The 2020-21 season started with the Toronto Raptors blowing a double-digit lead to the New Orleans Pelicans in their Tampa “home” opener and went downhill from there. Sandwiched between occasional glimpses of excitement, Toronto started 2-8, lost back-to-back heartbreakers at Golden State and Portland, went 1-13 in March, and slowly faded from the playoff race after strategically resting its players for the final stretch of the regular season.
Before we look ahead to the offseason and the questions facing the Raptors, here’s a look at some winners and losers from this season:
⬆️ OG Anunoby
OG Anunoby has continued his trajectory of becoming one of the best two-way players in the league in his fourth season. There’s an argument to be made for Anunoby as the best perimeter defender in the NBA already. He’s also shown the potential of taking on a more significant role on the offensive end. If there’s only one positive you want to take away from this season, it should be Anunoby’s continued development. The Raptors don’t have a franchise-changing superstar on their roster, but a foundation of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Anunoby is more than just a consolation prize.
⬇️ The Raptors front office in the offseason
Back at the start of the season, when winning was still a priority, the Raptors maintained their financial flexibility to remain in the race for Giannis Antetokounmpo and, in the process, allowed Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka to leave via free agency while replacing them with Aron Baynes and Alex Len. In the short term, these moves created fundamental flaws on the roster, which contributed to the team’s slow start. The moves looked even worse in retrospect when Antetokounmpo signed a long-term extension to stay in Milwaukee. You can’t blame the front office’s process because any team with even a slight possibility of acquiring a superstar in free agency should do all they can to plan for that scenario. But the front office should shoulder the blame for how this season went.
⬆️ The Raptors front office during the season
Where the front office should get credit is their in-season moves. Khem Birch looks like a starting-caliber center for this team moving forward. Gary Trent Jr. was a great addition and helped the Raptors’ core get younger. Assuming both re-sign, Toronto will have added two rotation players to its roster for next season. It was too little, too late to get into the playoffs, but it gave them a head start for the offseason. The big question mark is whether Toronto missed an opportunity to recoup assets for Kyle Lowry before his pending free agency at the trade deadline, but more on that below.
⬇️ The potential of a bench mob 2.0
The disparity between the (post-Baynes) starting lineup and the bench was one of the most glaring things all season. The starters looked like a top-four team in the East, but whenever Nick Nurse went with the bench lineups, the Raptors looked like, well, exactly where they are right now, the 12th-best team in the conference. There were some fun stories this season, from Yuta Watanabe earning a standard NBA contract, Paul Watson Jr.’s brief flashes, and promising showings from Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris, but this was never a second unit that consistently provided net positive contributions on a nightly basis. The Raptors need to solidify their second unit this offseason.
⬇️ Playing an NBA season during a pandemic in a temporary home
The nightmare scenario played out for the Raptors this season. They had no home-court advantage at Amalie Arena even when fans were allowed to attend. The pandemic ravished the team in March. It was generally not a fun season for anyone involved. I’m honestly surprised the Raptors are 16-19 at home this season. All I remember are heartbreaking losses and Matt Devlin telling me “The Raptors are right there!” while they trailed by eight with 2:23 left in the fourth quarter.
⬆️ The Toronto Raptors fanbase
If there is a silver lining to all of this, it’s how much the players have publicly shown their appreciation for Toronto. Players like VanVleet and Chris Boucher have talked about how much they miss the city. Nurse said he misses the snow (?) and Lowry’s love for Toronto highways (??) has been well-documented. Of course, everyone misses the fans the most. The Scotiabank Arena atmosphere, especially when the Raptors are winning, is truly one-of-a-kind, and here’s hoping they’re back home to start the 2021-22 season.
⬇️ Watching a team try to get the most draft lottery combinations possible
I don’t fault fans who wanted the Raptors to lose games to get the best draft lottery odds. I don’t even blame the team for punting a realistic chance at the play-in tournament to secure the best position in the lottery (although, I will say, not trading Lowry and then resting him for all but nine games after the trade deadline does raise some questions if he leaves this summer). As always: blame the system. By flattening the draft lottery odds and introducing the play-in tournament, the league has taken steps to discourage tanking, although that hasn’t stopped teams like the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder.
In an ideal world, teams are simply not rewarded for losing games on purpose, but there is no perfect alternative to eradicate all the problems. One suggestion: how about a play-in tournament for draft lottery teams, set up in a way where teams who are out of the playoffs have to actually win games to move up in the lottery. It’s the start of an idea, at least—anything to not have to spend an entire month watching meaningless basketball.
⬆️ Fred VanVleet
VanVleet’s four-year, $85-million contract is looking like a bargain after his performance this season. He’s become a centerpiece to the team’s success both on the floor and in the locker room. Whenever the post-Lowry era begins, VanVleet will be the leader of this team and an important voice for the franchise. Take away the injuries and post-COVID recovery phase, and the Raptors guard played at an All-Star level all season. Celebrating a player’s intangibles can be tricky, but in VanVleet’s case the intangibles don’t define him but are instead a complement to the tangible value he brings to this team every night.
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