It sounds kind of hollow now, so soon after the defending champions ended the Toronto Raptors' season with a sweep, but this year's Raptors had their best roster in franchise history. Their stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, took significant steps forward in 2016-17, and the front office made the team deeper and more versatile with midseason trades for big man Serge Ibaka and forward P.J. Tucker.
Before Ibaka and Tucker were acquired, the big question around Toronto was what it could do to go from a good team to a great team. It reached the conference finals last year, but the Cleveland Cavaliers dominated four of the six games. Ibaka and Tucker were supposed to make this matchup closer, and it was not, even before Lowry sprained his ankle and missed the final two games.
Much like the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference, the Raptors will go into the summer with an uncertain future. They are talented enough that they could justify bringing back a similar team next season, but that would be expensive. And like the Cilppers, the way the season ended was disappointing enough that they could justify major changes.
Five questions about Toronto before a potentially franchise-changing offseason:
1. Was this season a success?
Not quite. The reality is that the Raptors were trying to top what they did last season, and they couldn't do it. It would be unfair to say they had to beat the Cavs in order to say they were successful, but they needed to at least be more competitive. Toronto had a fourth-quarter lead in Game 4, and if that was the case in the previous three games, then this series would have felt a lot different. No one in the organization will be happy about the way things played out.
The Raptors were excellent at times en route to 51 wins in the regular season. They had the best offense in the league through mid-January before injuries hit and their lack of power forward depth was exposed. They played fantastic defense after Ibaka and Tucker arrived. If they had those guys all season or if Kyle Lowry hadn't missed 22 games, they might have finished with the best record in the conference. They were always going to be judged in the playoffs, though, and there's no way around the fact they came up short.
Short version: There's no shame in losing to a LeBron James-led team in the postseason, but Toronto didn't even challenge Cleveland. That means it fell short of expectations.
2. Has Lowry played his last game in a Raptors uniform?
That's the $200 million question. Toronto can offer its point guard a five-year max deal that would have him making about $45 million in the final season. The Raptors would surely prefer to retain him for less than that, but the market might make them choose between making that offer or watching him walk. If they lose Lowry, it is hard to envision them avoiding a serious drop-off, essentially going from a fringe contender to a middle-of-the-pack team.
Before Lowry and DeRozan led Toronto from the verge of tanking to a surprising 48 wins in 2013-14, this franchise had no real direction. The two of them share a close personal bond, and they take pride in what they've built since then. Lowry's goal is to compete for championships, though, and the Raptors might have to convince the 31-year-old that they can give him a better chance of doing that than his other suitors.
After this series, that might be a tough sell. Lowry himself said that nobody is closing the gap on LeBron anytime soon.
3. How about the other free agents?
Ibaka, Tucker and Patrick Patterson will all be on the market, and there's a case that Toronto should try to keep all three. Team president Masai Ujiri showed he valued continuity when he re-signed Lowry, Patterson and Greivis Vasquez in the summer of 2015, but he did that without breaking the bank for any of them. If Ibaka's deal starts at around $20 million, Patterson's starts at about $12 million and Tucker would accept the mid-level exception, then perhaps the Raptors could bring them all back. That might not be possible, though, so they might have to sacrifice some depth.
It's also worth noting that Toronto has $65.6 million committed to DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph next season. If it retains Lowry and a couple of the other free agents, it will need to shed salary elsewhere. Ujiri will have to be creative.
4. What will the center position look like?
The Raptors drafted Valanciunas No. 5 overall in 2011, and when he arrived from Lithuania a season later, he was an opening-night starter. In his 363 regular-season games for Toronto, he has started all but six of them.
When Valanciunas was drafted, though, he was billed as a quick, long, defense-first center with a few post moves. Instead of becoming a better-scoring Joakim Noah, though, he put on weight and developed into a more traditional post-up big man. At one point, the Raptors talked about him becoming the best rim protector in the league, but it just hasn't happened. While he has his moments on defense, opponents routinely target him in pick-and-rolls and use his lack of speed against him. For this reason, coach Dwane Casey has benched him in end-of-game situations for years.
Valanciunas came off the bench four times in these playoffs, with Ibaka sliding to the 5 spot. It's abundantly clear that this is where Ibaka is best, which would appear to make Valanciunas expendable. Why throw lots of money at Ibaka if you're going to play him out of position?
The problem with this, of course, is that there are plenty of teams around the league looking to offload their offense-first big men. It's difficult to trade centers for wings now, so finding a fair deal might be impossible.
5. Is "blowing it up" a possibility?
Maybe not, but that doesn't mean there won't be significant changes. If Lowry leaves, then Toronto will have no choice but to reevaluate where it stands (and find more playmaking somewhere). If he stays, then the Raptors still need to look at every piece of the roster and how they fit together.
Ujiri has done an impressive job of surrounding Lowry and DeRozan with players who should theoretically complement them. Carroll, however, has not lived up to expectations after signing a four-year, $60 million contract in 2015, mostly due to knee issues. Patterson has been a terrific role player, but his confidence in his outside shot has disappeared in big moments. Valanciunas has sometimes seemed like a nice third option on offense, but sometimes he struggles to hold his post position, even against smaller players. It would be somewhat surprising if all of them returned.
There is a real argument that, because of the gulf between Toronto and the Cavs, plus the cost of keeping this team together, it should just let Lowry walk, trade DeRozan and start over. The Raptors certainly didn't prove in the postseason that the status quo is good enough. The most likely plan, though, is to make some more moves and keep trying to take the next step.