The question on every basketball fan’s mind right now is, will the 2019-20 season ever resume?
The NBA’s latest plan would see teams head to Las Vegas to finish out the season, with everyone quarantined inside an Olympic village-style bubble. But if I were a betting man, I’d put all of my chips on this not happening.
While the NBA continues to look for a safe, viable way to resurrect the season, fans are left wondering what it might look like. Will they complete the regular season? Will they go straight into the playoffs? Will they change the first round to a three-game series?
If the NBA does have an eureka moment and actually finds a way to resume the season, my guess is it’ll jump right into the playoffs. It just makes the most sense since it’ll mean less teams. And less teams means less people.
If this were to happen, I believe that, among the top teams in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors are best positioned to succeed.
Here are some of the reasons why.
After a long-ass layoff, which could be upwards of four months, and then jumping right into the fire that is the NBA playoffs, for a team to succeed, it must be able to gel right away. Like right away, right away. There’s no time to get reacquainted or work out any kinks.
The good news for the Raptors is they’ve built tremendous continuity over the last four seasons. Sure, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are no longer wearing Raptors jerseys. But the Lowry-Powell-Siakam-VanVleet-Ibaka-Anunoby core is still very much intact. And it existed long before the Spurs duo joined the team.
These guys have played with one another for so long and have gone into battle together so many times, including last year’s incredible championship run, that they instinctively know where each will be on the court at all times — both on offense and defense.
Whether it’s an offensive play like an alley-oop out of a timeout or a defensive scheme like a 3-2 zone — or trotting out a box-and-one on a lark — there seems to be a sort of non-verbal communication thing going on between the Raptors players.
Other players have noticed this, too. On The J.J. Redick Podcast, Redick gushed over the Raptors’ ability to rotate on defense, saying, “They do it better than any team I’ve ever seen. Ever. It’s like there’s telepathy and they know where each guy’s gonna be at all times.”
It’s a real thing. You could see this chemistry last year between Leonard and Green who, between the Spurs and Raptors, played together for eight straight years. No matter what was happening on the floor, Leonard always knew where Green was.
We’ve seen it countless times between Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka on a pick and pop. Or between Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam on an alley-oop. Or between Lowry and Siakam on a drive and kick. (Pretty much between Lowry and anyone.)
Plus, due to the extensive injuries and shuffling of rotations, everyone has played with each other at some point this season. Even Oshae Brissett, who’s on a two-way contract, has seen his share of prime time minutes. So there’s familiarity across the board, from player one to 17.
There’s also an unselfishness that runs through the team. It’s clear that there’s total buy in from the players — that everyone is pulling hard in the same direction. They’re willing to sacrifice for one another to better the team.
Last season, Lowry had to forgo his offensive numbers to be more of a distributor. When the Raptors acquired Marc Gasol, it pushed Ibaka to the bench. For players with a me-first mentality, these sacrifices would’ve been difficult to make. But Lowry and Ibaka didn’t complain. They did their jobs and won a title because of it.
But the continuity doesn’t stop with the players. Nurse has been a part of the Raptors for seven years, first as an assistant and then as a head coach. He’s worked closely with a lot of the players on the current roster.
It’s this year-over-year continuity and chemistry, which few other teams possess in today’s NBA, that makes the Raptors uniquely positioned to succeed after not playing together for several months.
Just as on-court chemistry is a must-have, so too is off-court chemistry, especially if the NBA goes the quarantine zone route. Under this scenario, teammates will be interacting with one another even more than usual.
Good thing the Raptors have off-court chemistry in spades.
Whether it’s Open Gym, Lowry’s lineup intro, Ibaka’s “How Hungry Are You” show, the recent SLAM Magazine feature, postgame podium sessions or the recent flurry of Instagram Live chats, the players seem to love being around each other. Basically, watch any Raptors behind the scenes content and you’ll see a natural ease and friendship between these players.
There’s the special mentor-mentee relationship between Lowry and VanVleet. There’s the Siakam-VanVleet duo who came up together in the Raptors system, winning both G League and NBA titles together. And there’s Ibaka taking rookie Terence Davis under his long wing.
The Raptors couldn’t have asked for a better set of teammates. And for that, team president Masai Ujiri and the front office deserve a lot of the credit.
These close relationships will go a long way to the success of the team this season, especially if they wind up being sequestered in tight quarters for months.
None of us know for certain what the NBA will look like once it resumes. But we do know we’re heading for some uncharted waters. So having a coach that can think on his feet and is used to dealing with whatever comes his way would be a clear advantage.
