Title or bust. A common ethos of a professional sports team, especially one that believes that a league championship is a possibility in a given season. Gregg Popovich, the long-time coach of the San Antonio Spurs, took this to the extreme in an interview during the 2013 NBA Finals. Popovich, in his typical deadpan fashion, claimed that anything short of a title was “torture and misery.” Winning, according to Popovich, brought only “relief.” Asked why he does it, given the apparent imbalance, Popovich only said: “We’re sick puppies.”
Not everyone has to subscribe to that harsh philosophy, however. If all viewed professional sports that way, much fewer would undertake the process that is fandom, and attendance and coverage would more resemble that of beer league hockey. We of the Toronto basketball fandom contingent are not “sick puppies,” as we have long learned to find victory in the eventual defeat that comes for 29 of 30 NBA teams. It has become apparent this year that the Toronto Raptors will likely be among the 29, after a glorious year as the one, forcing us fans to recalibrate expectations after a strong start had them dreaming of a repeat.
The Raptors are not in a “title or bust” season this year, the first season after losing Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and 3-and-D maestro Danny Green. As a result, we must once again find success in other manners. Obviously, another championship is the ideal, and I’d be lying if I said that thought did not sneak into my head every now and then, but there appears to be a low likelihood of that happening. What, then, constitutes success this year?
Here are some benchmarks that the Raptors could hit that would signify success for the 2019-20 NBA Season.
1. The 1-4 Stretch is the Lowest Low of the Regular Season:
We, as Raptors fans, are only used to being this disillusioned and unsure of the team after being swept by LeBron James’ Cavaliers (or the Washington Wizards for that matter) in the playoffs. After establishing an identity early this year as a gritty, hard-nosed defensive team with an opportunistic offense, the five games prior to bounce-back wins over the Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers, have resembled anything but that identity. The Raptors went 1-4, with the lone win being a nail biter against the lowly Chicago Bulls. A game that, as The Athletic’s Eric Koreen has branded it, was a “moral defeat” regardless of its impact on the win column. Though the four losses came against solid, contending teams in the Miami Heat, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, and Los Angeles Clippers, good teams have to find ways to win against elite competition.
Ideally, the wins over Cleveland and Brooklyn are signs of good things to come and not outliers. However, if another stretch such as this occurs, it will get increasingly difficult to consider this regular season a success. Thankfully, the Clippers game marks the end of the toughest part of the Raptors’ schedule this season, although consecutive games against the 76ers, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, and Los Angeles Lakers will also prove challenging. The Raptors still have yet to lose to a sub-.500 opponent and should continue to pile up wins against those teams. Moreover, their talent and typical effort levels should slowly start to even their current 3-7 record against teams above .500.
There are many reasons to maintain a positive outlook on this team going forward, as these losses came at a time when the Raptors were trying to work Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka back into the lineup, only to have Fred VanVleet sustain an injury. For a team that has shown that they can have stellar on-court chemistry, they are unlikely to look so disjointed going forward. As long as that is the case, and the team avoids a slide such as this most recent one and returns to their winning ways in the regular season, then one benchmark for a successful season will have been achieved.
2. Player Development Continues to Trend Up
A trademark of the Raptors under Masai Ujiri, continued player development amongst the younger Raptors will be a sign of success in the 2019-20 season. Obviously, that starts with Pascal Siakam, easily the best and most important player on the Raptors this year and into the future. Fresh off a huge extension, if Siakam is truly a top-10 player, then the future of this team is all the brighter with him under contract through the 2023-24 season. Already showing a penchant for year-by-year improvement, an MVP-caliber Siakam is the first step towards future title contention.
A strong supporting cast is an essential as well, and other young Raptors have already shown flashes of being role players on a contending team. Specifically, two 22-year-olds, OG Anunoby and Terence Davis II, who are both under contract to 2021 and will be restricted free agents afterwards, are in a position to be key Raptors for the foreseeable future.
Since his rookie year, Anunoby has shown flashes of being an elite 3-and-D player, with those flashes looking more like the norm this season. Factor in a developing off-the-dribble game, and Anunoby is the type of plug-and-play, versatile player that championship teams crave. If Anunoby shows that his shooting this season is no fluke (he started hot, but is in a slump right now), and continues to play at an all-defense level, then his development will be something Raptors fans can feel good about.
