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3 Lessons: On the team and city, old sports axioms, and a polarized fanbase

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In the final 3 Lessons of the season, we look back on the big takeaways from the 2020-21 year that was with the Raptors.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Toronto Raptors Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

We are moments from beginning the process of erasing this season from our collective memories. Before we do so, however, we must learn, one last time, the lessons taught by this sad, bizarro season that reduced our beloved Toronto Raptors so severely. We had to recalibrate the value of the centre, remember the importance of two-way play from the bench, and dream of a true superstar on the roster.

Beyond that, here are the three biggest lessons I took from the 2020-21 season. Until next year.

1) The players miss Toronto as much as we want them to

We Torontonians — with our ever-persistent inferiority complex that we kind of have, but fight tooth-and-nail to say we don’t have, but that in itself kind of makes it look even more like we clearly do have one — had a fear that we were hardly willing to say out loud. We worried that the players would get sucked in by the beaches, palm trees, and tax cuts of Tampa, and start to wish that they were somewhere that, well, wasn’t Toronto.

But our guys made it clear that’s not the case.

Over the entire season, and particularly the past month or so, the players have expressed a longing for the 6ix. Kyle Lowry really played up the team’s connection with the city, claiming that a day didn’t go by that the team wasn’t dreaming about being in Toronto, playing in Scotiabank Arena and showing out for the fans in Jurassic Park. Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby all had kind things to say about their home, and new guys like Gary Trent Jr. and Khem Birch both showed in words and actions that they wanted to be a part of the team when it goes back home.

A little humour even emerged from the nostalgia and romanticism, as Anunoby and Lowry both mentioned missing… highways? Yes, that’s right. In quotes equal parts adorable and insane, our guys talked about their affinity for the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway, respectively. Fred VanVleet recently claimed he didn’t want to shit on Tampa when breaking down the season… after months of shitting on Tampa. If that’s not Toronto, I don’t know what is.

More so than Vince Carter, or Chris Bosh, or even Kawhi Leonard (who is, nonetheless, welcome back), this current cast feels like they’re part of the city. Frankly, I think it’s pretty special, and it bodes well for the triumphant return.

2) Old sports axioms have triumphed

I said multiple times last year that the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors were the best argument for incorporating intangibles into team building. Chemistry, toughness, IQ, hustle, grit and competitive drive are all things that have lost a little bit of lustre with the rise of analytics and the focus on superstar talent. That said, that Raptors team possessed those things in droves, and stole a lot of wins because of it.

The 2020-21 Raptors, then, are a great argument for the existence of some seemingly dated axioms about external factors — things that you’ll hear at a Las Vegas sportsbook from guys in Hawaiian shirts that are six Mai Tai’s deep and about to blow more money than they can afford to on a whim. Some examples:

“They get to sleep in their own beds, that’s a big leg up.”

“They can feel the energy of the city, they’ll come out flying.”

“When that crowd is going, no one can beat them.”

Well, the Raptors had none of those things working in their favour and got slapped around this season. Are these external factors the only thing that led to this result? No. But you better believe they’re a big one. The Raptors lost an absurd amount of close games this season. The energy of the Scotiabank crowd, maybe to stop an opposing run, or to accentuate one by the Raptors, would have been more than enough to flip a few of those results. And, of course, if the rims treated Pascal Siakam with the same friendliness that they did Kawhi Leonard.

3) The fanbase splintered this season

One thing that losing will do to a team is spark dissent within the fanbase.

In the 2020-21 season, that dissent was exaggerated in the discourse around the Raptors. Essentially, Toronto turned into a large-scale First Take segment except with more yelling and negativity. Being a Raptors fan this year meant you had to align yourself with a polarized camp.

Pascal Siakam is either awful or an All-Star. We should tank or do all we can to win games. We have to trade Lowry or the season is a failure, or keep Lowry at all costs. Even Gary Trent Jr., the main draw in dealing Norman Powell, was starting to feel the wrath as this season ground on.

Every season has its fair share of mini-debates, but these ones felt a little more pronounced, a little less fun and angrier. Perhaps everything is exacerbated by [gestures wildly at the sky] all of this. Losing doesn’t help either.

I look forward to next season, when we may return to fun, casual debates.