After an inspiring victory against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night, the Raptors enter the final two weeks of the regular season with a glimmer of hope in the standings. With seven games remaining, Toronto is three back in the loss column of the Washington Wizards for the final play-in spot in the East (the two teams play on Thursday, which could be fun?).
Toronto has already clinched its first losing season since 2013 and appears likely to miss the playoffs for the first time since Masai Ujiri took over as general manager. There’s a chance they could be mathematically eliminated from the postseason at the end of this week. Which begs the question: has this 2020-21 Raptors season been a failure?
Let’s dive in.
Well, I guess it depends on what your expectations were heading into this season.
To fail is to come up short against expectations. Unfortunately, video evidence does exist of me being confident of the Raptors playing at a 50-win pace this season over 72 games—which would have put them at a record of 43-29, which is right around where Vegas had them at the start of the season too with an over/under win total of 42.5.
I’m generally more optimistic than most, but I think it was fair to expect the Raptors to fall back into more of a middle-of-the-pack contender this season, perhaps a four-to-six seed in the East, but certainly not a team with just a puncher’s chance to make the postseason with two weeks left.
So what went wrong?
Wow. Where to begin?
So the whole “Aron Baynes and Alex Len will be able to do a good enough impersonation of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka” thing didn’t work out. I think we’re all tired of litigating the Baynes signing at this point (conclusion: it was a bad signing), but the Raptors have been losing pieces from their championship team for two summers now, and the connectedness of the roster which defined them the past two years (starting with the 2019 playoff run) finally broke.
But the Raptors were still somehow 16-15 by February.
It felt like the Raptors were fighting themselves the first month of the season. They got off to a horrifying 2-8 start and honestly didn’t feel like they were back on track until Nick Nurse finally took Bayens out of the starting lineup for the first game of a back-to-back sweep against the Bucks in Milwaukee in mid-February. A week later, they moved to 16-15 with a win over the Sixers, and while it was clear this team wasn’t competing for a championship, a top-four seed didn't feel out of reach in the East.
Of course, the Raptors proceeded to enter a truly nightmarish stretch where the pandemic hit pretty much the entire coaching staff, took Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby out of the lineup for several weeks, and took away a chance for this team to make a push up the standings. They won one game in the entire month of March as a result. I repeat: they won one single game in March.
There are so many external factors to blame this Raptors season on (temporary relocation, injuries, COVID). While I ultimately don’t fall on the side of blaming everything on that, we do have to recognize it as a significant factor, especially since players like VanVleet are still talking about conditioning issues since recovering from the virus.
So, when we talk about this Raptors season, this has to be a caveat.
But what about all the terrible losses earlier in the season?
A defining characteristic of the Raptors last season was they simply beat every team they were supposed to. They were the classic team that took care of business against every bad team in the league (and there were many) and gave themselves a chance against the top teams. It’s a pretty sure-fire formula to win 50 games.
I can’t even begin to rattle off all the uncharacteristic losses this season, starting with opening night when they blew a double-digit lead to New Orleans, or frustrating last-minute losses to Golden State and Portland on the road, and dropping games at Amalie Arena to Sacramento and Minnesota. Those games would make all the difference in the playoff race now, wouldn't they?
You can’t pin everything bad this season on just the external factors we outlined above. They played a part, but this Raptors team was ultimately exposed over the course of a 72-game season as desperately thin and severely flawed. Matt Thomas and Terence Davis fell out of the rotation and were traded. Alex Len was waived. We’ve covered Baynes. Remember when Stanley Johnson was an early-season surprise? Beyond Kyle Lowry, Siakam, Anunoby, VanVleet, Boucher and Norman Powell before he was traded, there just wasn’t much on this roster.
The Raptors are probably closer to a .500 team without the virus destroying this team in March, but it also doesn’t take away the fact the roster needs to be upgraded this summer.
Are there silver linings in such a frustrating season?
Honestly, for what feels like a season from hell, yes, there are plenty of silver linings (again, optimism may vary depending on how you view the players on the current roster).
For one, the Raptors have done a pretty good job of fixing the roster on the margins with the signings of Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie. Both players feel like they can be not just short-term solutions but potentially part of the team’s plans moving forward.
The biggest reason for optimism of late has been the development of Anunoby, who continues to raise his ceiling.
Siakam’s numbers look similar to his All-NBA season last year than most would think, although he does feel more like an elite supporting player on a contender than a No. 1 option.
VanVleet was playing at a near all-star level before the virus and injuries derailed his season.
Chris Boucher made a leap and is a capable rotation player.
Malachi Flynn is having a strong finish to his rookie year.
The team turned Powell into Gary Trent Jr., who has shown flashes of brilliance and gives the Raptors a young player they can develop in their system, assuming he re-signs this summer.
Even with time having probably run out on this team making the playoffs, you can see the outline of a 50-win team here.
They’re going to need to address a few needs off the bench and might have to replace Lowry if he leaves this offseason, but relatively speaking, this team is finishing the year off on a bit of a high even if it doesn't feel like it at the moment.
The biggest silver lining, of course, will be the team getting a lottery pick to add another young talent to their roster or use it as a trade chip to upgrade the team this summer.
So was the season a failure?
Since I love throwing caveats on this season, I'm going to say for a team that considered themselves a fringe contender and certainly a playoff lock in the East, this season was more of a disappointment than a failure.
This might sound too simple, but I want to see this Raptor team (with a few new additions this summer) play a normal season in Toronto before making any sweeping conclusions about the roster. The good players on this team have a proven track record. The bad players on the bench need to be replaced.
I’m strangely confident in a bounce-back season for this team.
Print those 2021-22 Raptors revenge tour t-shirts now.
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