The Raptors have made the playoffs for seven straight seasons. During that span, they’ve won at least 48 games every year, winning more than 50 games in their last five.
Within this context, their 1-4 start feels like unfamiliar territory. The championship run followed by the team’s valiant title defence last season makes their early season performance even harder to stomach. The Raptors are better than their record, but they’re also no longer championship contenders. The post-championship years are tough. There’s an adjustment to expectations, and the road back to contention can be long and arduous.
Here’s a look at how recent championship teams have fared in the years after winning it all, and how it might inform where the Raptors are going.
By the time they finally won their first championship in 2011, the Mavericks had an even longer run of success than the current version of the Raptors, having made the playoffs for 11 consecutive seasons, winning at least 50 games in every one of those years, and 60 games or more three times.
The Raptors wanted to run it back with the same roster, but Kawhi Leonard left in free agency. The Mavericks didn’t run it back because owner Mark Cuban decided to not bring back Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson after winning the title. The Mavs haven’t won a playoff series since.
Having lost Leonard, Danny Green, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka since raising the Larry OB, the Raptors are in a similar spot. The Mavs did continue to field a competitive team for a few more seasons with Dirk Nowitzki. For the Raptors, the question will be whether we see Kyle Lowry finish his career in Toronto, like Nowitzki did in Dallas.
A worst case scenario: Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers made four consecutive Finals appearances with LeBron James from 2015 to 2018, winning one championship. In the two seasons after he left to join the Los Angeles Lakers, the Cavs have gone 19-63 and 19-46. The entire team was built around James, so in the wake of his departure, the Cavs were left with Kevin Love and a handful of promising young players.
How Cleveland has fared the last two seasons is what a lot of prognosticators thought the Raptors would be without Kawhi (most of them don’t watch the Raptors) last year. Toronto has too much talent on its current roster to bottom out the same way the Cavs have, although some would argue being in the lottery and replenishing the roster with blue-chip prospects is a better use of the post-championship years than trying to stay competitive.
The best case scenario: Miami Heat
After losing LeBron in free agency in the summer of 2014, the Heat missed the playoffs in three of the next five seasons, signed a bunch of role players including Tyler Johnson, Dion Waiters and James Johnson to contracts which took up all of their cap space, said goodbye to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and after all that, took only six years to return to the Finals again.
How the Heat made this turnaround provides a blueprint for the Raptors. Miami has a strong track record of drafting and developing young players (Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo) and they have a proven general manager (Pat Riley) and one of the best coaches (Erik Spoeltra) in the league. The Raptors have the same things. The only difference is Miami landed a superstar in free agency by signing Jimmy Butler. The Raptors are in a similar spot to strike, but as everyone knows, landing the one superstar to put you over the top via free agency or trade is the most difficult step in building a contender.
A scenario you can’t plan for: Golden State Warriors
Consider everything that’s happened with the Warriors since 2015: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson became the best shooting tandem in league history. The team won a title with Andre Iguodala as Finals MVP. The Warriors won 73 games the year after, blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals, signed Kevin Durant, and made three more Finals, winning two more championships.
Durant left for Brooklyn, and with Thompson missing his second straight season due to injury, the Warriors have Curry, Draymond Green, James Wiseman and a lot of question marks after that. It’s unclear whether they’re closer to returning to championship contention or to bottoming out and rebuilding.
The highs and lows of the Warriors over the past six seasons is a reminder of how difficult it is to predict the future of any team in the NBA.
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