honor in competing, even if no one in the East can compete with LeBron. Chasing rings and living in the toilet are not the only two choices.
The bet here is that Ujiri has earned the political capital and job security to try whatever he wants. He has shrewdly built two teams at once: an annual 50-win team of veterans, and a rising group of prospects snared in the draft and via smart trades. If he wants to go young, he probably has ownership buy-in. If he thinks he can keep straddling the line between competing and rebuilding, you can't blame him.
Perhaps the best way to do that: Re-sign Lowry, even if it takes the full max, let Ibaka go and fill the power forward vacancy with multiple players on shorter, cheaper contracts. That is risky. The last two years of Lowry's five-year deal will hurt.
But I'm confident Lowry will be an All-Star-level player for the next two seasons, maybe three. He has fewer miles on the odometer than the typical 31-year-old. Shooting sustains. Ibaka has never been an All-Star, and every indicator shows an aging big in decline. I'm not sure Ibaka on a four-year, $85 million deal is any more tradable than Lowry at the full max.
The Raptors could use Bird Rights to re-sign one of Patterson and Tucker to soak up power forward minutes. If they've tired of both, they could use the midlevel exception to target a shooting power forward with more natural playmaking skills -- someone like Jonas Jerebko or Omri Casspi. (Doing both would likely take them too far over the tax to be palatable.)
That's a good team, and the Raptors in that scenario would be locked into only two long-term mega-deals -- Lowry and DeRozan -- instead of three. They could have cap flexibility in the summer of 2019, when Carroll and (pending a player option for 2020) Valanciunas come off the books.
In the meantime, they could continue to work the margins. Maybe Powell pops. Maybe Valanciunas rediscovers his form from last season's playoffs, and turns into an appealing trade asset. Maybe Poeltl thrives in his place, or becomes an intriguing trade piece himself. Maybe a desperate team overpays for DeRozan two years from now. Maybe Ujiri swindles another rival, or nails one of those franchise-altering picks outside the lottery.
It wouldn't shock me if that status quo path -- or, really, any path -- involves changing coaches. Dwane Casey has done good work in Toronto, but the offense is stale. It falls apart when the games really matter. If the Raptors don't change the main players, they may want to see if changing the coach unsticks things.
These are hard choices. They force organizations to confront their core beliefs about the very purpose of professional sports. They are not fun to face. But this sweep laid it bare: It is time for Toronto to face them.