Talent is a prerequisite. In the NBA, if you have to win – and win big — you have to be one of the league’s most skilled, most cohesive teams. To reach the highest level of competition, to truly be in the championship, you have to stack great player on top of great player. And then you have to make it fit.
In the lead-up to and aftermath of the Raptors’ 2019 NBA championship, then-coach Nick Nurse referred to his group of “special players.” Kawhi Leonard, when healthy, is an all-timer. Kyle Lowry is likely headed for the Hall of Fame, and Marc Gasol has a 50-50 chance of joining him there. Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam were third-year players who went on to sign their next contracts for a combined $222 million. Norman Powell’s next contract brought him $20 million a year. Serge Ibaka was a three-time first-team all-defensive selection who accepted a minor role, while Danny Green is one of the great glue guys in modern league history. The 2018-19 Raptors weren’t the happiest NBA team ever, but they liked each other enough to win when it mattered. A year later, even with Leonard and Green gone, they were among the best teams in the league — and yes, the happiest, too.
Gathering that much talent is very, very difficult and requires a whole lot of work and luck. If you don’t want to get overly excited about the prospect of seeing the 2023-24 Raptors because they’ll likely look like the 2022-23 Raptors, strictly from a read-the-roster perspective, that’s fair. This team won 48 games two years ago and just 41 last year. The starting point guard and center are free agents, every possible flight risk with no obvious plan B for either of them. The Raptors must pay full freight to keep VanVleet and Jakob Poeltl.
With all that said, after last year’s dismal march toward mediocrity, the early signs of this offseason are at least refreshing. People smile. Humans are excited to be associated with the raptors, not openly pondering their exits.
“I never want to go into something and try to be somebody that I’m not, like going into the tunnel with a stone face and trying to be too cool for something,” 13th overall pick/ruby red enthusiast Gradey Dick told Toronto- reporters about an hour after the Raptors selected him in Thursday night’s NBA Draft. “I’ll never be like that and I’ll never lose that, ever. Go out there, have fun. That’s when I have the most fun in my life when I’m playing basketball and being able to show my emotions.”
Scrolling TikTok isn’t my thing, but a cursory search of his social media activity makes it clear that Dick is a goofy extrovert. He certainly had a bunch of Raptors staffers smiling on Thursday (in, it should be noted, a heavily edited video produced by very talented team staff professionals).
“I think he’s able to connect with people and show … he (is) a little bit quirky and probably that’s how we all … connect with people,” the Raptors general said manager Bobby Webster about Dick’s social media presence.
Draft day too contained a report that Siakam’s strong preference was to stay in Toronto and he wouldn’t entertain signing an extension with a team that traded for him this offseason with a year left on his contract. Now, it’s probably as much about creating leverage than an abiding love for the Raptors, but it’s not the worst public feeling to have from your team’s best player. A bunch of other teams would probably sign up for it.
Then there’s new coach Darko Rajaković, who in these early days is a beacon of genuine positivity. When Rajaković was hired as head coach, Rajaković wrote a four-tweet thread thanking everyone who helped him reach this stage, a level of NBA seriousness just a few notches down from Giannis Antetokounmpos. early career enthusiasm for smoothies.
The Raptors could use those vibes, for lack of a better word. Early last season, Scottie Barnes looked so miserable and lethargic on the field that he had an early-year meeting with a couple of reporters, clarifying that yes, he was still having fun out there. As the losses mounted, an avalanche of disappointing results tested Siakam’s “you might as well have fun, because being miserable doesn’t make defeats wins” mantra.
Pelicans guard and NBPA president CJ McCollum said on his podcast that there was a palpable calamity over the Raptors. Nurse admitted in January that the “energy mood” was off. Except for Barnes’ halftime disagreement with Thaddeus Young, nothing really spilled out publicly. The general mood was undeniably bad.
“I didn’t enjoy watching this team play, and I think that spoke loud and clear to everything that happened this year,” Masai Ujiri said after he fired Nurse. “It bothered us.”
“I think you always want chemistry and camaraderie,” Webster added Thursday night. “And I think we’ve talked about it all in the offseason, just energy and excitement. But I think basketball has to be there first.”
That’s the biggest thing. It’s easy for things to feel good in the offseason, especially around the draft, when youthful enthusiasm — blissful ignorance, one might cynically say — is added to the mix. Chemistry and vibes matter most when you’ve lost four games in a row. Until then, you can only hope that these things contribute to unity on the field (in games and practices). There are serious questions about the fit of this roster, and it’s fair to be skeptical of how much a coach with a lighter touch and a chipper rookie can change that.
However, they cannot hurt. It feels good to feel good.
(Top photo of Gradey Dick: Melanie Fidler/Getty Images)