Against the better judgment of epidemiologists around the world, the NBA is coming back. We’ve been over this for the past few weeks — and it was inevitable once it became clear how much money the league’s owners stood to lose — so we won’t re-hash the pros and cons of this entire scenario. For our purposes, consider this post a refresher on our favourite team in question: the Toronto Raptors.
It’s been three and a half months since we last saw the Raptors on the court. In and of itself, that’s no big deal — we usually go about four months without them every year — but this time, the situation is obviously different. Under normal circumstances, we’d be gearing up for the NBA’s free agency period, or thinking about Summer League, or digging for footage on Toronto’s lastest draft pick. Instead, we’re getting ready for the end of the 2019-20 season.
In that bizarre spirit, let’s revive ourselves to the idea of professional basketball. Here are 11 things you need to know about the restarting Toronto Raptors.
1. The Raptors are the defending NBA champions
Whoa! This is still quite the fact to wake up to. Yes, in case you missed it, the Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship thanks to some personnel risk-taking, a lot of hard work, and a (some would say, lucky) confluence of events around the league. It was the first time the Raps have done all that in franchise history. And in the process, they also became the first Toronto team in one of the major leagues, dating back to 1993, to win a title (sorry TFC). But that’s not the wild part to consider here.
Said wild part: we now sit here on the precipice of July and the Raptors are... still holding that title. That they never actually got to defend it (until now) means they’ve completed the rare feat of being champs for a full calendar year — without winning a second title (as of yet). Now please recall that before the NBA’s suspension, the Raptors were 46-18 and well on their way to putting up a fight for the 2020 title. Unlike every other team still involved, these are the auspices under which the Raptors enter the so-called Disney World Bubble. In the bigger picture — the one where the coronavirus is tearing at the fabric of North American society while protests against police brutality continue to grow — it really doesn’t matter that the Raptors still hold the NBA championship.
But it is nice to be reminded of that fact every so often. And nicer still to recall their underdog chances for an actual, proper repeat.
2. The Raptors are finally all healthy — for now
We can admit here, between friends, that the Raptors are not considered the favourites to win the 2020 NBA title. The smarter money is betting on LeBron James and the Lakers, Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers, and Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. This is a fair stance to take; those are three really good teams.
But, it bears mentioning: the Raptors were the fourth team in that little mix and spent most of the season playing a man, or two, or three (or four?) down. Early in the year, the Raptors discovered what they had with their bench unit in the absence of two core members of the team, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. Then had to weather the absence of star Pascal Siakam for a stretch, along with their anchor in the middle Marc Gasol. Meanwhile, Norman Powell, who was coming into his own this season (finally), had also been forced to miss a bunch of time. Toronto was still 46-18. Yes, they did only go 11-14 against teams over .500 to that point in the season, but again: they’ve been playing hurt for some time.
And while it may feel strange to consider the Raptors “healthy” as they fly into the eye of the pandemic hurricane in Florida, we can at least say that at this moment they’re not dealing with the sore shoulders, uncomfortable hamstrings, and tweaked knees of earlier this year. Small solace perhaps, but solace nonetheless.
3. Norman Powell is the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week
This news story feels like it’s being beamed to us from a different dimension, but it’s still true. Norman Powell won the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award on March 9, the last time it was handed out before everything with professional sports (and the world) went to hell. Across 44 appearances with the Raptors this season, Powell averaged 16.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game, with shooting splits of 50/40/84 — stats that are at or wildly exceeding his career numbers.
Something to keep in mind here: Powell was healthy when the season shut down, but now he’s extra, extra healthy. And, anyway, if we’ve learned anything from his on-and-off year, it’s that Norm has been able to jump into the flow and speed of an NBA game with very little runway to get started.
4. Nick Nurse is very much in the running for Coach of the Year
Look, you could consider coaches like Indiana’s Nate McMillan or Denver’s Mike Malone, bench bosses who are maximizing their rosters once again to succeed. Or you could consider Nick Nurse, the guy who lost two key players (including one who may be one of the best three players on the planet) from his championship roster, and just kept on going.
Over the previous 64 games for the Raptors, Nurse has had to actually show off why the “mad scientist” moniker gets thrown his way so often. This has meant all kinds of wacky defensive schemes at times, but mostly what it’s meant is this: he’s had to implement team strategies to cover for a deficit of players (thanks to injuries) and talent (thanks to those aforementioned departures and injuries). And he’s had to get a bunch of unsung dudes — rookies like Terence Davis, question marks like Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and specialists like Matt Thomas — to fit into a system and identity that was already well-established. Yes, having basketball geniuses like Lowry and Gasol around makes life easier for any coach, but Nurse still had to do his job. And boy howdy, he’s been getting it done this year.
5. Marc Gasol is still a Raptor
To repeat: Marc Gasol is still on the Raptors! We last saw the (not-so-big?) Spaniard in a brief 15-minute appearance in the penultimate game of the suspended season. Before that Gasol hadn’t played since January 28 after his hamstring gave out on him and Toronto decided it best to take it easy with the planned return of their 35-year-old centre.
At this point, a scan of Gasol’s numbers this year (and last) do not suggest he should be misesd that much by the Raptors. However, if you actually watch the Raptors play, it becomes immediately clear what Gasol does for the team on both ends of the floor. On offense, he operates as a hub, consistently finding the right pass before opposing defenses do, while also providing some relief-valve three-point shooting. Meanwhile, on defense, Gasol remains steadfast in his ability to organize the Raptors as a unit and dominate his one-on-one matchups when necessary. Much like Powell, here’s hoping the lay-off has allowed Gasol to get back to being himself.