While a lot of NBA coaches are stuck in their ways and refuse to adjust their game plan (cough, Budenholzer, cough), Nick Nurse isn’t afraid to be flexible or try something new. I mean, again, what other coach on this planet would pull out a box-and-one in the NBA Finals?
It’s Nurse’s flexibility and ingenuity that allowed him to successfully navigate the troubled waters that was the 2019-20 season, finding inventive ways to win despite the insane and befuddling rash of injuries.
Even with key players like Lowry, Ibaka, Gasol, Siakam, VanVleet and Powell in and out of the lineup all season long, at 46-18, the Raptors have the second best record in the East and third best in the NBA. They even somehow managed a franchise record 15-game winning streak along the way. All of this, of course, after losing both last year’s Finals MVP and one of the league’s better 3-and-D wings.
Nurse’s creativity, constant in-game adjustments, and willingness to try different defensive schemes (i.e. box and one, triangle and two, 3-2 zone, full-court press, etc.) have led to numerous improbable wins, including the undermanned victory over the Los Angeles Lakers and the historic 30-point comeback vs. the Dallas Mavericks.
Nurse is able to draw from his experience as an international and G League coach, as well as from his first year as the Raptors bench boss. Last season was riddled with injuries, load management, and trades. It felt like every game, Nurse was starting a different five. And just like this season, the team kept on winning.
So if the season were to dive right into the playoffs after months and months of players playing video games and eating donuts (I’m looking at you, Terence), there are bound to be a few injuries, as well as other unforeseen quirks. And if there was any coach equipped to adapt and change on the fly, it’s Nick Nurse.
Having depth in the playoffs isn’t necessarily that important, especially if you have a strong seven to eight-man rotation soaking up the bulk of the minutes.
However, if we were to jump right into the postseason, depth will never be more important. That’s because players will be returning to game action after a long layoff, resulting in tired legs and a higher risk of injury.
Beyond the Raptors’ solid seven-man rotation, there are some skilled players who’ve already proven they can step up when needed. They include Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Matt Thomas and Chris Boucher. Even Patrick McCaw has some defensive value.
This depth will allow Nurse to spread out the minutes to ease his players back in after the long layoff without having to incur a huge drop off in play, especially defensively.
Even after a couple weeks of training camp prior to resuming the season, no team will be firing on all offensive cylinders from the jump. Not until they shake off the rust. We’ll likely see a lot of walking the ball up and getting into a half-court offense. A good defensive team can easily take advantage of this.
The Raptors happen to be one of the better defensive teams in the league. They’re stacked with plus defenders who can guard several positions and can execute multiple schemes at a moment’s notice. They play defense on a string, which can be attributed to their aforementioned continuity.
The defensive pressure they put on teams is enormous. We all remember what the Raptors did on that Western road trip earlier in the season while missing both Lowry and Ibaka. The team held LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard to a combined 24 percent shooting and 11.3 PPG. Then later, there was the infamous zero-point Joel Embiid game.
And who could forget the full-court press that helped the squad overcome a 30-point deficit in about 14 minutes — the largest comeback in Raptors history.
Sure, the Raptors, too, won’t have their legs completely under them right away. But if there was a team that I was going to trust to play lockdown defense out of the gate and take full advantage of offensively sluggish teams, it’s the Raptors.
Another important factor to consider after months on the sidelines is youth. Younger players will need less time to get back into game shape.
While the Raptors roster does feature some elder statesmen, there’s also a good mix of young legs, including Siakam, VanVleet, Powell, Boucher, Thomas, Davis and Hollis-Jefferson, all of whom are 26 and under.
Not only are they young players, they’re young players who contribute to winning ballgames. Siakam, VanVleet, Powell, Davis and Hollis-Jefferson are all important rotation pieces, with Boucher and Thomas filling in whenever the injury bug hits (which, as we know, was often). And Siakam, VanVleet and Powell specifically have championship experience.
The two worrisome players would be Lowry and Gasol, both of whom are over 30 and both of whom could need more time to get ready to play. While we know Ibaka is keeping fit, we don’t know what kind of work Lowry and Gasol are able to put in. It’s a tough situation made tougher when we remember that Gasol has been dealing with a lingering hamstring issue, which could easily act up again.
We The Champs
Again, if the NBA season does resume, it’s not clear yet as to what the format will be. A March Madness-style elimination tournament? A three-game series instead of seven? A neutral site with no fans? Who knows.
