It’s been said that one of the biggest advantages an NBA team can have is their ability to not have to play any players who, relative to the standards of the league, suck.
For many years now, Toronto has been able to rely on a bench filled with NBA quality players. Even in years when some idiots didn’t think they could, Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and the rest of the Raptors organization have consistently stocked the organization with guys who do not, in point of fact, suck.
It’s one of the reasons Toronto continues to overachieve relative to expectations — pundits get caught up on the lack of “superstar” names and forget that being able to play all 48 minutes with competent players on the floor keeps you from spitting up a bad loss on a Tuesday night in February in Atlanta.
In this weird 2020-21 season for the Raptors, the ability to play guys who don’t suck will matter more than ever before — because Dorothy, we’re not in the Bubble anymore.
Earlier this week three members of the Raptors organization tested positive for COVID-19. That’s not because the Raptors have been somehow careless with the virus — from all indications they have taken every reasonable step possible. It is likely because of the soaring case loads around North America which make it all but inevitable that if you test any large grouping of people some will be sick with COVID.
As we’ve seen in both baseball and football, sports can’t escape the pandemic — several games in those sports have been postponed or cancelled, and the competitive integrity of many more has been shaken by one or both teams seeing important players unavailable due to the virus.
Now, it’s possible the Raptors might end up like the Blue Jays and basically avoid any infection. Toronto is a professional organization that employs professionally-minded players and staff. They could very well be disciplined, and lucky, enough to escape any contagion (Remember, the NBA has decided that any player who tests positive, even one who is asymptomatic, will need ten days away from the game — which with this schedule means likely four or five games.)
Taking a deeper look at that schedule you can see how grueling 2020-21 is going to be. While the Raptors only play four back-to-backs to start the year (and one sees both games in Indiana), the Raptors play basically every second day from December 23rd to March 4th.
There are a few small exceptions: with the help of a mini-Christmas break, the Raps play only three times in the first seven days of the season. After a back-to-back in early January they get two days off before playing the Hornets on the 14th. They then get two days off again in early February between playing the Nets and Magic, and... that’s it.
The schedule could also be under-selling how frenetic the season will be. The NBA has only released the first half so as to have maximum flexibility to change things if one, or more likely, several, NBA teams have outbreaks that impacts their ability to play. That could mean a second half that is even more packed. (Remember also, that just because the Raps keep their noses clean, it doesn’t mean they can’t be affected by others. If the Nets can’t play on, say, February 5th, it could mean a new back-to-back later in the season to get the game in when the Nets are healthy).
With teams basically playing permanent “three games in five days” sets all year, you can bet that team’s high-performance departments are going to be working overtime to try to figure out how to keep players upright, let alone at 100 percent.
You have to think the NBA is going to see more DNP-Rest than every before. Combine that with what will likely be more niggling one or two game injuries than usual, as tired bodies break down, and NBA teams that can’t consistently go ten or eleven players deep are going to be at a disadvantage.
Heck, you could make the argument that teams might need to be closer to thirteen deep to really be able to get through this season without seeing massive drops in quality of play. And teams that disproportionately rely on one or two stars are going to be in greater danger than ever before if said stars go down. It’s one of the reasons the Lakers offseason was so strong — they are now deep enough that if only LeBron or Anthony Davis is available on any given night, L.A. still has a good chance of beating basically anybody. (It’s also why those: “DeRozan to L.A.” rumours made a ton of sense to me — dude is an iron-man and could have made sure LA always had an offensive fulcrum on the floor, even if in the playoffs he would have been more of a Sixth Man-type.)
This loops us back to where we began: the Raptors and their competitive advantage, a.k.a. a roster full of guys who don’t suck.
Beyond the likely starters of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Aron Baynes, Toronto can trot out an intriguing second unit of Norman Powell, Matt Thomas, DeAndre’ Bembry, Chris Boucher, and Alex Len.
That doesn’t even touch on a guy who played 1,200 minutes last year (Terence Davis, who I’m not going to put in the top-10 for obvious reasons), another guy who played 900 and is one of Nick Nurse’s favourites (Patrick McCaw), one of the best players in college basketball last year (Malachi Flynn, who is, in my opinion, definitely going to be a player), the player with arguably the most breakout potential on the roster (Paul Watson), a serviceable small-ball energy guy (Oshae Brissett), and the “second draft” signing who might quietly be the Raptors’ next developmental success story (Stanley Johnson, don’t laugh, I think he might play).
It’s not just that the Raptors have great depth, it’s that, yet again, they’ll have fantastic continuity. While Toronto did lose three of their top ten minutes played guys in the off-season, they only really need one of them to play significant minutes in Baynes. The Kiwi mauler has, by all accounts, been quick to pick up his role (and roll) in the Raps’ offense — knocking dudes silly with screens — so it seems unlikely Toronto will have major issues figuring out their identity.
Still, the frontcourt does seem to be the one place where the Raptors might be vulnerable to a rash of injuries or infections. While Siakam and Anunoby could be small-ball fives, if the Raps lose two or three of their bigs, they’re going to have to turn to guys like, uh, Henry Ellenson to fill in. Still, when your biggest depth issue is having to rely on a star G League player after, like, four guys get run over by a Mack Truck, your team is in good shape.
Compare that to say, Boston who could have issues if they lost more than one of their starters, or Philadelphia, who despite an influx of shooting still lack proven depth after their top eight or nine guys, or even Brooklyn — who have depth is spades, but surely will be reluctant to play either of their two recovering stars, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, heavy minutes in such compact circumstances. In all, you can see why Toronto should yet again be in the mix for a top four seed and better than expected.
Not sucking. It’s really the only way to live in a pandemic.