After the Raptors’ 2-8 start to the 2020-21 season it was both easy to panic — and not. Toronto hadn’t been in such a perilous regular season situation since acquiring Kyle Lowry over eight years ago. It was fitting then as the season progressed that the dominate storyline became whether or not the Raptors should trade their franchise leader. After their 2-8 start gave way to a 15-9 run, there was a brief restoration of belief in Toronto. The team even climbed back over .500. That optimism didn’t last long, however, due to external forces — namely the global pandemic still causing havoc in North America — which blew a hole in their season. Now we have to acknowledge the truth as it stands now.
The Toronto Raptors of 2020-21 are not going to save their season.
Seeing the hangdog expression of Fred VanVleet after Wednesday’s defeat at the hands of the G League OKC Thunder made that crystal clear. What’s more, it’s almost freeing to admit it, like a load of expectations have been lifted off our collective shoulders. At the start of the year, despite the team’s relocation to Tampa and the shortened off-season, it was fair to suggest the Raptors would be able to lay claim to an Eastern Conference playoff spot and provide some feisty competition to whomever they matched up against. It made sense then for management, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster, to do what they could to shore up the roster while also maintaining their financial flexibility for the years beyond. That’s good team management — giving the current team a chance to compete while anticipating future moves.
Some other things are also true though: Ujiri and Webster bet wrong on more than a couple of players and it cost the Raptors big time. Obviously the centre pick-ups, Aron Baynes and Alex Len, were a mistake. It’s clear that keeping Chris Boucher around was a good idea as he’s blossomed into a unique presence on the court, but also: he’ll never be a true centre in the NBA. Meanwhile, the downcard choices on the roster were mostly off — Matt Thomas didn’t work out, Terence Davis was a mess for various reasons, and as inspiring a story as Stanley Johnson and Yuta Watanabe were for a brief moment, they’re just not able to take on a larger chunk of minutes and responsibilty for a team presumably trying to win on a nightly basis. (The jury is still out on Paul Watson.) In short, the Raptors gambled that what they had — plus a couple of additions — would be enough to compete, and they were proven at times to be almost comically incorrect.
Here’s where it gets complicated — or downright unfair. The Raptors also had to weather a totally unprecedented injury situation, with the core of their team getting seriously ill with the same virus ravaging the entire planet. If the margins for Toronto were thin in February after their rough start, they were obliterated once Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and VanVleet had to miss games because of COVID-19 — and not because of the league’s health and safety protocols but because they had actually gotten the virus. Factor in their much-needed rest and comeback time, along with the conditioning issues that come with having a respiratory system knocked out for a couple of weeks, and it makes for a shorter runway for the Raptors to get back on track. In fact, it makes that runway suddenly seem much less important overall.
Now it’s not hard to point this out, but it’s clear that some combination of the losing, the pandemic, and the temporary re-location to Tampa has totally crushed the Raptors, each issue feeding into the next in an unfortunate loop of misery. The situation got bad enough in March — a 31-day period that saw the Raptors win exactly one game — that the inspiring story at last week’s NBA trade deadline was Toronto’s decision just to keep Lowry, come what may. It allowed us all a reprieve, a chance to enjoy the Raptors’ leader for a few more games while even imagining a near future where the Raptors rally together for this season. But the other trade the team made, moving Lowry’s long-time teammate Norman Powell for Gary Trent Jr. (and Rodney Hood), was the kind of canny move a team makes when they know things have already fallen apart. Trent Jr. is a solid young player with upside, but Powell was the best player in that trade.
As it happens now, Lowry is out for a week to ten days with a legitimate foot issue. The Raptors are still putting Baynes in the starting lineup. It does not look like any buyout candidate players will be joining the roster. Hell, Toronto has even been quiet on the 10-day contract market too, watching as Raptors 905 standout Alize Johnson signed with the Nets, while quietly letting centre Henry Ellenson’s 10-day deal expire. As VanVleet pointed out after last night’s loss, it’s as if he, OG, and Pascal are hitting the same wall at the same time in every game. And it feels like we’re all — management and the fanbase — slamming into that wall along with them. To add to the sense of cruel injustice: because of their re-location to Tampa, the Raptors and their fans aren’t even in the same building to help each other out. They can’t fire us up with some superlative play, and we can’t cheer them on to greater heights. In all, it just feels like there isn’t any real way to get over the hump this time.
This is all quite understandable, yet that emotional absence is the last point here that should concern. Can the Raptors bounce back for next year, assuming they’re reinstalled in Toronto for the 2021-22 season? A player like Lowry, who may not even be around by then, has been through the ups and downs of the NBA. But what of the team’s core, a squad of players who joined and developed along with a veteran team already operating at a high level? As has been pointed out, this young Raptors core had the pride of being part of a championship squad in 2019, and could hang their hat on an astounding and hard fought 2020 title defense. Now that’s all up in the air, and it looks very likely Toronto will ride out the final 24 games of this season in a state of dislocated despair. That takes a mental toll.
Fortunately, as unlikely as this feels sometimes in the world we live in, we can afford to be optimistic. The COVID-19 pandemic will end, the Raptors will return to Toronto, the front office will bet right on this or that player, and the core of the team will regain their health and swagger. The first two claims are incontrovertibly true; the third, based on the bevy of successful decisions of the past near-decade, feels like it will come true too. And as for the fourth: if you can’t accept that as likely to come true, why care about the Raptors at all?
Just prior to the trade deadline, I asserted the idea that this moment was perhaps a “darkest before the dawn” break in the timeline of the Raptors. In this hypothesis, I put forward the idea that the team would stay together and rally for the 2020-21 season. Like many other things over this disastrous past year, I was proven wrong in my predictions. There will be no comeback this season for the Raptors — but nevertheless: we have to believe the future can still be bright.