Not all ghosts mean ill. Hauntings are full of significance, but they can intend either good or evil. The Toronto Raptors have their share of malicious ghosts — losing the first games of playoff series, for example — lining the walls of Scotiabank Arena, to be sure. But so too are there happy memories and benevolent ghosts, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan chief among them. Leaving them behind has marked Toronto’s new era, but the ghosts of Lowry and DeRozan remain haunting the franchise, informing the significance of every aspect of the Raptors today, even if the corporeal players themselves inhabit other stadiums. Call them the ghosts in the machine.
The Raptors might have a chance to exorcise those kindly demons. Perhaps, if they’re lucky, both in the same playoff run. The Raptors are currently in seventh place in the East; the Chicago Bulls — with DeRozan — in fifth; the Miami Heat — with Lowry — in first. The Raptors could realistically see either team in the first round with the other waiting in the second; a 7-seed Raptors could face a 2-seed Heat in the first round, and perhaps the Bulls could await in the second, for example.
Toronto hasn’t fared overly well against Lowry and DeRozan. The former hasn’t yet faced his one-time team, as he’s been out for various reasons in Toronto’s three games against the Miami Heat. The two teams will play in early April, marking Lowry’s last regular-season chance to face the Raptors. DeRozan, on the other hand, has had plenty of opportunities to stick it to the Raptors. He collected a triple-double in his first game facing Toronto after the trade, as his San Antonio Spurs won an easy game at home. Since then, his teams have gone 4-4 against the Raptors over the years.
The Raptors have actually done well on the whole after DeRozan’s departure and then Lowry’s. They won the championship with Kawhi Leonard as the lodestone return on the DeRozan trade. And now the Raptors are climbing the rungs of the playoff ladder this season, their first since trading Lowry to the Heat. Still, those two players animate the franchise.
The Raptors are chock full of players who learned from Lowry and DeRozan — students who have become the masters. Fred VanVleet is a floor general cut from the same cloth as Lowry: no-nonsense, multi-faceted, and structured. He even has the same intangible qualities: fearless, plays bigger than his size, and constantly sacrifices his body. They’re both beloved by advanced stats and box score stats alike — your favourite player’s favourite player. Siakam is turning into a scorer the caliber and style of DeRozan: most comfortable in the post, a shooter but not quite a 3-point shooter, and an outrageously talented athlete and finisher.
The engine that animates the Raptors machine, from passing and shooting to jersey and ticket sales, plays in another city. Ditto for the gears. Yet both continue chugging away in Toronto, wispy and invisible, the ghosts of Lowry and DeRozan still working effortlessly and tirelessly for the Raptors. In a sense, the new era can’t begin until the arbiters of the old are faced. Beaten, preferably. But certainly faced. Realized to be elsewhere with all certainty. Given appreciation videos and standing applause before the new guard faces them down. Hounded up and down the court by VanVleet and posted up by Siakam. The team even plays like Lowry and DeRozan are still in uniform.
VanVleet and Siakam have achieved incredible postseason success, of course, but not without Lowry at their sides. They’ve never even been to the playoffs without Lowry acting as backdrop, safety net, and leader. VanVleet has become an All Star and Siakam an All-NBA player, but proof comes in the postseason. What better way to earn one’s stripes than by defeating the very players who taught you?
But it’s more than earning stripes. The Raptors have those, whether they won their championship alongside Lowry or not. They earned their own All-Star bids, All-NBA placements. Facing the ghosts in the machine would serve to propel this new era forward, mark a clean and tangible bookend between what was and what is. The Lowry-DeRozan era, wonderful as it was, is over.
The Raptors have new hands on the wheel. Benevolent though the lingering specters of Lowry and DeRozan may be, they are no longer Raptors. And the Raptors need to grow beyond them. It’s hard to know what that could look like; as long as VanVleet, in particular, leads this team, it will always look at least something like the Lowry-led version. By and large, since Lowry’s first season as a Raptor in 2012-13, his teams have been powered by a fearsome defense and fantastic transition offense. That remains true for Toronto still. But the aesthetic will surely change at some point; Scottie Barnes is going to be the Raptors’ best player sooner rather than later, and he looks like no player before him, let alone Raptor.
Before the Raptors are built in his image, though, the ghosts in the machine need to be dispelled. That can happen passively, over time, or actively. But to enter the future, the Raptors need to lay their past to rest. And there’s no better way for that to happen than for the Raptors to face Lowry and DeRozan in the playoffs, to come face to face with the spectral visions of their own history. And, ideally, to beat them in a best of seven.
March Madness Betting
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