It is time to take this season out back behind the shed, take care of business, and tell the kids that it’s out in greener pastures. With the final tank push complete and minimal purpose in the last two games, watching the Toronto Raptors for the next few days will be a strange experience. Perhaps the best course of action is to push this season to the back of our minds and prepare for a positive run next season.
Our lessons this week reflect that, as the learning this season, for the most part, is complete. We lead off with that is lesson one.
1) The lessons have ended
We may have hit this point a few weeks ago, to be honest, but it is unequivocally true now. With the core — OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and Kyle Lowry — being held out of all the games this week other than an appearance in the game against the Memphis Grizzlies by Siakam, this team bears little resemblance to the one that we will see next season. Even though some players, like Malachi Flynn, Khem Birch, and Gary Trent Jr., are part of the team’s future plans in all likelihood, they’re being thrust into roles that aren’t indicative of their future.
Factor in the reduced stakes and a general meaninglessness of the games, it is hard for me to believe that anything we’re seeing — good or bad — in these games is real. For example, Gary Trent Jr. had taken the mantle of the de facto number one guy before he was held out of the Bulls games. The results were, well, exactly what you’d expect if a fifth starter/sixth man-type player took on that role.
Trent was erratic, firing away freely and scoffing openly at the term “flow of the offense.” Malachi Flynn has been up-and-down at the helm of the offense, although he turned in a solid game against the Chicago Bulls from that perspective last night. Everyone has struggled, and that is what is supposed to happen when a team is short so many good players. That said, Birch has more or less been solid, but I have been drunk of Khem Birch Khool-Aid for a solid couple of months now, so I might think that no matter the case.
Anyway, these players are going to have less focus on them and will not feel empowered to do so much when everyone returns. Trent, in particular, has drawn some ire from the fanbase, but I do believe he is worth a healthy paycheque based more on his time with Portland and with Toronto’s starters than these past few games. He has shown enough when he plays with a full lineup.
What I’m trying to say is that there is only so much you can take from these games. Beyond good moments and interesting displays of skill, nothing is really representative of what these players will look like on a competitive, winning basketball team. And make no mistake, the Raptors will be a competitive, winning basketball team next year.
2) Stanley Johnson picks his spots
To hammer home the point from the first lesson, look no further than Stanley Johnson. Johnson has cemented himself as an all-time meaningless game player in Raptors history. From last year’s performance in the Bubble, when he led a wild comeback against the Philadelphia 76ers in one of the purer Raptors on-court moments since the pandemic began, to last night, where he did all he could to drag an undermanned, short-on-talent roster to a somewhat respectable performance against the Bulls, Johnson knows exactly when it’s time to let it rip.
But Johnson is completely aware of what this means. He didn’t demand more time and more touches after this game, nor did he act like it was what would happen if he always got those types of opportunities. If anything, Johnson was measured and looked at last night’s game as a step in the right direction on his path to becoming a more well-rounded player.
When the stakes are higher, however, he slides right into the spot that the team wants him in. In the last legitimate game — the final stand against the Washington Wizards — Johnson played nearly 30 minutes and didn’t hit a shot, taking only two in total. He knows when a game will allow offensive freedom, and when it won’t. He plays accordingly and symbolizes how different the game is when guys like Anunoby, Siakam, VanVleet, and Lowry are missing.
In a league where so many players have some irrational confidence (which can often be a good thing), it’s nice to see a player with some self-awareness like Johnson. Obviously, to truly be an impact player, Johnson will have to end up somewhere between his game against the Wizards and the one against the Bulls, a defensive role player who can’t completely be ignored on offense.
3) Life is good elsewhere for Toronto sports
I find that the Raptors fanbase is a healthy mix of basketball diehards and general Toronto sports fanatics. I speak now to the basketball diehards. It might be time to try something else.
With this abomination of a season nearing completion, the time is coming to fill your sports void, since going cold turkey is simply not an option. We were cruelly robbed of such a clear choice to throw our hat in with when Jamal Murray went down with a torn ACL. While the Denver Nuggets remain fun, their chances are significantly diminished, and we’re not rooting for the hometown kid anymore anyway.
So, what do we do? Root for a rival from the East? I wouldn’t say so. We could cheer for DeMar DeRozan or Norman Powell, but their teams don’t really have a shot. An LA team? Nope.
May I suggest traversing sports and looking to Toronto’s other favourite sons? The Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Blue Jays offer a breath of fresh air, both a reprieve from basketball and the relentless frustration that came with this Raptors season. The Leafs have combined their young core with a cavalcade of likeable veterans to win the North Division and position themselves for a long playoff run. The Blue Jays are young and talented, and their personalities are likeable and infectious.
They also have a tendency to send baseballs into orbit, which is also fun.
It’s worthwhile to give these guys a shot. You may have forgotten how enjoyable it is to smile while you watch sports.