Impossible conditions. Terrible luck. Brutal outcomes. These are the unfortunate ways in which we must now summarize the Raptors’ 2020-21 NBA season. Yes, every professional sports team had to adjust, in ways both big and small, how they operated during this pandemic era, but few organizations — and none others in the NBA — had to do what the Raptors did.
Two years removed from a championship, the Raptors just finished playing 72 basketball games in Tampa, Florida, never once setting foot in Toronto. They agreed to this to make the NBA season possible, to ensure the league could operate as constituted, all 30 of its teams in line. But still, it’s hard to shake the unfairness of the situation, the feeling that hand after terrible hand was being dealt to the Raptors, with no recourse but to play on.
So they did. The Raptors made it to the end of the season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Nothing seemed to go according to plan, but then: the “plan” was never a good one, just necessary. We could expound at length on that, or we can just tip our hat in appreciation.
The Toronto Raptors made it — here is their final 2020-21 season report card.
Kyle Lowry – A-
Between his “final” game as a Raptor before the trade deadline and his “final” game as a Raptor before the end of the season, Lowry was not quite himself. In the games Toronto won during that stretch, Lowry was only part of the action, often not the main driver of it all.
That, to me, sums up the season for Lowry and his role with the Raptors as they navigated through a brutal and draining season together. Lowry was not as productive as he’s been in years past — his best seasons are now behind him — and yet, Lowry’s value now transcends those metrics. To have him around as the team’s ornery and masterful sage is to instill his brand of winning — the culture he created in Toronto — onto the next generation of players. Whatever happens next with Lowry, his legacy is secure. And the fruits of his labour will continue to grow next season whether he plays here or not.
Pascal Siakam – B+
In the long stretch of it, Siakam’s year was an uneven one, marred by more than a few rough patches, detailed by some declining statistics, and no doubt exacerbated by, oh you know, actually getting COVID-19. It’s hard to be too harsh on Siakam for that reason alone. It’s been a tough year for everyone.
So, while the weird disciplinary issues that came out this year were unsettling — e.g. Siakam blowing up at coach Nick Nurse and maybe (or not) getting fined by the team — it also felt like Toronto’s former All-Star forward was in an endlessly uphill situation. Expectations may now have settled on Siakam, which may not be the worst thing for him. To be clear: he is still a very good player. If nothing else, here’s hoping next season he can return to Toronto and just play ball every night with joy again.
Fred VanVleet – A-
This isn’t the best metric with which to judge VanVleet, but it does allow us the proper frame of reference. Look at his high-scoring games over the past five years in the league, and it’s an ascending line: 15, 25, 30, 36, 54. What it suggests, beyond further support for Fred’s “bet on yourself” ethos, is a player who continues to grow both his skills and his confidence.
Yes, there are more pure electric guards than VanVleet in the NBA, but few are as sharp and capable as him on a night-by-night basis — the Steady Freddy nickname is no joke. Like Siakam’s season, this was a trying one for FVV, who dealt with COVID and a hip injury, and yet he still posted some career-highs, dropped that 54-point hammer, and was just about as sure a bet as the Raptors had this season.
OG Anunoby – A
I’m trying to temper my excitement here (hence the lack of a plus), but is it possible we set our sights too low with Anunoby? To be clear: we all knew he’d be solid as a mainstay in Toronto’s rotation thanks to his extreme defensive ability and utility. This was to be his value, that of an ever-necessary floor-raiser for the team. But could he be the piece that actually pushes the Raptors’ ceiling just that much higher?
Like the rest of the squad, OG’s season was beset by absences for various reasons, but when he was on the court, the Raptors were just… better — on defense, sure, and on offense too. In fact, Anunoby seemed to pull out more and more advanced moves, e.g. a step-back, a crossover, the Dirk-esque fadeaway, as the season went along. This could be the start of something even more special than what we’ve already seen from OG.
Aron Baynes – D-
We’ll save Baynes from any further humiliation here. Whatever happened to him between his career year in Phoenix and his arrival in Toronto (hint: COVID probably played a part), it is clear that Baynes is at best a deep rotation player now — not a guy who should come off the bench on a nightly basis, not a guy who should start, and definitely not a guy who should try to replace two much-loved figures in the Raptors organization. Time comes for us all. At least Baynes appeared to take it all in stride, which does count for something.
Gary Trent Jr. – B+
We were very profuse in our praise of Gary Trent Jr. when he first arrived in Toronto. Was this done as a mental salve following the departure of Norman Powell? It’s not impossible to consider it that way — though it helps that Trent Jr. also blew up for a career-high 44 points and hit an awesome game-winner in his first couple of weeks with the Raptors. The road has been a bit rockier since then, with some obvious limitations in Trent Jr.’s game emerging (he’s not quite a defender yet, he has even worse tunnel vision than Norm had). Still, the man is hungry and he can shoot. Here’s looking forward to another few years with Gary.
Chris Boucher – B
Before an injury sidelined him for nine games, Boucher had been the sturdiest member of the Raptors, the only player on the squad to appear in their first 60 games. This is funny for obvious reasons: looking at Boucher, you’d be excused in thinking a stiff breeze could blow him away. Credit where it’s due, Boucher keeps getting after it.
The truth, however, is more astounding than ha-ha funny after Boucher posted career highs in every statistical category. In the process, he emerged this season as a no-doubt NBA player, a guy who actually can have a meaningful positive effect on games. He’s still streaky, yes, but Boucher has become a solid power forward option for Toronto and will likely be running out the three-point line to block shots for years to come.
