TORONTO — It’s difficult to accept. The Toronto Raptors — the team the Washington Wizards outclassed during a playoff sweep three years ago — are now the most enviable other-than-LeBron force in the Eastern Conference. And the Wizards are stuck at the intersection of Pretty Good and Not Bad.
Three years ago, you would have guessed the Wizards would be closer to Camelot, but the Raptors passed them. They did it the old-fashioned way, not through hitting a free agency home run but by nailing undervalued draft picks and making the right low-key roster additions. They also have learned from their mistakes as well as any NBA team, adjusting their style of play and philosophies, growing the entire organization with the same passion that they develop their players. They are starting to master many of the subtleties of team building. It remains debatable whether a team led by all-star guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry has enough elite talent to get past LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers and play for a championship, but judging Toronto only by that standard ignores some of the beauty of this tale. The Raptors have created a model for how teams can make progress, improve their franchise’s fortunes and enjoy a worthwhile run even if the odds of winning a Larry O’Brien Trophy are slim in this super-team era.
Until this run, Toronto hadn’t won more than 47 games in a season. The Raptors just surpassed that mark for the fifth straight time. They have made five straight playoff appearances and climbed from a 48-34 record in 2013-14 to a conference-best 59-23 campaign in 2017-18. During that same period, the Wizards have made the postseason four out of five years and lingered between 41 and 49 victories.
The Raptors and Wizards are such comparable peers. The building of this Washington team received a boost in 2010, when the franchise selected John Wall with the No. 1 pick. That same year, the Raptors started over after losing Chris Bosh to Miami in free agency. Both franchises broke through the rebuilding fog and made the playoffs in 2014. There are many differences: Most notably, Toronto hired Masai Ujiri in 2013 to run its personnel department, and the Wizards changed coaches, from Randy Wittman to Scott Brooks, in 2016. But because these franchises remodeled and took flight on a similar schedule, it’s fair to judge them against each other.
While the Raptors lost in the first round in 2014 and 2015, the Wizards advanced to Round 2 in both of those seasons. After the sweep in 2015, the Wizards were clearly ahead. Since then, the Raptors have made the 2016 conference finals and fallen in the second round last season, losing to James’s Cavaliers both times. And the Wizards are still looking to advance past the second round despite having the star backcourt of Wall and Bradley Beal.
This playoff run should be considered a referendum on what the Wizards have built. After losing Game 1 to Toronto on Saturday, Washington is three losses from following up a disappointing regular season with the ultimate reality check: If the eighth-seeded Wizards can’t upset No. 1 Toronto, the team officially will have hit a wall. Its ability to grow with this core will be in question again.
The Wizards have defied this notion before. They did it just a year ago, when Brooks took over and the team made encouraging progress after a 2-8 start. But last season ended in the second round again. And this season has been a downer that included more knee problems for Wall, chemistry issues, bouts of feuding, noticeable roster holes and a slew of uninspiring performances.
On the other side, the Raptors keep building and growing. Their success sheds light on what the Wizards have done wrong. The Wizards don’t have a series of late first-round draft picks to rival Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. They aren’t finding undrafted gems of the caliber of Fred VanVleet. They’re spending money, but they’re not signing perfect fits for their bench such as CJ Miles.
Ujiri and the Toronto front office have done extraordinary things. Ernie Grunfeld and the Wizards did just fine with the hard part: They used the draft to find two all-stars to carry the franchise in Wall and Beal, and they added a highly efficient third option in Otto Porter Jr. But they aren’t finding the good, cheap talent later in the draft. They have traded picks for solid veteran starters — Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat — to add to their core, and they have used draft assets to make some short-term fixes. But when you watch the Wizards attempt to combat Toronto’s depth in this series, you can see their shortcomings.
The Raptors have done one of the NBA’s best jobs of building around their stars. The Wizards are still relying too heavily on Wall and Beal. The evolution of Toronto and the stagnancy of Washington are striking.
“Their star players get better every year,” Wall said of Toronto. “They definitely add pieces to their team. Their role players are definitely big-time. I think CJ Miles is big for them, and Delon Wright was definitely big for those guys. I feel like those guys are the ones that won Game 1 for them coming out and being aggressive and making big shots and big plays down the stretch.”
It’s understood that the Wizards can’t win this series without Wall and Beal playing close to their best basketball. On the other hand, during a Game 1 in which both backcourts had some offensive struggles, the Raptors won and scored 114 points with DeRozan and Lowry content to move the ball and make the right plays against a Wizards defense intent on stopping them.
“Kyle didn’t have his best game, but he did a great job being a floor general, leading those guys,” Wall said. “DeMar didn’t have a great game, but in the third quarter, he got their run started. So I think the pieces they have on their bench has helped them out a whole lot. Even when their stars aren’t having big games, when their role players are playing like that and they can still win, it shows what type of evolution they’ve made as a team.”
If the Wizards want to climb into the next tier of contenders, they must acquire similar balance between their stars and role players. Wall’s knee problems and Beal’s late-season fatigue are warning signs that the Wizards must be concerned about overloading them. It’s not just about health; Wall and Beal need help to get better. They are developing bad habits to conserve energy to carry the team, and they are clinging too proudly to their star status.
Meanwhile, the Raptors are free and confident. They’re a peer to envy, for certain. They also can be used as inspiration that, in this long NBA race, there is plenty of opportunity to come from behind.