Their season was seemingly collapsing as they struggled to stay in a Play-In spot, a hard fall from grace for the 2019 champions who seemed unable to maintain anything more than a middling playoff spot.
This looked like a veteran team that had reached its expiration date.
There was agitation between key players and the coaching staff (the team fired Nick Nurse at the end of the season). They had several expiring contracts that did not seem likely to return — and even if they did, they were not likely to get out of the first round even with some promising and established players.
Everyone had the Raptors as sellers at the trade deadline. They would, like the Orlando Magic back in 2021, use this opportunity to begin a reset of the franchise.
Toronto shocked everyone then last February when they did not trade either impending free agents in Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. and acquired center Jakob Poeltl. The Raptors were doubling down on their team.
The Toronto Raptors seemed to double down on their team destined for the Play-In Tournament. Now it is hard to see them going anywhere else, but they are still clearly good enough to clear that low bar.
Toronto finished the season after the trade deadline 15-11 to reach .500 and step into the Play-In Tournament, where they lost at home to the Chicago Bulls in the 9/10 game. That salvaged something from the season, but obviously not the expectation for a team that still has a good chunk of its championship team from 2019.
And so what was the point of it all? Is the Play-In Tournament really that important of a goal? Or should it merely a weigh station for teams going up and down the standings?
The Play-In Tournament is not a goal. That is the constant reminder of a lot of these playoff lessons posts. Everyone needs to have an idea of the bigger picture they are trying to reach. They are trying to make their way eventually to competing for a championship.
That is why what teams like the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls did seems so puzzling. These teams seemed to be content fighting for playoff scraps. It is no coincidence it feels that those two teams are the ones who lost out on the Playoffs from the Play-In Tournament.
It is important just to get in. A team does not have a chance to win the championship unless they are in the postseason to begin with. But just getting in is not the goal though.
It never should be. And that is what the Raptors seemed to settle on. It is no surprise the franchise and the roster are seemingly in upheaval.
Then again, the Play-In Tournament feels like a low bar to clear. And even a team that seems so clearly ready for a restart will be a dangerous team for the postseason chase.
The Raptors paid the price it seems for betting on their internal progress and trying to salvage a disappointing 2023 season. They re-signed both Trent Jr. and Poeltl but lost VanVleet to the Houston Rockets. This offseason has been spent expecting a Pascal Siakam trade in the near future (perhaps even before the season).
Knowing the Raptors, though, they will probably hang onto Siakam and make another postseason run yet again.
Toronto may no longer be a title contender or even a deep postseason contender anymore, but this is still a team capable of making the postseason. Count them out for that at your own risk considering how good Siakam can be (24.2 points per game, 7.8 rebounds per game and 5.8 assists per game last year) and the veteran players on this team.
The Raptors should expect to make the Play-In Tournament once again with this team. They will be among the chief rivals for the Orlando Magic as they try to climb their way into the postseason picture — not to mention one of the chief rivals for the team’s hopes of advancing out of the group stage in the In-Season Tournament.
Still, what is Toronto’s end goal here? How does Toronto advance past the Play-In stage?
Scottie Barnes is really the only high-value prospect on the team and could be due to bounce back after a rough sophomore season.
The Play-In Tournament is not a goal. The Raptors should know this.
Instead, it is a weigh station. It should be a place for young teams to get their first postseason experience and announce themselves as the “next” teams. It is also where the middling veteran teams fall when their teams are in decline.
The Raptors feel like the latter of these two.
A new coach in Adrian Griffin might inject a little bit of life into the team and franchise after the team had some internal strife last season. The Raptors will still be a capable and quality team. They are not going to go away.
But it is hard to find anybody who believes the Raptors will be anything more than a Play-In team. Perhaps they can secure that 6-seed and avoid the Play-In. But they are not among the championship contenders who are the expected top five seeds.
Just about every team in the Eastern Conference probably believes it can reach the Play-In Tournament. That is what has become brilliant about adding this wrinkle to the postseason. Teams really cannot justify tanking until they fall too far down the standings.
But that also shows what a low bar it will be to make the postseason. Making the Play-In Tournament is not the cause for celebration. It is not the goal. It is a stepping stone to what comes next for a team — for any team.
Magic fans are certainly eager to see the team make the postseason in some form or fashion. But everyone also recognizes it is not the end goal for the team or for this group. And failing to continue to progress after the team makes that postseason debut will force the team — really any team — to ask questions about its future.