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The Rap-Up: Bidding adieu to 2021

This was supposed to be a better calendar year than 2020, but hope springs eternal and these Raptors are brimming with it. Before we welcome in the new year, let’s (w)rap up 2021!

Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Do you remember when House of Cards was released on Netflix? Do you even remember the show? I never watched a single episode but, according to a quick Google search, the critically acclaimed drama was released in 2013.

Do you know what else happened in 2013? It was the last calendar year where the Toronto Raptors finished below .500. Below is Toronto’s regular-season win-loss record (playoff records in brackets) by calendar year since 2013.

2013: 37-43

2014: 58-27 (3-4)

2015: 45-38 (0-4)

2016: 58-23 (10-10)

2017: 53-31 (4-6)

2018: 62-24 (4-6)

2019: 54-24 (16-8)

2020: 31-11 (7-4)

2021: 40-58

Considering most of last season (all but 4 games) plus one-third of this season has occurred in 2021, it’s quite astonishing that the Toronto Raptors have spent a grand total of 16 days above .500 in this calendar year! With two games remaining in 2021 and a 14-16 record, that paltry total isn’t growing this week.

Three trade-related items occurred in 2013 that helped shift the franchise from a frequent visitor of the lottery to a perennial playoff contender.

  1. Table Setter: Masai Ujiri pulled his first jedi-mind-trick on the New York Knicks by off-loading Andrea Bargnani’s contract AND snagging a first-round pick (that would become Jakob Poeltl).
  2. Big Trade: Later that year, he traded Rudy Gay in a package that included players that are still paying dividends today in John Salmons (who would, in turn, become eventual Sixth Man of the Year award winner Lou Williams) and Greivis Vasquez (who would become OG Anunoby and Norm Powell, who would become Gary Trent Jr.).
  3. Non-Trade: The Raptors and Knicks also walked away from a possible deal that would’ve sent Kyle Lowry to New York.

The returns are early but three events in 2021 hint at another possible rebirth.

  1. Table Setter: The roster is decimated by COVID-related issues and the team decides to tank their way into a favourable draft position, which ultimately lands them Scottie Barnes.
  2. Big Trade: Raptors trade Powell for GTJ. Similar to the Gay trade, the initial reaction was not of awe and wonderment. However, Trent Jr. has quickly become an integral piece of the rotation. Whether he stays as the offensive release valve and defensive pest or gets bundled in a trade, the trade is already a win for the franchise.
  3. Non-Trade: There aren’t any rumours (yet) of any trades that fell through, but anything Daryl Morey has asked in return for Ben Simmons probably qualifies here.

2021 didn’t end very well for the Raptors but healthy bodies are on the horizon and the team is still in the playoff hunt. A house of cards that falls apart is disheartening at first. But that just gives you an opportunity to build an even greater house (and maybe pick up some Emmy awards along the way). Now, let’s put this year to bed with the final previews of 2021.

December 28 vs Philadelphia 76ers

The starting lineups for both teams will look completely different from when these teams matched up on Remembrance Day. All of Toronto’s starters on November 11 — Fred VanVleet, Scottie Barnes, Anunoby, GTJ, and Precious Achiuwa — should be out, due to health & safety protocols. For Philadelphia, their leading rebounder (Andre Drummond) and starter with the highest plus/minus (Danny Green) from the November 11 game should all be out, due to health & safety protocols. The keyword for both of those sentences is “should.”

The Sixers will be comforted to have Joel Embiid (who missed the earlier meeting) in the lineup. When the Raptors' off-season moves were completed, the one glaring hole was at center. Having a versatile team that could switch to Nick Nurse’s heart’s content was all good in principle, as long as the opponent didn’t have a big like Embiid. Gulp.

Embiid’s efficiency numbers have dropped (career-lows in FG%, 2-pt FG%, and eFG%) which, at first glance, I would have attributed to the absence (and playmaking ability) of Simmons. However, Embiid’s usage rate is below his career average, his VORP is the lowest it’s been since his rookie season, and, while he’s been relatively healthy (playing in 22 of the team’s 33 games), the Sixers are only 1 game over .500.

Disappointing record aside, I’m not betting against Embiid on the road. Of the eight games where he’s scored 30 or more, six have come on the road, including a 36-point outburst in Washington on Sunday.

Fun fact that may only interest me

131 = Number of days between when the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship and when most of the team received their rings.

285 = Number of days between when the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship and when Danny Green was supposed to receive his ring, as a member of the visiting Los Angeles Lakers. The pandemic paused the season and the Raptors were moved to Orlando, then Tampa, so Green chose to continue waiting until he could receive his ring at Scotiabank Arena.

558 = Number of days between when the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship and when Danny Green received his 2020 NBA championship ring with the Lakers.

929 = Number of days between when the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship and when Danny Green was supposed to receive his ring, as a member of the visiting Philadelphia 76ers. The pandemic forced the Raptors to reduce capacity at Scotiabank Arena to 50%.....AND Green entered Health & Safety protocols.

1,029 = Number of days between when the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship and when Danny Green will finally(?) receive his ring, as a member of the visiting Philadelphia 76ers.

