Folks, the NBA season is almost upon us — uh, scratch that, the NBA season starts today! Where did the time… oh, right. It’s 2020. Sigh.
Thankfully for us, your faithful HQ bloggers, the league has bequeathed us an extra day to get ready: The Toronto Raptors kick off their season tomorrow night against the New Orleans Pelicans.
We’ll have full preview coverage of that game tomorrow, but for now, let’s step back and take the 10,000-foot view with some thoughts about the season to come.
After watching the Open Gym “The Bubble” documentary series — which is now on YouTube in full and is worth your time — and seeing the Raptors living out of hotel rooms for three months, it really struck me how much it sucks that they have to do it all again now.
Sure, they’re not as “restricted” as they were in the bubble, and they’ll be traveling to other cities rather than stuck in one place. And at least some of the players will rent houses or apartments, and have their families with them. But they’re all still a long ways from their homes, and their dedicated practice and training facilities, and their own locker room. And we’re still in a pandemic! And Florida is one of the places hardest hit!
I have to imagine that it’s all going to take a toll hat some point, especially as the traditional “dog days” of the season loom, or when they’re playing three games in four nights and don’t even have their own beds to look forward to.
There’s nothing normal about this season for anyone, but it’s especially abnormal for the Raptors.
All of which makes me think…
Let’s Not Get Too High Off Last Year
The Raptors have been a lock to exceed their expected win totals for years now, and last year was the cherry on top — a season when some folks had them out of the playoffs, the Raptors had their best regular season ever and had the second-best record in the league for the second straight year.
And so the temptation this year, with prognosticators again having them in the bottom half of the East’s playoff teams, is to once again say they’ll exceed those expectations.
I’m not so sure. There’s the away-from-home issue. They lost two important players. Their bench is weaker. Kyle Lowry will show his age at some point (well, maybe). And the competition, including Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Brooklyn, all got better, and the Heat and Celtics are still there too.
I think this season will just be really tough for them. The Raptors have a shot at a top-four seed, but it’ll be a fight between them, Boston and Miami.
Maybe Let’s Pump the Brakes on the Rookie Praise Too
I’m as guilty of it as anyone after his preseason performance, but a few days of perspective have made me come back down to Earth a bit on Malachi Flynn.
He’s good and might well end up being a steal at 29. But he’s also joined a team with two incumbent point guards upon whom the head coach relies heavily... and those habits can be hard to break. (Even if one of those two should be considered an off-guard full-time.)
In other words, as long as Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are healthy it’s gonna be hard for Flynn to crack the rotation for more than a few spot minutes here and there. Hopefully, that means opportunities to grow and learn, and perhaps by the end of the season, he’s playing 12-15 minutes a night.
But to start, I think the team will take it slow with Malachi, and that’s just fine.
The Raptors lost one of the best and smartest defensive players in basketball in Marc Gasol. And yet coming in to this season I’m far more interested in seeing what’s new on the offensive side of the ball.
Gasol missed a third of the season and yet the team still ranked second overall in defense. As long as the habits he imparted remain, and as long as this team employs Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet to stop the point of attack and OG Anunoby to guard everyone else, I think they’ll be fine on D.
But last year’s offense struggled to score in the half court — and it’s not like they brought in any dynamic offensive players in the offseason.
Enter Chris Finch!
Nick Nurse’s old friend and new assistant coach is well-regarded for his offensive acumen, and he’s already spoken about adding more movement and cutting to keep things flowing. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, especially with the improved playmaking I expect we’ll see from Siakam. And while I don't expect them to pour in the points, Aron Baynes and Alex Len are also excellent screeners, and should help open things up for others.
Now, It’s true that we didn’t see too much different in the preseason; there was a little more movement, but overall the half court was still kind of a bog. I’m not worried — it would be difficult to implement new sets in just three games in a compressed timeframe while the team relocated to Florida. It might take 5-10 games, but I think it’ll come. And I really hope it does! As much as I love watching the Raptors defend, and turning that defense into offense on the fast break, I do not relish seeing another season full of botched pick-and-rolls that lead to a Fred VanVleet heave as the shot clock expires.
(Side note on the above subtitle — you know how teams all put their hands in, yell 1-2-3 [team name] etc. to break a huddle? You’ll hear the name of the city or school, or “win,” or “defense” pretty often too. In my final year of high school, we played a team that ended their huddle with “1-2-3 offense!” and I remember doing a double-take because I had never heard a team use “offense” as their rallying cry before… and honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it since!) (And yes, they killed us.)
Will This Team Look the Same in March?
At both the 2017 and 2019 trade deadlines, Masai Ujiri made all-in, franchise-altering trades. Will 2021 see something similar?
I think it’s a possibility. We’ve discussed the potential for a Kyle Lowry trade already, but beyond that, the Raptors are loaded with players on tradeable contracts. Now, not every one of those players has value — Hi, Stanley — but some clearly do, like Norman Powell, Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher.
On the other hand — the extensions and re-signing of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet would seem to indicate that the Raptors believe in their young core and are comfortable building around them going forward.
I think we might see a small move or two, most likely Powell moving on, but nothing franchise-changing this time around.
It’s going to be a very different kind of season; we’re now 18 months removed from the Raptors winning their title, four key players from that team have departed, the team is in Tampa and the league as a whole is rolling the dice with traveling and playing with fans in the arenas during a global pandemic. It’s weird, and risky...
But it’s also comforting. Especially right now, when the holidays are going to be so different, it’s good to have basketball back, to have something familiar to do, to have a team to root for. Let’s enjoy it!