Whatever shape the season may take, the Raptors championship experience and pedigree will prove to be invaluable.
The team faced so much adversity during their title run, including being down 2-0 to the Milwaukee Bucks. And every time they beat it back with a sledgehammer, showing loads of mental toughness and intestinal fortitude. Playing with an all-world talent like Kawhi Leonard will do that.
This experience gave the team the confidence that they can overcome any challenge. You could see it this year in the way they closed out tight games or won contests they had no business winning. They took care of business.
So whether it’s playing on a neutral court or a completely overhauled playoff format, the Raptors, maybe more than any Eastern team, are set up to overcome whatever challenges lie ahead.
Comparing Eastern Rivals
Let’s look at how well the other top Eastern Conference teams are positioned if the season were to resume after months of video games and Netflix.
The Bucks are probably the closest to the Raptors in terms of being in a good position to succeed. Their key players, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Brook Lopez all have playoff experience and all were on last year’s East Finals squad, giving them a fair amount of continuity and chemistry.
The biggest piece they’re missing is Malcolm Brogdon, who was with the Bucks for the last three years and was one of their better playoff performers in the East Finals. Additionally, they were still integrating the newly acquired Marvin Williams into their system prior to the pause of the season.
With players like Wesley Matthews, George Hill, Ersan İlyasova, Kyle Korver, and Robin Lopez, the Bucks have some serious depth to spread out the minutes and accommodate injuries. However, they don’t have youth on their side. Among their key contributors, only Giannis is under 26.
But perhaps their biggest impediment is head coach Mike Budenholzer. Unlike Nurse, coach Bud isn’t all that flexible. He has a game plan and he sticks to it to hell or high water, as evidenced by last year’s East Finals. (After Game 2, it was more “hell” than “high water.”)
Like the Raptors, the Celtics are also in a good position in terms of experience and youth. Two of their three stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, are 23 and under. Plus both have East Finals experience.
While these two have good chemistry, overall, the team lacks continuity. For better or for worse (mostly worse), Kyrie Irving was a big part of their offense for the last couple of seasons. And he’s since been replaced with Kemba Walker. While Walker has clearly been a better fit, he’s still a relatively new addition and had missed a lot of time after the All-Star Game.
Also, Tatum, Brown and Gordon Hayward have never gone to battle with Walker. Sure, they won some tight games together during the season. But nothing matches the intensity of the postseason. They’ve also never entered the playoffs with Tatum as the team’s centerpiece — a role he’s still growing into.
The Heat also feature a lot of young, contributing rotation pieces, including Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn, and Tyler Herro, all of whom are 25 and under. However, none of them are playoff-tested. And none have played together all that long.
Add in the fact that Hassan Whiteside and Justise Winslow were both jettisoned, while their leader, Dwayne Wade, was replaced by Jimmy Butler, and it’s an entirely new team from last year.
But like Nurse, head coach Erik Spoelstra is smart, creative and flexible, and shouldn’t have any trouble finding solutions to whatever comes his way.
While the Pacers do have some playoff experience, they have no continuity to speak of. Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner are all back from last year’s team. However, Turner has been in and out the last couple of seasons due to various ailments while Oladipo was out for an entire year with a tough knee injury. The team was just working him back in when the season was halted. But even then, he had some setbacks. It’s also Brogon’s first year with the Pacers, so really Sabonis has been the Pacers’ only constant.
But like the Raptors and Heat, the Pacers get an A+ in the coaching department. Nate McMillan is a sneaky good coach who always gets the most out of his guys no matter who suits up.
The 76ers have some well-documented chemistry and lineup issues, especially when Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Al Horford all share the floor. Head coach Brett Brown started playing Horford off the bench, which alleviated some of the floor spacing issues. But the experiment was cut short due to Simmons’ back issues and the season being put on hold.
Also, they have zero year-to-year continuity because the team is given a facelift every two seconds. The team has changed more times over the last couple seasons than Sean Combs has changed his name.
But the 76ers biggest concern is what kind of shape Embiid will be in after a huge layoff. He usually comes into training camp a bit out of shape and wins the day via his superior talent. With limited supervision, however, who knows what he’s doing exercise-wise. We could very well see another Shawn Kemp situation when Embiid returns.
Plus Embiid is one of the more injury prone players in the league at the best of times. What happens if he tries to ramp it back up too quickly? He’s obviously pivotal to the 76ers’ success. An out of shape and/or injured Embiid will kill any chances the 76ers have of hoisting the Larry O’Brien in 2020.