Not this year, though. The Raptors had the toughest season of any NBA team, thanks to playing their entire season in the middle of a pandemic on the road, and subsequently, their record fell far short of what we’re used to seeing in the Masai Ujiri era.
Join me as we look back on the season that was, good and bad.
1. 23 of 72
Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam only played 23 games tougher this past season. Shockingly, having your core four players only play in a third of your games is not a recipe for success.
You want to know what’s shocking though? The Raptors were only 6-17 when all four players were dressed!
That number had me shook, I’m not gonna lie. These are four returning starters from a team that went 53-19! That four-man lineup was 23-9 in the 32 games that all four played last year.
That leads me to believe that the rest of the roster around them this season was significantly flawed. (We’ll get to that.) Could Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol really have made that much of a difference.
I guess so. But let’s not discount the part that playing the season in Tampa and the team recovering from COVID played. All of the missed games and the stress of playing away from home robbed the team of any real chance to develop winning chemistry.
2. Centre of Attention
Impact of COVID and Tampa aside, the departures of Gasol and Ibaka can’t be dismissed — nor can the shortcomings of their nominal replacements.
First, I do believe Masai Ujiri made a mistake in prioritizing Gasol’s return ahead of Ibaka’s (if the reports that indicated Ibaka was annoyed that Ujiri wanted to wait for Gasol’s decision before re-signing Ibaka are true). Gasol, for all he brought to the Raptors on the defensive end last year and would have brought this year, had clearly lost a step. And the Raptors were 19-8 in Ibaka’s 27 starts last year. Re-signing him should have been priority #1 in the offseason.
But hey, hindsight is 20/20. Ultimately the Raptors ended up with Aron Baynes and Alex Len and I don’t think anyone could have predicted how awful Baynes would have been. He was rarely in the right place on offense, his shooting was way down from last year, and he flashed some of the worst hands this franchise has ever seen.
Meanwhile, I’m still not certain what happened with Len. There are unconfirmed reports of some sort of locker room issue with him, and if that’s the reason for his departure, that’s fine. But if he was waived because he wasn’t, I don’t know, picking up the schemes quickly enough or something… man, I don’t know how you could say whatever Len was bringing was worse than whatever the hell Baynes was doing out there.
The season ended on a positive, if too-little-too-late note, when the Raptors added Khem Birch for the final five weeks of the season and he proved to be a much more capable contributor than Baynes… so much so that he probably priced himself out of Toronto’s salary range this summer. Sigh.
3. Most Depressing Season Ever?
Overall, given the long history of futility that is the pre-2013 Toronto Raptors, one might wonder if this is the most depressing Raptors season ever. It’s not the worst — by objective measures, the 16-win team and and hopeless post-Vince Carter and post-Chris Bosh seasons, when there was hardly a body on the team worth cheering for, stand out.
But in so many ways this season felt worse, on an emotional level. Playing in a pandemic, in which were all already feeling out of sorts, certainly didn’t help with that. And obviously the team playing in Florida contributed to that feeling. The season just felt draining; it was a short season, but it felt long, you know? Throw in Pascal Siakam’s early struggles and his apparent arguing with Nick Nurse, the COVID protocols, the Norman Powell trade, the “is this the end or not” for Kyle Lowry vibes, the Terence Davis situation, the centre situation, Giannis Antetokounmpo re-signing with the Bucks… yeah, I don’t know that there’s been a season that left me feeling more down in the dumps than this one.
4. Highs Amongst the Lows
That said, we can’t deny that there were a few things to cheer for in this lost season. Fred VanVleet scored 54 points in a game! Gary Trent Jr. scored 44, then three nights later buried the Wizards at the buzzer! VanVleet, Powell, Trent, Chris Boucher and Stanley Johnson all set new career-highs for points in a game (and Siakam matched his). We saw the development of some key youngsters, including Yuta Watanabe, Freddie Gillespie, and Malachi Flynn. OG Anunoby shone at both ends, guarding all five positions and flashing new offensive moves that have raised his ceiling even higher.
The season was a dark one, but you have to find those moments of light where you can.
5. Cloudy Future
The 2021 offseason remains shrouded in mystery for the Raptors. This is nothing new; in 2018, there was the Dwane Casey question, in 2019, there was the Kawhi Leonard question, and in 2020 there was the Gasol-Ibaka question (and tangentially, the Antetokounmpo question).
But this year, things seem even more murky. There’s Lowry’s free agency of course, and perhaps more importantly, Masai Ujiri’s. There are several players on non-guaranteed or partially-guaranteed contracts, including Aron Baynes, Rodney Hood, Freddie Gillespie, DeAndre’ Bembry, Yuta Watanabe and Paul Watson. Gary Trent is a restricted free agent, and the Raptors won’t want losing him to be the outcome of the Powell trade. Khem Birch wants to come back, it seems, but as someone wise said just yesterday, money talks and years talk, and Birch might get more lucrative offers elsewhere.
Then there’s the lottery and the draft, something the Raptors haven’t prepared for in a while, and oh yeah, the small matter of whether or not the team can play in Toronto next season.
That’s a lot of dominoes to fall. This offseason might end up being more interesting than the 2020-21 season itself was.
As we wrap up, it’s important to remember how lucky we are as Raptors fans. Time moves quickly and June 2019 feels it was a million years ago. But the Raptors are still only two years removed from winning the NBA title and one year removed from the most joyous victory lap you’ll likely ever see.
Remember the good times! Cherish them, because a season like this is always a possibility.