Winning just one out of their first six games, the Raptors are approaching something we haven’t seen in a long time: abject misery.
The lowest point might be yet to come, but yesterday’s post-game quotes from Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet — maybe the only plus players in a 126-114 blowout loss to the Celtics — were telling. The Raptors aren’t just searching for a win, they’re searching for a spark.
"I'm surprised. But I think we need to be tougher," Lowry said. "We need to get a little bit more grittier, a little bit more tougher, a little bit more nastier. ... We need to get a swag. ... Right now there's nothing to us."— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) January 5, 2021
FVV: "I do worry about guys' mental health, just as a brother, teammate & friend because it's not an ideal situation... but at the same time it's the situation that we're in... Gotta find a way to get through it. It's different than being in Toronto, obviously, but here we are."— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) January 5, 2021
It’s not just the losses, either. It’s how the Raptors are losing. Giving up double-digit leads in all but one of their games, Toronto has spent most second halves hitting a brick wall once the other team turns up the intensity. Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell have been flat, the reformed bench hasn’t provided much of anything, and the centre rotation has yet to find a footing.
All this adds up to Toronto navigating a territory they haven’t treaded since Rudy Gay was shipped out of town back in 2013. That trade instigated what we’ll remember best about the Masai Ujiri era — basketball played energetically and as a team, culminating in a trade for Kawhi Leonard and a title in 2019.
That said, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. The Raptors were well-known for playoff flameouts before the Kawhi trade, as teams adjusted to the play of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. There were losses, there was collective misery.
Does remembering other bad times make today more palatable? No, and there’s a time for diagnosis. Perspective, however, is always key to digesting less than savoury information. Here are a couple post-Gay trade moments we can look back on for perspective.
Hitting the LeBron Wall
By a combination of never being more invested in a core of players and never having more belief they could get over the hump, I can’t imagine a suckier outcome than the 2018 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The Raptors were coming off their best regular season yet, winning 59 games and finishing atop the Eastern Conference. DeMar DeRozan was taking 3.6 threes a game and playing the most well-rounded ball of his career. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas were playing sensationally in the frontcourt, while a burgeoning bench mob of Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam were ready to provide energy at a moment’s notice.
Meanwhile, the Raptors’ biggest obstacle to the Finals was sputtering. The LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers never had more drama than they did during the 2017-18 regular season. Trading away a disgruntled Kyrie Irving, making an enormous trade deadline shakeup, even Tyronn Lue left the team for a time with stress-related issues. The door seemed to be open for the Raptors when the teams invariably met in the second round.
Then, Game 1 happened.
Then, Game 3 happened.
There was five years of lead-up to this series where the Raptors tweaked and tinkered around the core of Lowry, DeRozan, and Valanciunas — a beloved team that turned Toronto from a laughing stock into a contender.
This fate in 2018 was a blow to the stomach for me and many others. It gets easier now that hindsight includes a title one year later, but it was hard to see a way out until that Woj bomb announced Kawhi Leonard was coming to town.
Before the Ibaka Trade
Looking at the Raptors current struggles, the best comparison I can think of is the stretch of games before the trade deadline in 2017.
Prior to finally making a splash and landing Serge Ibaka, Toronto had been desperate for a starting-calibre power forward to round out what was otherwise a solid starting unit. There was constant frustration with Dwane Casey before this, as the insistence that Patrick Patterson come off the bench usually came at the expense of the start of games. Tyler Hansbrough, Luis Scola, and Jared Sullinger will forever live in infamy because of it.
In 2016-17, those struggles mounted in January and early February after a red hot start to the season. A loss in Philadelphia started a stretch of 11 in 15 games, which included many to subpar opponents. The power forward experimentation was now including Bebe Nogueira, which came with sub-optimal results.
The Raptors regrouped though. The Ibaka trade almost instantly provided success, as Lowry quickly developed pick and roll chemistry with the veteran, who would go on to extend his range effectively in a Raptors uniform.
It wasn’t a superstar acquisition, but it was a targeted change that provided some energy to a team stuck in the doldrums. It likens a little to what’s going on today with Nick Nurse’s experimentation. By leaning on Stanley Johnson, calling out players in post-game, pointing out the deficiencies of the guard-heavy roster construction — Nurse is looking to create some kind of spark in his team.
It’s yet to come, and maybe a targeted trade (or a superstar splash) is what’s needed to shake this team up. Given how early it is, and given the circumstances around the team’s move to Tampa, there’s still time to hope for an internal spark. Maybe some perspective will help give us the patience we need.