Nobody knows for certain if or when the NBA will return this season. If it does, who knows what that will even look like?
It’s hard to categorically say one team is more impacted than another given the degree and scale to which the coronavirus has turned the season upside down. Every player, every team, every front office, every team employee, every fan… we’re all impacted.
But what specifically is in store for the Raptors?
With an NBA-best 21-4 mark over their final 25 games prior to the halt in play, the Raptors were riding the momentum of an inspiring stretch of play which saw them jump out to a comfortable lead for second place in the Eastern Conference. Under normal circumstances, one might expect Toronto to pick up right where it left off…
… were it not for the fact that these are far from normal circumstances.
Taking everything into consideration, here are the five biggest questions and X-factors facing the Raptors as we consider the possibility of the season restarting this summer.
Can the Raptors now realistically repeat?
Prior to the season’s suspension it was fair to question the viabilty of Toronto’s championship aspirations.
Even as the Raptors rattled off double-digit win streaks and exceeded the rosiest of expectations, it’s been hard to shake the feeling that this Raptors team did not realisticly have a path towards repeating. Despite their standing as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors often assumed the identity of a hardened, proud, well-coached veteran team that could beat anybody on a given night, but perhaps lacked the top-shelf alpha talent required to win four series in a row.
There’s nothing wrong with that! In fact, there’s plenty right with it.
Loaded with expiring contracts and a massive void following the departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, Raptors president Masai Ujiri could have opted for fasttracking the rebuild and nobody would have blinked an eye. Instead, he brought everyone else back and the team responded to the point they simply became too good to give up on heading into the trade deadline. Would a couple of non-premium picks and dimes on the dollar pieces be worth a spirited title defence on the heels of the defining season in franchise history?
But that was all before the coronavirus pandemic forced a suspension that’s now into its second month.
If the season resumes – emphasis on “IF” – nobody knows how unprecedented playing conditions will impact teams across the league. The introduction of one unknown variable after another could lead to an exercise in NBA chaos theory in which all preconceived notions of what it takes to win a title goes out the window.
With zero inclination as to how teams will respond, are we 100% confident that a champion will emerge from a group of top-tier contenders that includes the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers? Odd circumstances lends itself to odd results. Look no further than the 1998-99 Knicks who nearly won the NBA title as an 8-seed in a shortened season in which nobody ever really figured out the ebbs and flows of a 50-game season.
Casting a wider net for championship contenders only increases the odds for a Raptors team that has time and again found ways to roll with the punches and adapt to any set of circumstances.
What will the Raptors look like fully healthy?
On the surface, it might appear the Raptors would be one of the teams most likely to benefit from the healing powers of an extended lay-off. That could be the case, but not necessarily for the reason you might expect.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one 1,000 times: the Raptors have missed more games due to injury than any of the projected 16 playoff teams.
All season long it’s been a revolving door between the floor and the infirmary with Nick Nurse plugging in different combinations without skipping a beat. If this were Mortal Kombat, he’d be feverishly mashing in random buttoms and pulling off one masterful combo after another.
On March 11 – coincidentally the last day of games before the season was suspended – I wrote a piece which asked “Are the Raptors a contender if fully healthy?” At that point in time it had been over a month since the Raptors last played a game with their top seven players in the lineup, something they’ve only done in 17 games the entire season.
The results didn’t exactly inspire confidence. They went 11-0 at full strength against teams with losing records, but just 1-5 against teams .500 or better with the lone win coming against the Philadelphia 76ers in a game they played without Joel Embiid. Yikes.
If and when the season does resume, every team – with the exception of the Brooklyn Nets – will for the most part be at full strength. It’s one of the reasons that last month Kevin Garnett revealed that he’s so excited for the sole reason that nobody will have any excuses.
In a vacuum, that might be true. But this is no vacuum… far from it! The Raptors’ profile when healthy under normal circumstances shows why they might be one of the teams best positioned to take advantage of unprecedented variability.
More desireable opponent: Nets or Magic?
Let’s play a quick game. If you’re a Raptors fan, who would you rather face in the first round of the playoffs?
As it stands right now, the Nets (30-34) sit a half-game up on the Magic (30-35) for seventh in the Eastern Conference by virtue of playing one fewer game. If the regular season simply ends – certainly within reason – the Nets would be the beneficiary of an uneven schedule.
Not only did the Magic hold a 2-0 head-to-head lead over the Nets with two more unplayed games left on the schedule, they also had the NBA’s second-easiest remaining schedule which made for a far easier path down the homestretch relative to the Nets who had a league-average remaining strength of schedule. Add it all up and the Magic had about a two-thirds chance of finishing seventh.
Maybe it wouldn’t matter.
Maybe the Raptors would beat either the Nets or Magic. They were after all 3-1 against the Nets in the regular season and 3-0 against the Magic. But again… these are uncertain times with lots at stake riding on any number of unknown variables.
And the possibility of a series with the Nets introduces yet another confounding wrinkle…
Not including the Nets, there might not be a team more impacted by the uncertain status of Kevin Durant than the Toronto Raptors.
Although it remains unlikely the superstar forward returns for the Nets should the season resume, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility. As currently constructed, the Nets probably wouldn’t give the Raptors too much trouble. But with Durant in the mix? Who knows!
Suddenly, the defending champs go from a team likely to make it to at least the Conference Semifinals if not further, to a team that’s realistically in trouble of getting bounced in the first round. Remember, the last time we saw Durant was Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals when for 12 minutes, he was the best player on the floor before devastatingly rupturing his Achilles. If that’s the version of Durant that comes back, the Raptors could be in for some trouble.
How will the Raptors be impacted by free agency?
Beyond everything that might unfold on the floor, perhaps an even greater mystery is what happens with regards to the salary cap and all of the free agency fallout as a result.
Both Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka have spoken previously about the uncertainty that might come as a result of the pandemic and there remain lingering questions about how the NBA will handle fluctuations in the salary cap as a result of significant revenue losses due to the season’s suspension.
A loss in revenue could mean a significantly reduced salary cap which could in turn impact team spending and contracts for eligible free agents like VanVleet and Ibaka. But it also extends beyond this season as teams meticulous in preparing ledgers for the summer of 2021 or 2022 suddently confront the reality that previously hatched plans may no longer work out.
Will free agents like VanVleet and Ibaka sign one-year deals to hit the open market again in 2021? Will there even be money available for teams to spend in 2021? Will any potential restructuring of the collective bargaining agreement needed as a result of this unprecedented event lead to new rules or exceptions that change how teams fundamentally go about their business?
It’s far too soon to tell or even guess as to how it plays out, just know that every team now faces questions it did not know even existed two months ago.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.