Give the Raptors credit for this much: In a league where it’s not uncommon for players to air their grievances publicly, Toronto’s NBA team hid its internal strife very well this past season.
Of course, they couldn’t hide the terrible on-court chemistry that was obvious to anyone tuning in. Even team president Masai Ujiri couldn’t top the ugliness of the product, calling his team out for “selfish” play at the trade deadline before admitting at season’s end that, like many of us, he didn’t even enjoy watching his own team play.
Still, looking back … there was that January halftime between star Scottie Barnes and forward Thaddeus Young. To an outsider, the incident looked like Young, a 35-year-old veteran, tried to tell the truth to the 21-year-old Barnes, who responded dismissively.
Although it was immediately brushed under the rug, there were also murmurs as Barnes stagnated in the wake of his rookie-of-the-year campaign that Barnes had been far more excited about shooting offseason commercials than practice-lab jumpers . And speaking of habits, at least Barnes acknowledged at the end of the season that he wasn’t in enough shape to make the competitive leap many envisioned.
“I probably need a different level of conditioning for the way I want to play,” he said.
Which, as preachers say, seems like a solid bit of self-awareness, albeit a belated one.
Still, the persistent Raptorland trade rumors suggest Ujiri isn’t convinced an in-form Barnes along with new head coach Darko Rajakovic will equate to enough offseason turnover to make significant changes, let alone tangible improvement — especially with the gaping hole at point guard left by Fred VanVleet’s free-agent flight to Houston.
The idea that Pascal Siakam would be the logical odd man out in a deal to further rebuild the roster has been brewing for a long time. And while Ujiri has a reputation for overvaluing his players at the expense of pulling the trigger on trades, no one who follows the team closely would be surprised to see Siakam moved in the lead-up to a contract year.
And maybe that would be for the best. If the recipe is not right, it only makes sense to change the ingredients. And as VanVleet suggested last week, the recipe in Toronto probably needs more than a little tweaking.
“There was a mix of guys who had been there, new guys who were trying to prove themselves — it didn’t work out. It wasn’t a good fit, for whatever reason,” VanVleet said “The Pivot” podcast with former NFLers Channing Crowder, Fred Taylor and Ryan Clark. “The chemistry didn’t click. And that’s probably the most I can say about it.”
VanVleet went on to point out that the chemistry issue is not necessarily a raptor problem. It’s societal and generational — a sports flashpoint that highlights the differences in sensibilities of millennials, as represented by the 29-year-olds like VanVleet and Siakam and members of the so-called Gen Z, among them the 21-year-old Barnes.
“We’re in the middle of a new generation. A whole new generation of kids coming into the NBA that’s a little bit different than (how, for example, I was raised in the game),” VanVleet told the podcast. “And I think that’s where you see some of the (excitement).”
One of the podcast hosts suggested that the new generation of NBAers is “soft”. But VanVleet was less judgmental in his assessment. VanVleet said people in his age group span a kind of divide — one whose inflection point is the rise of social media — that makes them inherently different from teammates who grew up fully under the influence of the influential technology.
“For the first half of my childhood, there was no social media; it was play outside: X, Y, Z,” VanVleet said.
When VanVleet entered high school, he said social media began to take off.
“I’m kind of right in the middle, on that line. So I understand there’s a whole new generation coming after me,” he said.
Again, this is hardly just a Barnes problem or a Raptors problem, and it’s intractable. Still, the Golden State Warriors recently salvaged parts of a youth movement, trading 22-year-old James Wiseman and 24-year-old Jordan Poole after clear tensions between a multi-title veteran core and the relative newcomers. In doing so, they doubled down on experience by acquiring 38-year-old Chris Paul in the deal that sent Poole out.
And while the Warriors have held on to 20-year-old Jonathan Kuminga and 21-year-old Moses Moody, there are those in the organization who have recognized that bridging the generation gap comes with challenges.
“You end up having to learn their generation because you just can’t lead them the way you could lead someone who’s our generation,” Draymond Green, the Warriors’ 33-year-old forward, was quoted as saying last month . . “You figure out what buttons to push and how to get to them and how to process them and what’s the best way.”
As VanVleet said on the podcast, the key for players and teams is to “be able to adapt and adjust … (and) try to find better ways to handle things.” Ideally better than the Raptors managed last season.
“I’ve learned a lot. You always have to keep learning and try to find better ways to handle things,” VanVleet said. “But my two years with the new team that we had in Toronto, I think it will give me a lot of valuable experience going forward in my next situation.”
To clarify: He said he learned a lot playing alongside Toronto’s Gen Zers. He didn’t say he would miss them. No one is sure to miss the elusive way the Raptors played basketball together last season.
“The same way when you win a championship and everybody’s level rises and everybody gets paid and everybody wins awards, when you underperform, it’s the same thing,” VanVleet said. “The coach will be fired. Your starting guard is no longer there. Your best player on the team (Siakam) is now in trade rumors every day. It goes hand in hand.”
Hand in hand, from Toronto to Houston, VanVleet doesn’t sound very sad to be gone. The more we learn about the strained internal dynamics in Raptorland, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Siakam, for any number of reasons beyond those mentioned here, might also be better off elsewhere. If the plan is for Toronto to build around representatives of Gen Z, a max-contract millennial doesn’t seem like an obvious fit in more ways than one.
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