By Peter Baxter
The roller coaster has continued for the Toronto Raptors. After a brutal 2-8 start, things slowly fell into place and the Raptors found themselves back in the thick of the playoff hunt before the All-Star break. Since, they matched the futility of their early season struggles by winning just two of their last 10 games. To fit the up and down nature of this season, they ended their losing streak with a franchise record 53-point victory over the Golden State Warriors on Friday night. A nice highlight in an otherwise dissatisfying 19-30 season thus far.
So what happened? How did a team with much of the same core squad fall from a 53-win season last year to the basement of the Eastern Conference? Let’s take a look at the top five factors that led to the Raptor’s struggles this season.
#5 – Lack of Improvement from Role Players
After a quiet offseason (more on that in a minute), it was clear the Raptors were running it back with much the same squad as last season. Much the same team, minus some core pieces. That meant the team would be counting on some of their young role players to step up to help keep the team competitive.
Unfortunately, the majority of these young pieces held the line and didn’t show notable improvement. Matt Thomas remained a one-trick pony. He is a great shooter but an absolute liability on the defensive end. He took a step back this year, averaging just 2.7 points on 7.4 minutes per game, and failing to ever find a place in Nick Nurse’s rotation. He was traded to the Utah Jazz at the deadline.
Second-year guard Terence Davis found himself accused of domestic assault during the offseason, and entered the season embroiled in a legal case. While those charges were since dismissed, it caused him to fall out of favor with the Raptor’s fan base. Meanwhile his play on the court caused him to fall out of favor with the coaching staff. His numbers for the season were down across the board before he was traded to Sacramento at the deadline.
The one bright spot in terms of development this season has been Chris Boucher. He has truly come into his own in the Raptors’ front court. With career highs of 13.2 points, 6.3 boards, and 1.9 blocks, Boucher has done his best to keep the front court afloat alongside Siakam.
However, at 6’9” and a frail 200 lbs, Boucher can not be counted on to match up the true talented big men of the league. With Aron Baynes struggling, this brings us to our next point…
#4 – No True Answer at Center
While small-ball lineups are all the rage, and the importance of having a true center is at an all-time low, it is still imperative for a team to have a skilled big man to match up against the Joel Embiids and Nikola Jokices of the world.
After losing the two centers from their 2019 championship run in the offseason (Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka), Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and company tried to fill in the gaps with free agents Aron Baynes and Alex Len. This experiment has been an abject failure. Len was waived by the team in January. Baynes is still with the squad, in and out of the starting lineup based on match ups, but has averaged just 5.7 points and 5.1 rebounds on just 42% shooting from the field. His three-point shooting has fallen completely off the map, at just 23% on the year. This has hardly been a replacement for the borderline All-Star numbers Ibaka had put up last season, nor Marc Gasol’s playmaking and defensive IQ.
This major hole in the front court has left Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher as the team’s top two bigs. However, both are built more like wing players. This has put the team at a major disadvantage against teams with big, athletic stretch fives, and has created a poorly balanced roster, overall.
#3 – Still No True Number 1 Option
After missing out on the Giannis sweepstakes, the James Harden lottery, and failing to pull any major moves at the deadline, the Raptors remain a team with handful of very good players, but no true superstars.
Pascal Siakam proved in 2019 that he can be a perfect complementary star to a Kawhi Leonard type (he is a perfect Scottie Pippen to a Michael Jordan, if you will). Fred VanVleet is a very, very good guard who is the perfect player to take up Kyle Lowry’s mantle. OG Anunoby is a top tier defender and a perfect 3 and D player. Kyle Lowry is still a top tier point guard and floor general and a borderline All Star himself.
However, in the era of Justice League-level super teams like the Brooklyn Nets, LA Lakers, and LA Clippers, good players just are not enough.
The Raptors overachieved last season, taking much the same team to a game away from the Eastern Conference Finals. This was due to a combination of excellent coaching and great team play (especially on the defensive end). Unfortunately, especially after losing veteran leaders in Gasol and Ibaka, this formula was simply not the sustainable.
With the trade deadline having passed, the search for a true superstar in Toronto continues this offseason. Speaking of offseasons…
#2 – A Poor (or at least Quiet) Offseason
As noted, the impact of losing Marc Gasol and (especially) Serge Ibaka was underestimated by the Raptor’s front office. Ibaka put up one of his best seasons as a pro in 2019/20, averaging 15.4 and 8.2 boards while shooting 39% from three. He played a huge role in keeping the Raptors as contenders in the Eastern Conference after Kawhi Leonard left for Los Angeles.
Even Marc Gasol, while well past his prime and in the twilight of his career, was an asset to run the offense through at times and could still play lock down defense.
Those two stars (or at least former stars) were replaced, as noted, by Alex Len and Aron Baynes. We’ve already described in detail why this was a notable downgrade in the front court. The only other free agent acquisitions were role players Yuta Watanabe and DeAndre’ Bembry.
While Bembry and first-round pick Malachi Flynn have shown flashes of potential, the 2020 offseason was clearly a net-negative for the Raptors, leading in large part to their step back this season.
#1 – COVID Impact
The Raptors have been the team most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic this season.
They have completely lost what is one of the greatest home court advantages in basketball in the Toronto fanbase (Jurassic Park) by being relocated over the border and clear across the continental United States to Tampa, Florida.
There is no way to put a direct win/loss impact on playing zero true home games in season (while uprooting players and their families), but I have to imagine the impact is notable.
Along with their temporary relocation, the Raptors were ravaged by Covid heading into the All-Star break. Nick Nurse, five members of his coaching staff, along with key players Pascal Siakam, Fred Van Vleet, Malachi Flynn, and others all missed time (after multiple game postponements).
Obviously, the pandemic has impacted all of us. That goes for everyone involved in every NBA franchise. However, losing their home court advantage (and their homes in Toronto), has impacted the Raptors more than any other franchise in the league.
While they mathematically still have a chance to battle their way back into playoff contention, this is in many ways a lost season in Toronto (Tampa). They should find themselves with a better-than-usual position in the 2021 draft, a consolation prize for a rough year.
They still have a solid young core in VanVleet, Siakam, and Anunoby. They still have a great coach in Nick Nurse. They have (at least for the time being) one of the great executives in the league in Masai Ujiri.
Ujiri, however, along with fearless on-court leader Kyle Lowry, is a pending free agent. However the rest of this season plays out for the Raptors, there are many key decisions to be made in the offseason that will have immeasurable impacts on the future of the franchise. More to come from Toronto/Tampa…