Hoo boy. As many have already pointed out, the Toronto Raptors going 1-13 for the month of March marks one of the lowest lows for a franchise that had been accustomed to them for roughly the first 18 years of its existence. 1-13. A six-win pace for an 82-game season.
That the Oklahoma City Thunder put the nail in the coffin for the month with a starting lineup that even the most locked-in of NBA heads would struggle to rhyme off made it all the more painful.
The Raptors, as they stand today, are broken. Defined by an ineffable magic last season, Toronto’s team is now unable to muster up a cheap card trick. But, sigh, we still have things to learn from it all. We begin with the darkness.
1) We have entered the darkest timeline
Going into every season, a team has a wide range of outcomes. There could have been a world where the Raptors took their adverse situation in stride, built off last year’s momentum and stayed amongst the class of the East. I’m not saying that would have been easy considering everything that has transpired, but I absolutely would have been more likely to believe that was the outcome of the season over what we have seen to date.
Instead, after a month that got me really excited for the Toronto Blue Jays, it feels as if we have entered what is close to the darkest timeline basketball-wise. The team clearly was walloped by the initial move to Tampa and came out scuffling. Their brief positive momentum was flipped on its head by COVID-19 rampaging through the team. None of that is ideal, but it has only served to get worse.
The Kyle Lowry situation is borderline heartbreaking right now. The team didn’t trade him at the deadline, as many thought and hoped that they would. I, personally, agree with Masai Ujiri’s mindset in this situation, I just didn’t expect what has happened since to go down like this.
It felt as if the Raptors would rally around their core and their leader and compete to the end of the season. Instead, Lowry has been hampered by injury, and the rest of the team looks like they want to be playing in these games about as much as we want to watch them play right now. Not exactly the GROAT swan song we envisioned after the deadline.
I’m not sure if there is a way to turn this season around at this point, and I say that as a noted Raptors optimist. I would, however, love to be proven wrong.
2) Gary Trent Jr. in the nick of time
If you’re like me, after you finished wiping away the tears from reading Norman Powell’s beautiful letter to Toronto in the Player’s Tribune, you started wondering if we should have just kept him. As if he heard the wails of Torontonians, Gary Trent Jr. came out and had a breakout game against the Oklahoma City Thunder to inspire some confidence going forward.
Trent looked like a weapon beyond the arc, getting his shots up off-the-dribble, after curling around screens, and even rattled an end-of-clock turnaround off a steal on his way to a 31-point night.
Even though his first few games with Toronto wouldn’t necessarily show it, Trent’s shooting appears to be here to stay. After shooting nearly 42 percent on 4.5 attempts last season, he added three more attempts while still hanging around 39 percent this season — borderline elite numbers. The way he’s been getting them off suggests the Raptors could really use his shooting as a starting point for the offense, a la Matt Thomas, but he can stay on the floor and contribute on the other end.
Personally, I am bullish on Trent as a long-term Raptor, particularly as Siakam and VanVleet really get their legs back and start opening up more opportunities for Trent to get hot from beyond the arc, whether that is this season or the next. On the other end, a few athletic defensive plays suggested that he would fit in with Toronto’s aggressive, takeaway-heavy defense that was effective once upon a time.
I miss Powell, and I will root for the Portland Trail Blazers in the playoffs in large part because of his presence. But the trade feels like a smart one, considering all the factors. I’m excited for some more Gary Trent Jr.
3) OG Anunoby is using the opportunity
At this point in the season, we need to do a slight recalibration and really figure out what we want from this year. Some may say a draft pick, but I’m not at the point of shutting the TV and just eyeing the reverse standings. I still want to watch the Raptors play good basketball!
So, there are a few things that we can actually keep an eye on and enjoy without worrying too much about the standings. We need Pascal Siakam to start to regain his 2019-20 pre-Bubble form. We need Fred to continue to inspire confidence in him as the point guard of the future. We need OG Anunoby to continue making shot-creation progress on offense.
There does not appear to be a star on the horizon coming to overhaul this Raptors offense. Next season, even if the front office does a better job on the margins of making a deeper, more complete roster, it will still come down to shot-creation by committee. If Anunoby can be a bigger part of that committee, that will be a major boon for the Raptors.
With the direction of the team, Anunoby has a much longer leash to try some stuff out. I say go for it. Averaging a career-high 11 shots a game, he’s averaged 15 points over the past three games. What’s encouraging is that he is mostly staying within himself on those attempts as well, driving to the rim and bombing them from deep. As fun as the odd Nowitizki impression is from OG, it’s ideal to see things that can be legitimate parts of his game going forward.
More of this! Keep attacking from the top and taking on closeouts. I’m even game for the odd post touch. OG is stronger than nearly any non-centre not named LeBron or Zion, so let him use it, let him try it out. This is as good a time as any to get some real reps trying some new stuff, so may as well use it.
That closes the book on these lessons. Check back next week, as we continue to try to glean some positivity from the Toronto Raptors.