SIMMONS: The Toronto Raptors have become irrelevant in the NBA

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The NBA is the most social of all sporting leagues. It’s about talk. It’s about gossip. It’s about rumours. It’s about fun.

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The off-season is often as entertaining as anything that happens during the regular season.

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To be a player, you have in the middle of everything. You have to be connected.

And by player, I don’t mean individual players. I mean, being a player in the league, being a team that matters, being a team that gets noticed beyond the borders of your land.

Masai Ujiri said at the end of last season that he didn’t enjoy watching the Raptors play. You don’t hear that often from a team president.

He didn’t like what he called their selfish ways. He thought, as so many executives think in sports, that the collection of players was greater than the team itself.

Now a new season begins with almost no outside expectations, few believing the Raptors are going anywhere but paddling in circles in the mushy middle of the NBA, almost the worst place any franchise can be in pro sports.

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Ujiri might fib just a little and say he likes this team. He has to say that. It’s his team, his sell.

But around the NBA, with a season beginning, there are all kinds of bold predictions and thoughts and screaming in all the usual places — there just isn’t any real talk about the Raptors.

They have a new coach in Darko Rajakovic and no one really knows who he is or what he is capable of. Ujiri gambled once before in hiring Nick Nurse to replace Dwane Casey. That worked out wonderfully well at the beginning, with a championship and a coach of the year honour, and not so wonderfully well at the end, where the team Nurse put on the floor was the one Ujiri couldn’t stand to watch play.

What will Darko do for the Raptors? It’s not exactly talk of the NBA.

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And maybe that’s a good thing.

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You come in as a new coach and sometimes you need time to establish who you are and what you’re capable and maybe what style your group needs to play to be successful.

The NBA is all about shooting and offence and the Raptors are among the worst shooting teams in the league and at times seem offensively challenged.

They drafted a shooter, Gradey Dick, with their first-round pick in June. Four months later, there is no knowing where he will fit in, if he will fit in, as an NBA scorer.

That is another question that isn’t being asked around the NBA. No one really cares where Dick fits in with the Raps.

This is what happens, not because you play in Canada where Vince Carter once captured America’s attention, but because you play in the NBA nether-regions. You fall into the middle and you all but disappear.

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There are only two places you really want to be in the NBA: You want to be great and challenge for championships or be a threat around the league.

The Raps had a remarkable run under Ujiri, Casey and Nurse. In a seven-year period, which includes the Kawhi Leonard championship season, the Raps won 48, 49, 56, 51, 59, 58 and 53 games. They were a LeBron James away from being more explosive than just one title. In a five-year period, they averaged 55 wins a season.

If they win 40 this year, I’ll be surprised. Being .500 in the NBA means you might get a play-in game, you might get one crack at the post-season. It doesn’t mean much more than that unless you’re the Miami Heat and the Raptors are not the Miami Heat.

We don’t know what the Raptors are. We don’t know what they will be. And it’s not at all like the start of the Maple Leafs season or the Blue Jays season, where you know the roster has possibilities and you can’t wait for playoffs by the time Game 3 comes around.

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What I look at now are the seasonal matchups. When does Nurse return to Toronto? When does Shai Gilgeous-Alexander play here? When are the games against the championship Denver Nuggets, with Nikola Jokic and the Kitchener kid, Jamal Murray?

I heard a national radio show in America do an hour preview on the NBA the other night and not mention the Raptors. I read the apparent bold predictions made in The Athletic and their power ratings to start the season. They have Raptors 21st in the league, no mention of them in the thousands of words written in their preview piece.

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So it begins again, with Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr. and O.G. Anunoby all facing free agency at the end of the season. They have something to play for — their futures.

All of them are good-to-great NBA players, none of them great enough to alter teams the way great players can change teams in the NBA. All of them are complimentary stars.

You want to be great in the NBA and challenge for divisional titles or, in the end, the championship. Or you want to be terrible and wind up in the draft lottery and hope you find the next big thing.

Being 21st is treading water in a race with Penny Oleksiak. You get nowhere doing that.

The worst part is being irrelevant, lost and forgotten in all the gossip and postings and rumours that makes the NBA so fabulous and different. That’s your Toronto Raptors.

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twitter.com/simmonssteve

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