Davis, another gem unearthed by the Raptors, has outperformed expectations as an undrafted rookie. As a big, physical combo guard, Davis has been a spark off the bench for the team. Energetic on defense, and shooting the lights out from deep at 39.7 percent (!), his play looks more like that of an NBA veteran than an undrafted rookie. If the defense and shooting stay strong, and he continues to show flashes of playmaking, Davis could be a long term piece, and another great find for a Raptors front office that has not had a lottery pick to play with since drafting Jakob Poeltl ninth overall in 2016.
Obviously, Fred VanVleet’s continued development has been a revelation as well, but he enters unrestricted free agency after this season. With his play this year, it is not unrealistic to suggest he could command a max contract on the open market. For a Raptors team who appears to be committed to maintaining financial flexibility for the 2021 offseason, a.k.a. the Summer of Giannis, his future with the team is uncertain.
For the young players who the Raptors clearly have their eyes on for the future, Davis, Anunoby, and Siakam, their continued development will be something Raptors fans can hang their hats on this season.
3. Nick Nurse Continues to Innovate and Adjust
Since his innovative defensive strategy against the Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals, Nick Nurse has garnered a reputation as a creative genius, willing to think outside the box (and-1). This season, the successful start that he led the Raptors to combined with the way in which he defended star players led some to wonder if he may be the best coach in the NBA. Over the past few games, however, there has been a slight comeuppance for this star-stopping strategy. Teams have seemed to figure out his high-pressure, trapping scheme, and have passed their way out of jams for some easy buckets.
As the NBA starts to prepare for what the Raptors will throw at them, it is up the Nurse to get out in front of it and adjust once again. Thus far in his Raptors tenure, Nurse has refused to let his tactics get stale, and it is likely we will see him start throwing some different looks at elite players this season. With a versatile defensive team that lends itself to varied scheming, expect Nurse to use the talent at his disposal to throw teams out of a rhythm once again.
Offensively, the Raptors have struggled in the half-court — particularly as of late. Some of that can be chalked up to struggles by Pascal Siakam, and the aforementioned injuries, but the Raptors need to be better to compete. Nurse needs to get the team some easy looks, and he has shown an ability to do so with some beautiful after time-out plays (let’s refer to a Nurse after time out as a NATO; as far as I know the acronym is fair game right now). He will need to apply that into the half-court offense as a whole, as it has failed to establish a rhythm since the game against the Utah Jazz.
If the defense adjusts and plays to its potential as a top-3 unit, combined with a steadying of the offense, Raptors fans will be justified in their confidence in Nick Nurse as the long-term head coach.
4. A Competitive Second-Round Exit from the Playoffs (At Least!)
We can hope for better as Raptors fans, but the Eastern Conference looks as tough as it has been in years. There are four teams, the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, and Miami Heat, that would be particularly challenging in the playoffs. Beyond that, I would be confident in the Raptors in a seven-game series against any team in the East. Ideally, the Raptors would avoid the teams mentioned above in the first round and set themselves up for a battle in the second. This would likely require a top-3 seed, thus adding to the importance of the regular season.
If the Raptors can attain a top three spot and take care of business in the first round against the lower seed of the conference, it would most likely mean they are then facing one of the tougher teams. Obviously, a first-round exit would be a disappointment no matter the opponent. A second-round loss, however, has the potential for heartache as well. Over the course of the recent playoff runs by the team, we’ve seen what the difference between a six-game series against Cleveland and a sweep can do to the psyche of Torontonians.
Therefore, whether it is against the enormous Philly team, Giannis in a revenge series, or any other opponent, the Raptors need to be competitive in the second round for this season to feel successful. Whether that means a six or seven-game series, as long as the Raptors don’t feel completely overmatched, fans of the team can feel good about the end result of the season. Obviously, we hope for better, and something extraordinary this season has the potential to be even sweeter than the last, but I’m in the business of setting attainable goals.
While most defending champions would consider anything less than a repeat as disappointment, unique circumstances have made the Raptors rather different than most defending champions. If the Raptors hit all four of these checkpoints, then it will be hard for Raptors fans to find too much disappointment in the 2019-20 season. Anything more has the potential for a magical run, but too much less might lead to serious uncertainty about this team going forward. If nothing else, just don’t approach this season like Gregg Popovich.