By Pete Baxter
It was officially announced on Friday that the Toronto Raptors have been cleared by the Canadian government to play their home games in Toronto next season. This is huge news for the team and their fans.
The Raptors played all home games last season in Tampa, Florida. They haven’t played a game in their home arena since February of 2020. This has put the squad at a massive disadvantage since, and their record showed it last season.
The massive, positive impact that this will have on the team cannot be overstated.
Major Struggles in Tampa
Last season, the Raptors finished with an abysmal record of 27-45. They lost nine of their final 10 games in a miserable limp the finish. The team ended the season ranked 12th in the Eastern Conference. They were almost as bad at “home” in Tampa as on the road.
The Raptors finished 16-20 in their designated home games. Set up in their temporary housing 1,300 miles from home, the team never looked comfortable. The Raptors are typically blessed with one of the best home court advantages in the league. They consistently rank near the top of the league in attendance (ranked fourth in 2019). The fans in and outside the stadium are loyal and engaged. In the 2018/19 season, the last full season before Covid-19 restrictions, the Raptors went an outstanding 32-9 in Toronto.
They were far from the same inspired group that came just a game shy of the Eastern Conference Finals the season before. The only major losses from the roster after the 2019/20 season were big men Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol.
Obviously, a struggling Aron Baynes and upstart Khem Birch weren’t able to fully replace that duo. However, this hardly explains even a fraction of the massive drop off from the team that finished 53-19 (second in the Eastern Conference) to the dumpster fire of last season. By far the biggest factor that influenced the team’s steep decline was their abrupt relocation to Florida.
Predicting the Impact
Let’s run some numbers and predict approximately how much the Raptor’s revived home court advantage will improve their record and their playoff outlook in 2021/22.
The Raptors finished the 2019/20 season with a 53-19 record during the Covid-19 shortened campaign. This was good for a 73.6% winning percentage. It earned them the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
In what should be a full 82-game campaign in 2021/22, this winning percentage would put the Raptor’s record at an impressive 60-22. Of course, to accurately predict the team’s record next season, you have to factor in the roster changes. Out is legendary point guard Kyle Lowry. As noted, Gasol and Ibaka also moved on.
Let’s take a closer look:
The biggest offseason news for the Toronto Raptors this year has been Kyle Lowry’s sign-and-trade to the Miami Heat. Lowry had been an All-Star caliber point guard for almost a decade in Toronto. He is widely considered to be the greatest Raptor of all-time.
Lowry’s production will need to be replaced by veteran Goran Dragic, along with a full season of further growth for youngsters Gary Trent Jr. and Malachi Flynn. Yes, this is a bit of a downgrade from Lowry. However, Trent showed enormous potential late last season. Fred VanVleet is more than prepared to take the reins of the offense as a full time point guard. He himself isn’t much of a drop off from Lowry and is as appropriate an heir apparent as there could be. VanVleet averaged 19.6 points and 6.3 assists last season while hitting more than three triples per game.
Also, it can’t be ignored just how good this team has played without Lowry. Even in last year’s brutal campaign, the team finished 12-14 (.46% winning percentage) without their star point guard. This was a notably better winning percentage than their overall season record (37.5%). Based the aforementioned factors, we will estimate the loss of Lowry to represent approximately 8 losses next season from their 2019/20 campaign. That brings us down to a 52-30 record.
Changes in the Front Court
Serge Ibaka was outstanding during the bubble season. He finished 2019/20 with a career high 15.4 points per game along with eight rebounds per game. Marc Gasol was already facing a decline, finishing the season with just 7.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and a block a game. However, Gasol’s ability to space the floor and help run the offense was still impactful.
Replacing Ibaka and Gasol on this year’s squad will be a combination of Khem Birch, Precious Achiuwa, a much-improved Chris Boucher and lottery pick Scottie Barnes. Barnes realistically could get playing time at any position one through five. However, we will slot him as a power forward here. Khem Birch was solid last season after joining the team. He finished his 19-game stand with the Raptors averaging 11.9 points, 7.6 boards, and 1.2 blocks per game.
Achiuwa played limited minutes his rookie season in Miami. He showed flashes of strong play, however, and should be an impactful rebounder. Chris Boucher had a breakout season last year. He finished with impressive averages of 13.6 points, 6.7 boards, and 1.9 blocks while making 1.5 three pointers per game. Rookie Scottie Barnes will need to work hard on his shooting. That said, his combination of size, athleticism, defensive ability and outstanding passing should be instantly impactful.
This young front court will be hard-pressed to replace the veteran leadership of Gasol and Ibaka. They do, however, bring a great deal of versatility and potential to the table. We will consider this slight downgrade good for approximately 6 more losses.
So, factoring in the massive advantage of returning to Toronto with the relevant loss of talent over the past two seasons, we can predict that Raptors finish with an approximate record of 46-36. This is a winning percentage of 56%. Based on last year’s Eastern Conference standings by winning percentage, this would have given the Raptors the sixth seed.
A sixth-place finish would mark a huge step in the right direction. It would be a return to form for a winning franchise, and a return to the playoffs. The Raptors will no doubt surprise some folks in 2021/22.
It has not been determined if the franchise will face attendance restrictions. It has been announced that attendees of games will be required to display proof of vaccination. While further details will need to be cleared up, this is a still great news for Raptors fans.
The Raptors will host two preseason games in Toronto and will kick off their regular season at home against Washington. Expect Jurassic Park to be an absolute riot as fans welcome back new-look their team.
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More to come from Toronto.