The Toronto Raptors entered the postseason as a 48-win team, boasting the league’s ninth-best offense, ninth-best defense and ninth-highest net rating (per possession point differential).
They’re already very good on both ends, with DeMar DeRozan cracking his first All-Star game at the age of 24 and the ever-pugnacious Kyle Lowry mucking things up on defense, scoring from all over the place and directing traffic as one of the league’s better point guards.
Nobody expected the Toronto Raptors to win the Atlantic Division, and the perceptive odds on them finishing as a top-10 team dropped even further when they traded Rudy Gay for journeymen in early December.
It’s difficult to call this season’s success anything more than a glorious accident. But if Toronto won this many games without trying (from the context of roster construction, not on-court performance), how good can they be with a grounded foundation and identity?
The franchise's decisions this summer will only be related to getting better. There will be no talk of tanking or trading of key contributors for future assets. The time to win is now, and the Raptors are lucky to have a nucleus that’s strong enough to support a build towards the championship.
What's the very first step? Lowry, an unrestricted free agent, must be re-signed to a long-term deal. The 28-year-old All-Star snub watched his career surge in Toronto. He’s always been talented enough to compete as one of the best, but off-court and attitude-related issues chained him down.
He’s broken free with the Raptors, understanding his role as a leader is just as important as being a dominant playmaker.
As he recently told Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski:
I struggled to prove that I belonged. My first couple years in the NBA, my fear was that I was going to go to the D-League – and maybe never get back to the NBA. I was picked 24th and that's not the cushion that a lottery pick gets in the NBA. You get a few chances, and then you're done. Then you're just a label, never to be a frontline guy.
But I didn't want to be a backup. I hated that label. I did not want to be a backup in this league. I wasn't going to settle for it, and I think it rubbed people the wrong way. But I didn't want to be labeled as a journeyman, or a guy who has the talent, but just can't get it together. I wanted the label of a guy who's a winner. That's the most important label you can have in this league.
Lowry’s impact on Toronto is huge, and letting him sign elsewhere this summer will feel like a major step in the wrong direction. Once he's made their franchise point guard, Toronto's options are wide open.
Their cap sheet is in fantastic shape for the years ahead. General manager Masai Ujiri has a couple non-guaranteed contracts he’ll likely buy out (John Salmons and Tyler Hansbrough) this summer, and after that, Landry Fields and Chuck Hayes come straight off the books the following July.
As of today, DeRozan, Steve Novak, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross are the only players under contract in 2015-16. Lowry’s next contract figures to join them, making that potentially four of the team’s five best players all locked down. All are young and continuing to get better. DeRozan has room to become a perennial All-Star, and Lowry is already in the midst of his prime.
The true 7-footer Valanciunas has potential to be the Eastern Conference’s Andrew Bogut for the next 10 years, a defensive/rebounding monster with offensive touch. Ross is already a lethal three-point shooter who can finish on the break with the best of them. The development of those two will eventually allow DeRozan to be more of an efficient scorer, someone who doesn’t have to carry so much offensive pressure each trip down the floor.
Two summers from now, Toronto will have the cap space to sign at least one of a few big-name free agents, including Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol. Nobody knows what the league will look like that far into the future, but if the Western Conference remains as ferocious as it is today, there’s a solid chance one of them might want out. All four would fit perfectly beside a Lowry, Valanciunas, Ross and DeRozan quartet.
The Raptors aren't a year away from winning the title, but they have roster flexibility and plenty of tantalizing commodities to help swing for the fences should the patient route go stale. A package of draft picks (along with all their own first-round picks in the foreseeable future, Toronto also has the New York Knicks' first-rounder in 2016, a juicy asset that Ujiri can dangle in trade talks for the next couple years) and young players (Valanciunas and/or Ross) could fetch a superstar if they find it too difficult landing one in free agency.
Toronto is already good, and they have so many options to grow and get better. Armed with one of the smartest and least predictable general managers in the sport, it'll be interesting to see where they go from here. One thing is for sure: the direction points upward.