6. The Raptors are ranked 12th and 2nd in offensive and defensive rating, respectively
This tidbit is a mouthful but it puts things in perspective as to where the Raptors are as a team when compared to the rest of the league. Their fourth-ranked Net rating puts them right there with the league’s elite. While injuries have made it tough for them to flourish offensively, Toronto still functions with two All-Stars, Siakam and Lowry, and a strong supporting cast of steady core players (Powell, Ibaka, Gasol, and Fred VanVleet). This means their offense can generate enough inside-out scoring — e.g. looks at the rim and open 3s — to make them a threat against anyone. Will it be enough in the literal pressure-cooker of this restarted season? We’ll see.
Still, it’s on defense where the Raptors really shine. This is where the great odes to their success can truly be written — and it’s where they can absolutely go to work against any team, even one with more offensive fire power. The Raptors have a surfeit of versatile wing defenders (Powell, Siakam, Davis, Hollis-Jefferson, OG Anunoby), and have their smartest players in the key defensive positions (point of attack, at the rim). They have a coach who works and re-works a zillion different defensive schemes just to keep teams guessing. And, quite frankly, they have the team will to make it work. I’d like to make some joke about Toronto’s defense being good enough to stop the spread of COVID-19, but we’ll leave it just short of that.
7. Toronto’s bench is fun
There was a joke while in the throes of this pandemic (remember the pandemic?) where Raptors Twitter started getting into highlight packages for Toronto’s lesser lights. To be clear, I use that descriptor only relative to the other players on the team — to a true Raps fan, they’re all stars. In any case, I’ll chalk the start of this one up to my guy Will Lou after he called Matt Thomas “a problem” over here. It’s a funny take, given what we’ve seen of Thomas overall; but the key point, as Lou went on to confirm via subsequent highlight combos, is that the Raptors’ bench players are just a lot of fun.
You can scan other tweets from Will and others — which include clips of Chris Boucher blocking 3s, Serge Ibaka throwing insane passes, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson harnessing the spirit of his own personal chaos, and Terence Davis exploring the bounds of the physical universe — to catch my drift here. One of the things the Raptors really had going for them this season was watching this cadre of “unknown” players discover themselves in different ways. If nothing else, it’ll be fun to try and get back to that.
8. Pascal Siakam will not win MVP this season, and that’s OK
The progress of a true NBA superstar and team alpha is, as they say, not linear. Even the all-timers, the LeBrons and MJs of their generation, had setbacks and defeats, lessons to learn along the way. So it goes with Siakam who made some kind of leap this season with the Raptors, even if it remains unclear just how far his talents have taken him so far. To be clear: going from unknown 27th pick, to Most Improved Player, to All-Star, to key figure on a championship-calibre team is not the arc most players take to success. But Siakam is still doing just that.
So, your reminder: Siakam heads into the restarted season averaging 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game as Toronto’s leading scorer and most effective, wide-ranging defender. Adding to those efforts, Siakam’s once broken shot is now putting up 6.0 threes per game (with 36 percent going in). And his usage rate has climbed from 20.8 to 28.5 percent with only a modest (though noted) drop-off in efficiency. The scariest part for the rest of the NBA? Siakam has proven he can still improve.
9. There are three important Raptors playing for contracts right now
Not that we want to talk about money at a time like this — heaven forbid! — but it’s worth noting that Fred VanVleet, Ibaka, and Gasol are still all heading towards pivotal free agency decisions. For Gasol, it’s about perhaps getting one more sizable longer-term deal locked in from somewhere; for Ibaka, it’s about capitalizing on his regained form and new skill-set (to say nothing of his burgeon media empire); and for VanVleet, it continues to be about the grand pay-off, once and for all, on the long term, multi-year bet he placed on himself.
Where the Raptors fit into this discussion now is up for debate. As a team gunning for the title, they need all of Gasol, Ibaka, and VanVleet playing at their best. Having them in contract years, and likely looking to reassert their value in this truncated bizarro world restarted season, doesn’t hurt, per se, but it does cast a weird pall around the margins. In the most basic sense, it means both the players and the Raptors will need to adjust. These are not normal times to be a free agent player or to be a team with cap space (whatever that even means now). However the rest of this weird season plays out — to say nothing of the off-season — is unknown to a degree that it has never, ever been.
10. Kyle Lowry over everything
Juuuuuuuuuust in case you forgot!
11. The NBA relaunch is not safe
We’ve cleared 2,000 words so I’ll keep this brief. What’s happening right now in Florida, with the unmitigated spread of coronavirus and the state and federal government’s complete lack of response, certainly suggests that heading there right now makes little sense for the NBA. It’s also become clear that while the word “bubble” is being used to describe the Disney World campus in which all the teams will stay and compete, we’re not talking about an impermeable membrane here. There’s also human nature to factor in here, despite whatever safety protocols are supposed to be in place. It’s just a lot to consider.
All of this is to say: it feels inevitable that we’ll soon be reporting on NBA players and staffers testing positive for COVID-19. I want very much to be wrong on this. I want very much for this to all work without a hitch — even though the fundamental plan, and the timing of said plan, is not a good one. Yes, the NBA is an efficient basketball and business machine, and everyone is taking as many precautions as they can. But the risks inherent to this restart proposal still feel too large, too unaccountable. I mean, it was reported just last week that patient zero himself, Rudy Gobert, still hasn’t fully recovered.
So that’s 10 things you have to know about the Raptors. And one thing that still just hangs over all of it. On that note I can only ask a question: if it were you, would you want to fly into Florida right now?