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Sports Kelly: The Leafs are rising, the Jays are falling and the Raptors are stuck

Over the weekend, Toronto teams signed three premier free agents.

The Leafs got Patrick Marleau, a 37-year-old star who has reached the win-at-all-costs stage of his career. The veteran said he was "extremely excited" and even "ecstatic" to be joining the club.

It is the polite thing to say when someone has just made you fantastically wealthy. So everyone says it, even when they are being marched onto what has historically been more of a prison barge than a hockey team.

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But this time it sounded believable. Marleau could have gone to a lot of places and chose Toronto. He's Canadian, so it's not like he hasn't heard the stories. But even the most cynical observer could not find a contrary wedge into this transaction. It's all sunshine.

The Raptors got Kyle Lowry, a 31-year-old who has finally arrived in the just-spell-my-name-right-on-the-cheque portion of his playing life. Perhaps not trusting himself to be sufficiently enthused in person, Lowry arranged for his reaction to be ghostwritten in The Players' Tribune.

"[A]t the end of the day, this was an easy decision. And all of those roads … they all led me back to the same place: home," Lowry said.

That one didn't ring nearly as true. The tone of the full response was hedging and downbeat – "the Raptors can be a championship-level team" as opposed to "will win a championship."

It suggested that Lowry's decision was a sort of well-intentioned surrender. He's comfortable here, so why leave? And winning? Sure. Or at least, maybe. Well, it's certainly possible. Anyway, I'm rich now.

(At the same time, P.J. Tucker decided to ditch Toronto for the Houston Rockets, reportedly in return for less money spread over more years. That decision said rather more about where the Raptors stand in the NBA hierarchy.)

Serge Ibaka also agreed to re-sign with the Raptors. Rather than a valedictory statement, he released a rebuttal of a rumour that has long plagued him – that he is significantly older than his listed age of 27.

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"I know who I am and where I come from," Ibaka said in part.

If nothing else, the timing was odd. It left you with the impression that although Ibaka has just enjoyed a $65-million (U.S.) windfall with a team that that keeps pushing its title-readiness, he is not in a happy place.

The Blue Jays were not able to sign any free agents over the weekend, which was a shame because they could really use the help. Over three games, Toronto allowed more runs to Boston than they themselves had scored in the previous nine contests.

Two weeks ago, the Jays were theoretically in it. If they still are, it's more of a palm-reading-type theory than anything math-based.

What all these contiguous, seemingly unrelated events suggest is that in the course of a single weekend, Toronto's sports script has flipped over.

The Jays were on top. Now, they're headed back to the bottom. It's either going to be a controlled demolition or a chaotic implosion.

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The Raptors were pushing up from the middle. They've now decided they're satisfied being stuck there for the foreseeable future.

The Leafs were bottom of the pile, but after two years of renovation are prepared for a reopening. One of the maxims of management is that there are three opposing forces at work in any reconstruction – time, money and quality. Thus far, the Leafs have been able to control all three. Marleau is the treat they're able to buy themselves after a rebuild done early and under budget.

There are two ways to look at what comes next.

The familiar one is that Toronto has always been a hockey town and will now revert to being a hockey town. Blue-and-white fever will swamp the market for the next five to 10 years, killing off interest in other teams, who might as well give up.

The better way would be turning into the skid.

The Jays have it easier in this regard because they are a demonstrably poor baseball club. There's now about as much appetite to keep the current band together as there is for a Rolling Stones reunion.

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If we can agree that the time to sell is now, the Jays would be advised to take a page from the Leafs transactional playbook – get rid of everyone all at once.

The 2018 Toronto Blue Jays can go one of two ways – old and bad; or new and bad. New things are at least interesting. Better to embrace the pain than try to fool people into thinking things might still turn out okay. That was the mistake of just about every Jays' team from 1994 until three years ago.

If the thing must be done (and it must), it should be done quickly and resolutely.

Things are far more difficult for the Raptors. They've stuck themselves with what they have – a neither/nor team good enough to fool their own fans, but not anyone in the NBA. And, more and more, not their own fans.

Take a look at the way the Lowry and Ibaka signings were greeted – with perfunctory acknowledgment followed by crickets. No one believes this team can win a title. Based on their public reactions, even Lowry and Ibaka don't believe it.

They'll have to compete directly for attention with the Leafs. That will go terribly, creating a vicious cycle of dwindling interest in a city of front-runners.

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Around the time the Raptors are admitting the current core is finished – probably two years from now – the Leafs will be peaking.

Maybe that's the cover MLSE executives believe they need to blow up the basketball team, but there really is no time like the present when the future feels so dreary.

Now that hockey's back, we'll be able to separate the smart local teams from the dumb ones. The latter will use the Leafs as an excuse. The former will see them as a diversion and use hockey's rise as camouflage for their own overhaul.

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