NEW YORK — Don’t Read the Comments remains a vital piece of advice for the modern age, right up there with Say No to the Extended Warranty and Maybe Don’t Try to Blackmail the Richest Man in the World.
But sometimes, the comments sneak through. Over the last week or so, as attention turned to whether the Toronto Raptors would be aggressive in the trade market, there was a lot of weighing in on the merits of the idea.
And, I have to say, I was amazed by the notion that the ideal course of action from Masai Ujiri and staff would be to stand pat. Following Thursday’s big swing from the Raptors, trading three rotation guys for Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies, I gather from afar that a swath of Toronto fans worry that a big mistake has been made. The line of argument is that the Raptors are not clear favourites to get out of the East even with Gasol on board, and if they don’t, well then it could all turn grim in a hurry.
That’s all true. But, isn’t the whole idea to try? The Raptors as presently constructed have as much upside in the near term as at any time in their 24 years of existence. They are, to be clear, not close to being favourites for the NBA title, not as long as the Golden State Warriors exist and are managing not to fight with each other. But the Raptors have a chance. That’s not something that could ever be reasonably said about this team before, unless you allowed for the possibility that LeBron James would hurt himself, or give up basketball for filmmaking, or otherwise not be around to torment them at some point as they tried to get out of the East.
And yet, the fretting remains, all Marge Simpson-like, in some corners. In recent days I have been informed that the Raptors would be foolish to go for it this season, because there would be long-term consequences to aggressive moves, especially if Kawhi Leonard chooses to leave for reasons that he would probably never explain. The example of the Toronto Blue Jays has been cited, incredibly, as a reason to not get too frisky while trying to assemble a winner. The Jays, of course, dealt many prospects over several seasons while they tried to finally become relevant again and were eventually left with a creaky old team and a bloated payroll.
But, and apologies for yelling here, THEY ALMOST WENT TO THE WORLD SERIES. Twice! If you are a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays and you look back on the playoff runs of 2015 and 2016 with regret, I’m not entirely sure that sports fandom is the thing for you. Sure, the team might be better today if they hadn’t gone for it in 2015, but they might also be staring at a full quarter-century of no playoff baseball.
I have wondered at times what spurs this sense of caution in fans. Is it because the move toward data and analytics, coupled with the advent of salary caps and luxury taxes, has made accountants out of the casual fan? I mean, it’s good to know your team’s front office isn’t spending like sailors on shore leave, but they don’t hand out a trophy at the end of the season that says Most Prudent. Is it because there’s something nice and comfortable about rooting for a team that is quietly building for the future? When your window to contend is some years down the road, the whole not-caring-about-wins thing takes a lot of stress out of the equation.
This is, obviously, not the case for the Raptors. Over the next few months they could ascend to heights the franchise has never seen, or they could plummet to the playoff depths that they have seen quite recently. That latter scenario would potentially lead to the kind of off-season reckoning that Ujiri has managed to avoid since he arrived in Toronto almost six years ago.
But that reckoning was always going to happen at some point. If the team had stuck with the DeRozan-Lowry-Ibaka core, there would still have come a time when the front office would be forced to move on from them and rebuild. It happens to all good teams, eventually, unless you are the New England Patriots and are guided by a grumpy old wizard and his magic, immortal quarterback.
The big trades of July and February may yet mean that the lean years, for the Toronto Raptors, come a bit sooner than once expected. But if the team can figure out how to use all of its top-end talent — and the players themselves said Thursday after the trade news broke that they are excited by the prospect — then they could deliver the kind of playoff run that always previously crashed on the shoals of the Isle of LeBron.
The Blue Jays paid a price for that aggressiveness in the summer of 2015. But they also turned Toronto into a baseball city again, gave us the wildest ballgame anyone in those parts could remember, and the Bat Flip that will live in infamy.
It didn’t entirely work out, for the team or its fans. But wishing that they hadn’t tried? That is a position I do not understand.