Prediction

The Raptors might have Pascal Siakam back for this game, but the rest of the team should (there’s that word again) still be out. Similar to Dalano Banton’s return on Sunday, Siakam will probably be eased back into the rotation with some form of a minutes restriction. Even if the team resembled anything close to a full roster, the Sixers would punish/plow/pump-fake their way to the charity stripe. Philadelphia is #1 in free throw rate. Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Tyrese Maxey combine to average 17.5 free throw attempts, while the entire Raptors team averages 18.8. Sixers defeat the still-depleted Raptors, 122-107.

December 31 vs Los Angeles Clippers

The Raptors are catching the Clippers at an opportunistic time. In addition to being in the middle of a three-game road trip where Toronto is sandwiched between games in Boston and Brooklyn, Los Angeles will also be without their MVP candidate, Paul George, who is dealing with an injury to his shooting elbow.

With a handful of players in health & safety protocols — Reggie Jackson, Jay Scrubb, and Marcus Morris (although Morris may be back for this game) — the Clippers used one of their hardship exemptions on Xavier Moon. The reigning 3-time CEBL MVP, reigning 2-time CEBL Finals MVP (and champion), is also the nephew of former Raptors legend, Jamario Moon.

If that didn’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy, the Clippers’ current predicament also allows more playing time for another Raptors legend, Serge Ibaka. Mafuzzy Chef has been in and out of the lineup throughout his two seasons with Los Angeles due to injuries but is coming off his second consecutive double-digit scoring game on Sunday. The last time he had back-to-back double-digit scoring games were the final two games of last season.

Fun fact that may only interest me

On May 16, 2021 — the final day of the 2020-21 regular season — the Clippers had an opportunity to dictate their first-round playoff opponent. Facing the lottery-bound (and tanking) Oklahoma City Thunder, the Clips could take the W but face a red-hot Portland Trailblazers squad (winners of 10 of their final 12 games) or take the L and face a Dallas Mavericks squad with a healthy Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to throw at Luka Doncic.

Former Clipper, and newest Raptor, Daniel Oturu had never played more than 12 minutes during his rookie season.....until May 16, 2021, where Lawrence Frank had him on the floor for over 37 minutes! To the ownership’s delight, Oturu shot 5-for-21 (got his first and only double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds) and the Clippers lost.

Oturu’s played nine games since (eight playoff games with L.A. and one game with Toronto) for a grand total of 35 minutes!

Prediction

Toronto will have an extra day of rest on their opponent AND most of the players will have cleared health and safety protocols. Nothing’s ever certain these days but Nurse already alluded to several players returning this week. If Morris doesn’t suit up for the Clippers (or is limited in his return), that would strip Los Angeles of their top three scorers (PG & Jackson). That also doesn’t include Kawhi Leonard, who is nowhere near returning (to the Clippers. To the Raptors, though....okay I’ll stop). Luke Kennard will probably attempt 10 triples (and make half of them). Eric Bledsoe will probably attempt three wide-open triples (by design, and miss all of them). Ivica Zubac will probably corral five offensive rebounds (in the first half). Yet, similar to how last New Year’s Eve went, Toronto will pull out a victory in front of a lot of empty seats. The Raptors use a steady diet of transition points and offensive board-crashing to end 2021 with a victory over the Clippers, 110-98.

January 2 vs New York Knicks

The last time the Raptors had a “regular” game where both teams were relatively healthy was Toronto’s 90-87 victory over New York at Scotiabank Arena on December 10th. (Yes, the following game against Sacramento would qualify, but can you honestly take the Kings seriously?)

The recent surge of players in health & safety protocols, including the ankle surgery undergone by Derrick Rose, has provided an unexpected spark from Kemba Walker. After falling completely out of the rotation for 10 games, his re-insertion into the starting lineup has been nothing short of remarkable. He scored 29 in his return, 21 in a victory over Detroit, and a monstrous 44-point outing (with 9 boards and 8 dimes too) against Washington. Walker topped it off with a Christmas Day triple-double and victory over the Hawks.

Fun fact that may only interest me

The Knicks might have the greatest collection of nicknames in the NBA, according to BasketballReference.com.

Julius Randle: Beyblade, Orange Julius, Don Julio

Alec Burks: Houdini, A-Buckets

Mitchell Robinson: Block Ness Monster, Lobinson

RJ Barrett: Maple Mamba, Ducky, Headband Ro, Star-J, Broadway Barrett, Duke of York

Taj Gibson: Hard Hat, Lunch Pail

Nerlens Noel: The Eraser, The Nerlen Wall

Prediction

The Knicks will be wrapping up a 4-games-in-6-nights road trip. They’ll also be coming to town after facing the two worst offenses in the league in Oklahoma City and Detroit. The Raptors’ 6th-ranked offense (over the last 2 weeks) will be a punch in the face for the road-weary Knicks. A lot of this depends on who’s in the lineup for the Raptors, but most should (damn, that word again) be out of protocols and in uniform for the first game of 2022. Toronto has a 10-game winning streak at Scotiabank Arena when the Knicks are in town. That number grows to 11 as the Raptors beat the Knicks, 100-97.

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Last Week: 0-1

Season Record for Predictions: 15-15