And so: The 2019-20 season has finally come to an end, almost a full year after it started. It certainly didn’t end the way we wanted, but at the same time, I’d have to say it exceeded expectations, didn’t it? Sure, we had more realistic expectations than Sam Mitchell and Dennis Scott, or this guy, but I don’t think even the most optimistic among us had the Raptors finishing with the second-best record in the league this year, right? Did we really think the defense would be this good without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green?
And that doesn’t even consider the injuries that mounted all season long.
There’s no way to adequately capture what the 2019-20 season was, and what it meant, in only five thoughts, but let’s give it a shot!
1. A Long-Awaited Showdown
Let’s start at the end, with the Raptors finally meeting the Boston Celtics in the NBA Playoffs. This was the matchup we’d all been waiting years for; both teams had won 48+ games each of the past five years, and both had made it to at least the second round each of the past four years, but they’d never met in the playoffs. So did it live up to the hype?
I mean, it went seven games, and Game 7 came down to the final two possessions. Game 3 had an all-time highlight ending. Game 6 was a double-OT thriller. Games 2 and 4 were tight all the way.
But those two blowouts really do drag it down on the “all-timer” scale, don’t they? Even if you compare it to last year’s second round series, which also featured two blowouts... at least each team was on the receiving end of one! The Raptors being so underwhelming in Games 1 and 5 takes a lot of the shine off this Raptors-Celtics series, as does Pascal Siakam’s poor offensive showing. You can also make the case that Gordon Hayward’s absence means we didn’t get to see these teams competing at full strength.
Ultimately though, I think we’ll remember the big moments from this series — OG Anunoby’s shot, Norman Powell’s overtime performance, Norman Powell’s poor box out — for a long time. Celtics fans will remember Marcus Smart’s 16 straight Game 2 points, his big Game 7 block, Kemba Walker’s final-second heroics, and Jaysum Tatum’s Game 7 performance.
So all that puts this one right near the top of the list of great Raptors playoff series.
We can only hope these teams remain competitive and we get a rematch — with, hopefully, the outcome going the other way.
2. Kyle Lowry’s Victory Lap
We’ll have player reviews coming up in which we’ll get into individual performance, but I can’t write about the 2019-20 season without special mention of Kyle Lowry, can I? He’s my favourite Raptor ever, and I think he’s the greatest Raptor of all time, and it’s been fantastic — and long overdue — to see him finally get the respect and admiration from the U.S. national media this year. Seeing all of his peers tweet about his Game 6 performance was also pretty great!
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this team took on his personality, either. If last year’s team took on Kawhi Leonard’s personality — calm and cool, never getting too high or too low — this year’s team is undoubtedly Kyle’s. Gritty, scrappy, doing whatever it takes to win. Exceeding expectations. Coming back after being counted out. Being excellent on defense, but not getting properly recognized for it. It’s Lowry’s team through-and-through.
Considering how much I love Lowry and the way he plays, it’s no surprise, then, that I loved this team so much.
What’s also amazing at this point, looking back on Lowry’s Raptors career, is how much, and how many times, he’s changed his game to suit the needs of the team. He deferred to DeMar DeRozan for most of his early career. He took on a bigger offensive load in 2016-17. He had the ball less in 2017-18 during the “culture reset.” He deferred to Kawhi Leonard in 2018-19. And he was the veteran leader on this team, in many cases deferring to Pascal Siakam but also stepping up his offensive game on cue when needed.
And for this production — 19.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 7.5 assists in 36 minutes per game — to come at age 34 is amazing.
Build his statue. Retire his jersey. Put him in the Hall of Fame.
But not until we see what else he has left in the tank — and I bet he has plenty.
3. Winning Culture
Masai Ujiri clearly wanted to transform Toronto’s reputation from “basketball outpost no one wanted to go to” to one of “successful organization that puts players in position to win”, with the thinking that if you do the latter, then the former — no one wanting to come here — will evaporate.
We don’t know for sure yet that it has, but there’s no questioning that the Raptors organization has established itself as a model one, and this season is the prime example. That a team with no superstar, no lottery picks (no, Stanley Johnson doesn’t count) and a bunch of undrafted guys was this successful, this well prepared, has no doubt turned some heads.
Then there’s the off-the-floor stuff too. The leadership the Raptors showed in the Bubble — from their Black Lives Matter buses to their custom t-shirts, from the way they decorated their hotel to being at the forefront of the strike after the Jacob Blake shooting — again proved the Raptors are a world-class organization.
It makes you proud to be a fan, at the very least. Hopefully it also makes players want to come here, and want to stay here, to be a part of it.
4. Forward Momentum
I think that a lot of people, and I’d consider myself among this group, thought this past season would be a good test for the “next generation” of Raptors. Without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, how would players like Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet fare in expanded roles? Would Norman Powell finally find consistency? Would the team find “the next VanVleet” in their latest round of low draft picks and undrafted free agents?
The season was a great barometer of where these guys all are. Siakam, Anunoby, VanVleet and Powell all played career highs in minutes per game, and all had their best statistical seasons; each was integral to the team’s success.
The expanded roles revealed their shortcomings as well, the things that they each need to work on or develop to keep the Raptors in contention. Siakam (26 years old), Powell (27) and VanVleet (26) aren’t “young” players, anymore, in the way that we traditionally define young guys. It’s possible they’ve already reached their respective plateaus and won’t improve further. I wouldn’t wager on that, though. Not with what they’ve shown in their careers so far, not with the player development successes the team has already had. OG’s floor, after year three, is “elite 3-and-D guy.” And look at what we saw from Terence Davis and Matt Thomas. Even Oshae Brissett showed promise.
In other words — regardless of how many games the team won or how deep it went in the playoffs, I would call this season a massive success for the development of its key players and its role players. Is this group going to win a title? No. But bring in a superstar, and surround them with this cast? Absolutely a title contender.
5. Remember This, Too
Back when the season was on hiatus, SB Nation ran a “Sports Moments that Made You Cry” series and I wrote about what it felt like for the Raptors to win the championship — and how Bruce Arthur’s video essay, “Remember This,” encapsulated the way that I felt in that moment.
And I think the message remains as poignant as ever, now, in regards to this season too. Sure, it wasn’t a title season. But it was pretty amazing, right? Ring night. The retro jerseys and floor. Beating the Lakers without Kyle and Serge. Embiid’s goose egg. The Mavs comeback. Terence Davis’ first start. Christmas Day. Kawhi’s return. Scarfs. Norm on fire vs. the Hawks. The Pacers comeback. All-Star Starter Siakam. Lowry taking charges in the All-Star Game. The 15-game win streak. How Talented Are You? 7-1 in the Bubble. The buses. The Nets sweep. OG’s shot. Game 6. All the injuries, and 53-19, and Coach of the Year Nick Nurse.
It’s hard to imagine a post-championship season could provide as many amazing moments as this one did. Not to mention one that was interrupted partway through by a pandemic!
So: Don’t forget it. Don’t allow the disappointment and heartbreak of the Game 7 loss, or Pascal’s poor postseason play, or Norm’s mental mistakes, to cloud your memory of this season. It was amazing. Remember it.
Thanks for reading along with the thoughts all season long. As indicated, we’ll have plenty of player reviews and offseason features coming your way, so stay tuned!