As a sports fan, you’ve probably heard the old adage: if your team could win just ONE championship, you’d be fine with just about anything that happened in the following years.
The current Toronto Raptors are really testing that theory to the max.
Sure, it’s early days yet in an odd pandemic season with no games scheduled for their home city of Toronto on the horizon, but the 0-3 Raptors find themselves in a foreign position for their franchise — the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
And it’s not like it’s been all doom and gloom for Toronto: with the stat below showing they’ve been at the driver’s seat at one point or another during their three losses to the New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs, and Philadelphia 76ers.
The Raptors are the only team in the last 20 seasons to start 0-3, blowing a double-digit lead in all 3 games.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 30, 2020
But still, there’s more negatives than positives so far. It’s been 15 years since the Raptors have found themselves in a 0-3 hole, dating all the way back to the 2005-06 season where Toronto’s biggest star was a 21-year-old Chris Bosh.
Yeah, it’s been a while.
So what’s wrong with these Raptors? And what can Nick Nurse, Bobby Webster and the rest of the Raptors’ staff do to fix it?
Missing big men
The easiest reason to point to as to why the Raptors got worse is well, they lost two key players without receiving anything in return. The departures of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol to the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, respectively, have forced the Raptors to introduce a new frontcourt rotation that’s still getting their feet wet.
There’s no two ways around losing two talented veteran forwards like that: it sucks. Sometimes, your franchise loses tough trades or blows a high draft pick that’s setting them back, but right now with the Raptors, their biggest personnel loss simply came from players opting to continue their careers elsewhere.
The newest Raptor that’s seeing significant minutes, it’s not controversial to point out that centre Aron Baynes still needs a bit of refining into Nick Nurse’s system. Dominated the battle in the paint against Philadelphia by 76ers star Joel Embiid, Baynes put up just two points on Tuesday night on 1-8 shooting from the field. Embiid put up 29.
With the margin of victory just seven points against Philly, it’s not hard to single out that performance as the defining matchup contributing to Toronto’s third defeat in a row.
As a team, Toronto’s 23rd in the league with 42.7 rebounds per game. A year ago, they ranked 10th with 45.4. It’s a key board missed here and there that adds up to the Raptors having been out-rebounded all three games so far.
Contributing to their own bad luck
More than anything, the shots just haven’t been falling at key moments for the Raptors, with an inability to close out their games in the fourth quarter despite keeping it close all night being their biggest downfall. That being said, a couple of silly mistakes each game can really add up to be the difference.
As pointed out by Yahoo Canada reporter William Lou, Pascal Siakam’s foul issues continued on Tuesday as he fouled out in the game’s closing stages.
pascal committed 5 fouls in the last 6:38 of the game. how is that even possible?
— William Lou (@william_lou) December 30, 2020
One of the brightest spots on last year’s team, Norm Powell has also struggled mightily through the first few games with untimely turnovers and a weak scoring performance each of the last two games, with totals of zero and six points respectively in a combined 35 minutes of action.
No Toronto player has been able to take over a game so far this season, with Fred VanVleet’s 27 points against San Antonio the Raptors’ season high to date.
The Raptors’ ship isn’t completely sunken yet, and there still should be plenty of resources available to turn things around. But there are definitely a few leaks in the boat.
Up next on New Year’s Eve is the New York Knicks, a perennial punchline who just might be turning their tides around. The Knicks just beat the NBA’s best regular season team two years running in Milwaukee by 20 points on Sunday, and made it two straight victories with a win over Cleveland last night. If an 0-3 start seems like a disaster, an 0-4 start with a loss to New York might really seem like the end of the world.
Nick Nurse’s keys to success in the NBA thus far have almost always been about keeping things simple, whether it’s his box-and-one defensive system used most famously against Golden State in the 2019 Finals or his offences that focus on ball movement and keeping all options open.
More than anything, the Raptors need a deep breath and to take things one game at a time. Integrating Baynes into the system should help things flow more smoothly. Additionally, the Raptors need their stars to stop getting into foul trouble. If they’re able to do so, there’s no reason Toronto can’t continue to be one of the NBA’s top franchises for yet another year.