Can the Toronto Raptors shake a championship hangover?

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The Toronto Raptors championship celebration was long and epic. How will the defending NBA Champions deal with a hangover that is sure to be the same?

This past summer, during the Toronto Raptors championship parade, Marc Gasol’s celebration embodied how Raptors fans felt about their championship win. Although Marc had only been with the team for half a season, his journey to a title had a similar spiritual energy to what the franchise had been through.

While the Raptors were experiencing the peaks of the franchise in the wake of the “We The North” campaign, Marc was experiencing the same heights in Memphis with his “Grit and Grind” Grizzlies.

However, while successful,  both the Raptors and the Grizzlies success had a ceiling; they were contenders in their conferences but they weren’t championship-level teams. Both franchises fell into a place where they were respected but not feared, a reputation that can feel like basketball purgatory.

That was until this season when Marc Gasol and the Toronto Raptors joined forces to demolish their previous ceilings.  Marc played an essential role in helping the Raptors win a championship, and he played an even bigger role in helping them celebrate it.

Just as Kawhi Leonard was the runaway choice for MVP of the NBA finals, Marc was the runaway choice for MVP of the Toronto Raptors championship parade. When you think of last season, it will be hard to forget the image of Marc waving his giant elastic arms on the side of the Raptors championship bus. At one point during the parade, Marc chugged an entire bottle of champagne at the behest of the Raptors fans living vicariously through him at the parade.

A couple of weeks ago in an interview for the New York Times, Marc told a reporter that his brother Pau Gasol took a friendly jab at him by bringing up the fact that he has two rings to his brother’s one. Marc responded by telling Pau that it didn’t matter how many rings he actually had because he celebrated as if he had won five.

What we haven’t heard from Marc though, is how was he was feeling post-celebration? Celebrating is beautiful. When you accomplish something you never thought possible, the future becomes more abstract than ever. There is only the moment you are in.

We’ve all had this experience. You’re best friend gets married, you celebrate as if the night will never end. But, the night does end, and the next morning you’ve got to suffer the consequences of doing things like chugging bottles of champagne.

The term “championship hangover” exists for a reason.

People often say life is about the journey and not the destination. When you don’t win the title, each season ends in failure that can be used as motivation. Motivation which pushes you during those offseason workouts. When you haven’t accomplished your goal, you’re still pushing, still trying to add something new.

After you win the championship, that motivation isn’t quite as clear. Even watching a player like Marc perform at a high level in the FIBA tournament begs the question if he’ll be able to sustain the effort for another 82+ games in the 2020 NBA season.

The truth is, this Raptors team will be under less pressure than almost any team in NBA history. The combination of winning a title and losing their star player Kawhi Leonard means the defending champions could simply show up and take a victory lap around the NBA and most Raptors fans would be happy.

This provides a very unique challenge to both team president Masai Ujiri and head coach Nick Nurse. How can the franchise institute the same level of competitiveness and desire that allowed the team to be so successful?

It won’t be easy to get veteran players like Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka to play with the same fire now that they’ve cemented their legacies. Previous defending champions also have had trouble convincing young role players like OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell to continue to self-sacrifice.

The Raptors have often been compared to the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, a team that came out of nowhere to win a championship. The Mavericks relied on their star Dirk Nowitzki and a crew of older veteran role players like Peja Stojakovic, Jason Kidd, and Jason Terry. Similar to the Raptors, the Mavericks lost some key pieces during the offseason. Then, the next year, they failed to make the playoffs as many of their remaining pieces weren’t able to muster up the ability to play at the same level.

It would be very easy for the team to rest on its laurels.

On opening night the franchise will raise their first championship banner and the entire organization could easily sit in its afterglow.

But this franchise and its fans need to have higher standards than that. The Toronto Raptors have built a perennial winner. They have gone four straight seasons with over 50 wins. Other than the Golden State Warriors, the Raptors have been the most consistent winning team in the past five years.

If the Raptors can find the fire they used to win a title, the team can enter into a new tier of basketball franchises. If the front office can find a way to cultivate the same level of competitiveness they have shown since Masai Ujiri stepped into his role, Toronto can establish themselves as an elite “culture” around the league.

Mostly, the Raptors have to avoid the idea of tanking that has been brought up by some fans and media. Now, is not the time to mortgage the present for the sake of the future.

More than ever, it’s paramount that the Raptors prove that they are here to stay and compete at the highest level. This upcoming season presents an opportunity to join the elite franchises around the league. Sustaining excellence over a long period of time will sell free agents and future players on this team in a way having Drake sitting courtside never could.

Next: Can the Raptors win the Eastern Conference?

This season the Raptors biggest challenge will be themselves. The time for celebration is over. It’s time to take a couple of Advil, drink a tall glass of water and get back to work. The journey has just begun.