Kyle Lowry will join Toronto Raptors teammate DeMar DeRozan on the Eastern Conference All-Star Team next month in Los Angeles. Their representation of the East’s second-place team might be the most exposure an American audience gets before the Playoffs.
At the very least, the All-Star Game marks the only national stage for any of the Raptors over the next three weeks of the NBA season. Below is the remainder of January’s national TV schedule:
Wednesday, Jan. 24
Houston Rockets at. Dallas Mavericks, ESPN
Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Clippers, ESPN
Thursday, Jan. 25
Washington Wizards at Oklahoma City Thunder, TNT
Minnesota Timberwolves at Golden State Warriors, TNT
Friday, Jan. 26
Houston Rockets at New Orleans Pelicans, ESPN
Saturday, Jan. 27
Boston Celtics at Golden State Warriors, ABC
Sunday, Jan. 28
Philadelphia 76ers at Oklahoma City Thunder
Tuesday, Jan. 30
Cleveland Cavaliers at Detroit Pistons, TNT
Portland Trailblazers at Los Angeles Clippers, TNT
Wednesday, Jan. 31
New York Knicks at Boston Celtics, ESPN
Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns, ESPN
And it’s more of the same in February. The Toronto Raptors do not play a single game scheduled for broadcast on ABC, ESPN or TNT before the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the NBA’s three primary outlets will feature games involving the Sacramento Kings (13-33, worst record in the league); and two with each of the Phoenix Suns (17-30, seven games out of the West’s final Playoffs spot) and Dallas Mavericks (16-31).
Over that same stretch, Toronto faces the Western Conference’s current No. 3 seed Minnesota Timberwolves, the East’s No. 4 & 5 Miami Heat and Washington Wizards, and a Feb. 6 showdown with the first-place Boston Celtics. That night, TNT will instead features the Wizards against the Sixers, a team that only just recently climbed over .500 and sits in the final Playoff spot.
Success does not necessarily translate directly to exposure in the NBA, evident in the continued showcasing of the struggling Knicks and the genuinely awful Lakers — both of which the Raptors play in the coming weeks, neither of which will be nationally televised.
It’s a star-powered league, hence the exposure for Philly and social media favorite Joel Embiid. I mean, yes, the Toronto Raptors have two All-Stars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but at least one NBA taste-maker deemed DeRozan “not necessarily very fun,” and cited merchandise sales.
To that I offer a thought experiment: If a shooting guard averages 25/4/5 per game and no one is there to see it, does he sell merch?
Forgive me for going all George Berkeley, but there is some philosophical principles at play here. The NBA is and long has been reliant on superstars to generate interest. At the same time, the league plays a key role in establishing its own stars.
Take Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City is just the 41st-largest TV market in the United States, but the Thunder appear regularly in the national telecast rotation. While OKC’s run to the Finals in 2012 and an epic Western Conference Final against Golden State four years later may have contributed, Russell Westbrook’s primarily responsible for keeping the franchise in the national spotlight with Kevin Durant and any realistic hope of winning the Finals gone.
However, Westbrook’s star rose before the Finals run — or, at the very least, seeds were planted — with OKC gaining national exposure. The Thunder appeared on national telecasts three times in 2008-09, when the team was absolutely dreadful, and were among the most exposed organizations by 2010-11 with 11 national telecasts, just one year after their first, abbreviated Playoff appearance.
Westbrook’s a star because of his play, sure, but it isn’t unfair to assert that he’s a star in the sense of notoriety and fanfare because the NBA showcased him. Toronto has two bonafide stars in their with Lowry and DeRozan, but they’re afforded little spotlight.
In the same vein, Toronto lacking exposure as a team could prove a risky decision come Playoffs. One decided knock against the Raptors is their inability to advance in the postseason, only reaching the Eastern Conference Semifinals twice in history: 2016 and 2017.
A deep run this postseason would in theory lead to more regular-season exposure in years to come, but the NBA would likely take a ratings hit if the Raptors went deep — and with Lowry and DeRozan in the backcourt, Cleveland dealing with internal turmoil, and the Celtics showing some vulnerability, a Toronto appearance in the Finals is hardly unthinkable.
At that point, the hardest sell the NBA can offer to the all-important casual fan responsible for driving up ratings is…hey, Drake’s a fan! But hey, at least we get two Mavericks games while the Raptors ball in obscurity.