They Can't All Be Winners, Part 21: Toronto Raptors

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The concept of outsider art is often more thrilling than the art itself. For every Madge Gill or Henry Darger, there are thousands of janitors and nurses who aren’t known as painters or poets simply because they lack the requisite talent. But the idea that some relative nobody in the peripheries of your life could be a genius is mind-expanding, if in a sort of useless way. Anyone who has thrown on something they rummaged from the record store’s 99-cent bin hoping to hear an undiscovered masterpiece—and been disappointed to find that their pennies have purchased them 42 minutes of tinny French pop—has been moved by this notion. So much of life—and so much of art—is crushingly mediocre that it’s nice to think there is brilliance stuffed away in the locker of some overworked DMV clerk.

The Raptors are in the NBA, where there are no outsiders. The Madge Gill of basketball is some team of 16-year-old girls from the C7 High School Ladies’ Subdivision of Missouri who refuse to shoot—”scoring itself is not obscene, but the expectation that we must strive toward only that end is,” explains star guard Madeline Swinters—but have been known to throw 63-foot bounce passes so geometrically ideal, the other team forfeits out of a kind of hunter-seeing-a-moose-up-close-in-the-wild awe. So, the Raptors aren’t outsiders per se, though they brand themselves as such, and that’s a brand truth that doesn’t miss the actual truth by an egregious margin, given that large swaths of America conceive of all of Canada as a Hothian backwater. The Raptors are from a place that’s very much somewhere—give me Toronto over Houston, over Orlando, over Boston—but is treated as a nowhere. We The North, like the state of Texas, is a lame byproduct of America’s cultural chauvinism.

The disappointing thing about the Raptors is that, for all their bravado—the Fuck Brooklyn incident, the self-congratulatorily rabid fandom, the Drake endorsement—when you flip on their games, you are as likely to happen upon a boring, pseudo-competent basketball team as one that lives up to the noise it makes. DeMar DeRozan is the sort of player who isn’t a star, but believes himself to be in a way that occasionally bends reality to his will, and when Kyle Lowry is in the mood, he’s unguardable. Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas just barely continue to exist as glimpses of potential, shining gonna-bes that, as they enter their mid-20s are about to hit the point at which the dreams about what they could be dissipate and sighing observers decide to slap them with the serviceable veteran tag. Amir Johnson has been swapped out for DeMarre Carroll, one intrepid defender replacing another.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this, but there’s also not much that’s distinctive about it. The Raps are a quintessential Eastern Conference four-seed, interchangeable with many other okay teams that have come before them. Dwane Casey is Replacement-Level Coach No. 2573; in another era, he’d be Brian Hill.

In a broad sense, the Raptors have to be this way. The NBA has only so many stars, and as mightily as the Sixers are trying to prove the truism wrong, a franchise can’t rebuild forever. A gaggle of middle-class teams headed nowhere in particular is built into the league’s structure.

And yet isn’t there something to be done about this, if not from a wins-and-losses standpoint, then at least an aesthetic one? The problem with the Raptors is not that they’re untalented, but that they deploy that talent with dreary anti-imagination. Casey is a defensive whiz, or that is what his business cards say, and no matter the proficiencies of the rosters he has been given in Toronto, he has doggedly attempted to whip them into an impermeable shape while neglecting to overhaul a stagnation-prone offense, spitting bromides about how it can be fixed with a bit more passing and cutting. There’s no grand vision being implemented, only a dutiful concern with details. Casey’s philosophy is not having one; he puts his trust solely in work, that ascendance is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other.

Maybe you push this thought from your mind, while you’re deep in the day-by-day process of trying to instruct a group of players to play the most efficient basketball they can play: the Raptors don’t have a fucking prayer. They’re a league-savaging mononucleosis epidemic away from championship contention this season. Nothing can change that. If the franchise has made peace with this, they have done so in a strange way: by determinedly clutching their status as the league’s least objectionable, I’ll tell ya, Jim, these fellows don’t beat themselves squad. This is year five of the Casey era: they’re quintupling down on fine-ness. Ujiri is a verbal dick-swinger par excellence, but he lets himself down. The Raptors aren’t nearly as ambitious as his charming arrogance would suggest they are. They’re a respectable squad gussied up with all manner of sloganeering and hype and claims of legitimacy.

This is a shame because Toronto could be more interesting than that, if not necessarily more successful. Just once, it would be thrilling to see a team in their position favor endeavor over joylessly wringing as many wins as possible from a collective that’s obviously not title-bound. Go full art project, try to innovate for a season or two. Reset the outlook, hire a coach with big ideas, do some radical lineup experimentation, explore the talents of the players completely. Make some discoveries, make some mistakes.

Maybe this is the thing that’s so marvelous about outsider artists, even the ones who produce awful short stories and ugly portraits: they don’t have pretensions; they create for the sake of doing it. They understand, consciously or otherwise, that there is value in intellectual adventuring as an end to itself. If an NBA franchise were willing to put that ethos to work, it would be brave and bold and worth paying attention to. In lieu of being great, those are swell things to be.

Previously on TCABW: Charlotte Hornets | Philadelphia 76ers | Houston Rockets | Los Angeles Lakers | Dallas Mavericks Indiana Pacers | Oklahoma City Thunder | Memphis Grizzlies | Chicago Bulls | Washington Wizards Cleveland Cavaliers Brooklyn Nets New York Knicks Denver Nuggets Miami Heat Los Angeles Clippers Atlanta Hawks Utah Jazz Sacramento Kings | Milwaukee Bucks

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