Khem Birch – A
In almost any other context, Birch is merely a solid frontcourt option who can slot into the centre spot and give a team some solid two-way minutes. Fortunately for Birch, the context he stepped into in Toronto was, uh, not that — it was in dire need of improvement.
Prior to April 10th, the Raptors were desperate for a big man who could play with even a modicum of bounce and competence. Well, check and check, and bonus points for Birch’s obvious enthusiasm for playing for the Raptors (and the coach who will hopefully lead him and Canada to gold in the Olympics too). Birch is still perhaps “merely” a solid frontcourt player, posting averages of 11.6 points and 7.2 rebounds in 29.8 minutes across 18 games, but that’s OK — it’s what the Raptors need.
Stanley Johnson – D+
If it feels like I’ve been writing the same entry for Johnson over the past two seasons, that’s because I have. Who knows what will happen to him now, at just 24 years old and after six NBA seasons, but it’s unlikely we’ll see Johnson in a Raptors uniform again. The team gave him every chance (maybe too many chances) to succeed while in Toronto, and though he’d randomly blow up a couple times a season — how does a line of 35 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals grab you, for example? — Johnson just could not do it when it mattered. Good guy, wish him the best, that’s all there is to say.
DeAndre’ Bembry – B+
For a player whose main calling card is his herky-jerky unpredictability, Bembry ended up being fairly consistent for the Raptors. In all, the team was well-served by not having to rely on him too much, and yet Bembry could float Toronto a few minutes here and there, night in and night out, in whatever role he found himself in. His year-end stats are about in line with his career numbers — save for some shooting splits that ticked up, which is nice — but the ineffable and fearless quality of his play amounted to a lot more.
Rodney Hood – C+
What happened was, I forgot to include Hood in the three-quarter season report card — and almost missed him again here too. In truth, my mind has already made peace with his disappearance from Toronto, after making all but the most modest of impacts. Hood appeared in 17 games as a Raptor, averaging 12.7 minutes per game. There were moments here or there when he reminded us that he’s a solid rotation player (who once seemed destined for more), but… that’s about it.
Malachi Flynn – B+
Changing gears quick here, it’s impossible not to feel extremely heartened by the future with Flynn in Toronto. The Raptors picked him with the 29th pick in 2020 because he could run a team, play with precision, and had a few moves in and out of the pick-and-roll. That he could get tutored by both Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet was a nice bonus. As with most rookies, Flynn’s numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, but he did win the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month award in April, and with an expanded role — particularly in crunch time — he did seem to excel. There is much to build on here with Flynn!
Paul Watson – D
I’m not sure what to make of Watson’s season. He was mostly invisible for the first half of the season and mostly injured for the second half. He scored 30 points in one game — which is quite the accomplishment — but then followed it up with a zero-point outing (on 0-for-10 shooting). Immediately after that, Watson got injured and we didn’t see him on the court again. It’s tempting to wonder if the Raptors should have kept Oshae Brissett or Alize Johnson instead of Watson, but it’s just as easy to see his value right now. As I said, a bit of a mystery — here’s hoping next year makes things a little clearer for Watson on the Raptors.
Yuta Watanabe – B
Where you land on Watanabe’s value is dependent on what his role could be on the Raptors. When his usage ticks up, and he’s asked to do more finishing on offense, Watanabe is not exactly the most effective player. That’s not to say he can’t shoot (his three-point percentage hit 40 percent on 1.8 attempts) or make a lay-up, but it’s obvious he’s still exploring the limits of his game in that regard.
Where Watanabe was resolutely valuable to Toronto this past season was in his right place, right time decision-making. To that, particularly on defense, Yuta worked hard and played to the team’s principles; on offense, did grow more confident, which was encouraging. He’s still a bench player, but it sure feels like he could be a solid one for years to come.
Jalen Harris – B+
Hey, a grade for Jalen! As with Flynn, we’re working on a rookie scale here, one that has to take into account the context in which Harris was operating. We don’t yet know what he’ll look like in games that really really count. But it was something to see him drop 31 against the Mavericks while going straight at Luka Doncic. Yes, it didn’t matter much — but it’s also fair to say Harris might just have something special.
Freddie Gillespie – B-
The late-season game against the Clippers, in which DeMarcus Cousins seemed to be loudly wondering who the hell Gillespie even was, marks a high point for the rookie big man. Emerging seemingly from nowhere, the 23-year-old Gillespie was engaged every night and learning how to play at the NBA level in almost real-time. You could see him correcting his mistakes, asking questions of the referees, gamely trying to answer the prompts from media, and just generally do whatever possible to fit in on and off the court. Right now he’s at best, a backup centre, but Gillespie seems destined to become a fan favourite somewhere.
Nick Nurse – B+
At a certain point, it became clear Nurse’s hands were tied. I don’t mean that some executive edict came down to tell him not to play his full squad and not to try and win games. I just mean Nuse seemed to realize there was no point in breaking his back for the smallest of short-term gains. Barring unforeseen disaster, he’ll be the coach in Toronto for many years to come, and sometimes the long view wins out. Nurse tried different things, rolled with the players he had as best he could, and after the fury of that disappointing start subsided, seemed to get the Raptors where they inevitably had to go. Now we just have to hope everything between him and Siakam is cool.
But that’s next season’s problem. Enjoy the summer, everyone!