Yes, the Toronto Raptors were eliminated by the Philadelphia 76ers last week. They demonstrated potential in their first-round series but didn’t have the chops to take down the 76ers.
While fan bases are generally indifferent about first-round eliminations, Raptors fans should be ecstatic. Not because they should perceive a playoff appearance as a success. That’s nothing to write home about. No, Toronto fans should instead be happy about the quick rebuild from their 2019 championship team, and the underlying foundation they’ve built.
Before we dive into exactly how Toronto accomplished their turnaround, let’s take inventory of the other 29 teams’ recent successes, or lack thereof. There are 16 teams that haven’t won a championship in 20 or more years and five that haven’t won in 40 or more years. There are also 13 teams that haven’t made the NBA Finals in 10 or more years and 14 teams that haven’t won a playoff series in three or more years.
Juxtapose that with Toronto’s situation. As I mentioned above, the Raptors won the 2019 championship in their 24th season in the league. They did so by being ultra-aggressive in adding Kawhi Leonard. While history could view the decision to swap DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick for only one year of Leonard negatively, the fact of the matter is that DeRozan and Kyle Lowry led Toronto as far as they could. The only way the Raptors were going to win big was by acting boldly, which is exactly what they did.
But bold moves like adding players on expiring contracts can backfire, as it did for Toronto with Leonard leaving. Leonard was a particularly risky gamble given that his desire to return to Southern California was a badly-kept secret.
As many expected, Leonard signed with the Los Angeles Clippers as an unrestricted free agent in 2019. The Raptors' pursuit (and acquisition) of a championship cost them the ability to compete for the foreseeable future, or at least that’s how it was initially perceived.
Surprisngly, 2019-20 went well for the Raptors. They received contributions from nearly everyone on their roster. The next season didn't go nearly as well, perhaps due to the loss of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka (or maybe something else entirely). Whatever the reason, the 2020-21 Raptors finished the season 27-45, good for the sixth-worst record in the league.
But those struggles were short-lived. The 2021-22 season started out well with victories in six of their first nine games. The Raptors miraculously ended this season with a 48-34 record, good for fifth-best in the Eastern Conference.
Park Life - Ep.6— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) April 29, 2022
Thanks for riding with us all year long! We appreciate y’all and can’t wait to see you next season. pic.twitter.com/EzK3bKK05L
Rebuilds are tricky in the NBA. The 76ers underwent a painful rebuild from 2013-2018. The Knicks have arguably been stuck in a rebuild since 2001. So, how did Toronto accomplish it after just one year? Much of the credit is owed to their president of basketball operations, Masai Ujiri.
Ujiri re-signed with the Raptors last Summer after joining Toronto in 2013. Before landing with Canada’s only NBA franchise, Ujiri was the Denver Nuggets’ general manager from 2010 to 2013, where he won executive of the year in 2012-13.