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Will the road ahead break the Raptors?

The Toronto Raptors are embarking on one of the five toughest trips in team history — this usually doesn’t go well.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

In the days of the pioneers, the expression: ‘Go West Young Man’ was a euphemism for finding new opportunity, a place to stretch your legs, a way to master your own destiny.

In practice, it meant dying on the way, fighting the indigenous people when you got there, and, as likely as not, ending up under the thumb of someone more wealthy and powerful than you — just like back East.

Given the Raptors’ history heading West, they might prefer those options.

A year ago, I wrote a couple of pieces on the Raptors’ ten-most difficult road-trips of all time. It was a... depressing list.

Of the ten hardest trips in Toronto basketball history, the Raptors posted a winning record just once — a warm-fuzzies inducing 3-1 romp which saw them beat an apex “Russ and KD” OKC team.

That makes this road-trip, which ranks as the fourth most challenging in franchise history, a nerve-wracking proposition.

(To quickly clarify, these rankings are devised by taking FiveThirtyEight’s ELO ratings, and then averaging them out over the trip. These change day-to-day based on previous results, so it’s possible, depending how Portland and Denver play, that this trip could move up or down a spot.)

Raptors’ Five Toughest Trips

14-22-12 ELO Result
14-22-12 ELO Result
CHI 1614.4188 L 129-120
LAC 1634.8354 W 110 98
DEN 1460.1077 W 116-102
POR 1667.7268 L 102-97
GS 1695.3938 L 126-105
PHO 1579.2764 L 125-109
AVG 1608.626483 2-4
08-11-03 ELO Result
LAL 1687.6116 L 117-108
GS 1623.097 L 117-106
DEN 1593.9622 L 137-105
SAC 1440.9933 L 106-100
UTH 1662.9447 L 96-79
AVG 1601.72176 0-5
13-20-12 ELO Result
DAL 1530.6659 W 109 -108
OKC 1713.4575 W 104-98
SA 1696.9829 L 112-99
NYK 1427.3267 W 95-83
AVG 1592.10825 3-1
11-12-2018 ELO Result
LAC 1550.182 ?
GSW 1649.566 ?
POR 1557.154 ?
DEN 1602.88 ?
AVG 1589.9455
15-20-02 ELO Result
ATL 1648.8445 W 105-80
HOU 1609.8054 L 98-76
NO 1477.2747 L 100-97
DAL 1615.1073 L 99-92
AVG 1587.757975 1-3

A week and a half ago, Raptors-land held sky-high expectations. The Dinos had beaten the Warriors, despite a 51-point Kevin Durant explosion, the seventh of an eight game winning streak. A four game trip through the heart of the West? No problem, it was a chance for the Raptors to put their claw-marks all over the NBA.

Now, after narrow losses to Denver, New Jersey and Milwaukee, some clear concerns are facing Toronto: Kyle Lowry has seemingly lost the ability to get to the hoop, Nick Nurse is proving that stale late game calls were not the exclusive domain of Dwane Casey, the team has been unwilling or unable to find ways to continue the growth of players like Delon Wright and OG Anunoby, and the Raptors are looking shy of off the bounce creators.

A 9-6 record after a 12-1 start is still really good, and most of the losses were of the “one more bounce” variety to good teams, but concern is mounting over the road ahead.

Best case, the Raps rip off a shocking 3-1 record (none of the teams they’re facing this time rank as highly as that Thunder team did, or the no. 2 team on that trip, the San Antonio Spurs). But the worse case is truly gruesome: a repeat of the 2014-15 trip where a 22-6 Raptors team was exposed defensively by a parade of aggressive guards.

That year ended with the Raps going 25-23 and getting swept by the Wizards in the first round.

Nobody is suggesting that a team led by Kawhi Leonard is going to fall apart like that, but, then again, at the time, not many thought that 22-6 Raptors team was a paper tiger either.

With Steph Curry, Lou Williams, Damian Lilliard, and Jamal Murray all looming, we’ll see if the Raptors difficulty controlling dribble drive penetration will stand, if Nurse will realize that Wright is his best defensive guard for handling those threats, and if Kyle Lowry can find himself.

Otherwise, if Toronto suddenly find themselves having lost six or seven of eight, it might be time to circle the wagons.