The raptors may be in the middle of the Eastern Conference, but they’re not stuck

Before last season, Masai Ujiri told CBC that he saw him wild birds Not as a team for the present, but as a team for the future. After a year in which his team comfortably exceeded the modest expectations set for him by basketball intellectuals, Ojiri didn’t change his answer. Despite capturing the fifth seed and taking two matches of supremacy 76ers In the first round, Ojiri said in a post-season press conference that he still believed in the Raptors’ future, and didn’t see them as a team at the moment.

Let’s give Ojiri credit for not using these media as spin-offs, as they usually are. No matter how much Ojiri really believed what he was saying, his actions or inaction, which followed those words, greatly supported her in this matter. Kevin Durantan instant ticket to the competition championship, although there are questions about his age, health and happiness, a trade request, and Ojiri refuses to ask Scotty Barnes On the table, eliminating the possibility of trade – for now. It was said that birds of prey are interested Utah‘s Rudy Gobert، MinnesotaView the changing landscape of the defensive anchor. finally, Donovan Mitchella flawed player that would have at least dealt with the Raptors’ biggest weakness, the half-court offense, hitting the market, and the Raptors didn’t inhale it.

Mitchell moved on Thursday, with the Jazz trading him to Cleveland for everything Cavaliers You can give him, more or less. with apologies Colin Sexton And the Laurie MarkanenThe point here was the picks, and Utah got everything possible from the Cavaliers: the 2022 Ochair Agbagi lottery pick, the unprotected first round in 2025, 2027 and 2029 as well as the right to swap picks with Cleveland in 2026 and 2028. Basically the equivalent of What Timberwolves relinquished to Joubert and the kind of deal that, for myriad reasons, didn’t exist for Durant–hence his continued stay in Brooklyn.

From the Raptors’ perspective, the fact that the Cavaliers did this type of trade is the most interesting aspect of the move. If Ojiri thinks the raptors are still on their way and need more time to coalesce, what makes this Cavaliers team? The top five Raptors players from a long-term perspective are 28 (Fred Vanfleet And the Pascal I’m sorry), 25 (and Anonobi), 23 (Gary Trent Jr.) and 21 (Scotty Barnes). Before the trade, the top five players in the Cavaliers were 25 (Markanen), 24 (Garrett Allen), 23 (Sexton, who was a restricted free agent before the trade, and a restricted free agent at the time of the deal), 22 (Darius Garland) and 21 (Evan Mobley). From a team building standpoint, the Cleveland is smaller than the Raptors, yet a team that just made the all-out trade that has imported a 26-year-old star (as of Wednesday) three times. He has another three years left on his contract.

They aren’t the only team that finished behind the Raptors in the Eastern Conference to trade a top team maker this off season, like Atlantawho finished ninth in the conference and beat Cleveland in the Play-In Championship to earn the right to be wiped out by the top seed Miamiacquired Dignity Murray From San Antonio in June. Meanwhile, the Raptors retained their free agents and signed Otto Porter Jr. It was very much an informal process of taking care of the business for the Raptors, not a franchise change. Ojiri, Bobby Webster, and their partners have certainly earned the right to build the Raptors as they see fit, but we’re about to start hearing the usual tune about a good-but-not-great team building with caution: They’re stuck in the middle.

I’d argue a lot with the word “stuck,” but in a year when most fandom believes success will be determined by progressing deeper into the playoffs than last year, prepare for most observers to expect the Raptors to return from fifth place somewhere in the playing range.

• Among the first four seeds of last year, the CelticsBucks, Heat and 76ers, only Miami look like a potential relegation, and the Heat, like the Raptors, regularly beat expectations.

• Brooklyn kept Durant and Keri Irving It will be assumed Ben Simmons Available to play basketball. We know things can fall apart with bed nets, but it’s reasonable to expect that last year was closer to a worst-case scenario for that group than an average result.

• Atlanta and Cleveland have improved, as discussed, in fairly obvious ways.

Chicago He was one of the top teams in the conference for two-thirds of last season, yet injuries derail their defensive potential.

This does not mean that the above eight teams will finish above the Raptors, or even that they are “better” than the Raptors. Teams don’t get done all the time, while raptors tend to do the opposite. However, these teams are committed to maximizing their chances of winning in the short term in a way that the Raptors do not. There is a difference on the other end of the spectrum, like pistons And the Charm, who have a lot of young talent and discovery. The Pacers It is in the process of reaching the bottom. The Raptors don’t have much in common with the three unnamed Eastern Conference teams – the nicksAnd the processors And the Hornetsthe most frustrating trio in the conference – but they don’t fit neatly into any of the teams “going for it” or accepting another lottery selection either.

We’ll hear how Ojiri puts this in the context of Media Day. (Three weeks later!) He and Webster have as much job security as any front desk in the league, so the only pressure they face, is that they put on themselves. Sure, players like Mitchell will be available again, and soon, because that’s what happens in NBA. (We can’t say the same about a Durant-quality player, only because Durant is a special case, as evidenced by his being the extremely rare superstar to ask for a deal and never receive one.) The Raptors don’t have a war chest of other teams’ selections to go after a theoretically available star, though That, which means that they would have to sell themselves in bulk to make such a move, something Ujiri never did.

The Raptors are trying to win in the present while simultaneously improving their future prospects, which they have done with success in the past. Before we all head off the Raptors for eighth or ninth in the Eastern standings, let’s remember that they exceeded their expected winning totals each year they were in Toronto while Ojiri was in charge. (Hi, Tampa!) The Raptors front desk is good, and their training and development staff in general deserve the praise they receive.

What’s more: Ojiri knows how it seems that progress doesn’t happen in a linear fashion. The unlikely success in 2013-2014 was followed by embarrassment in the playoffs in 2014-2015, and Ojiri figured out how to pivot while not changing lanes entirely. He will move forward on his own schedule, assessing every opportunity as they arise.

Let’s not pretend any of this is simple. No, birds of prey are not stuck in the middle. It is just their current residence. Let’s see what happens if and when Ujiri is forced to turn again.

(Top photo by OG Anunoby and Evan Mobley: Dan Hamilton / USA TODAY)