Even at 5-9, there is still optimism and hope the Toronto Raptors will turn it around.
This team has earned the benefit of the doubt, having proved the naysayers wrong time and again. The Raptors have a seven-year playoff streak, won the No. 1 seed in the East in 2018, won the championship in 2019 and finished second overall in wins last season. And even if this team isn’t those previous teams, there is still unwavering confidence in the organizational structure with Masai Ujiri in the front office, Nick Nurse as the head coach and Kyle Lowry as the floor general. They are tried and true.
It is also early in the season and the prevailing school of thought is that teams normalize after roughly 20 games. The Raptors relocated to Tampa Bay less than two months back, and the shortened preseason was spent as much on constructing a makeshift practice facility inside a ballroom or looking for semi-permanent housing in a state swimming in COVID-19 cases as it was on rehearsing sets or building chemistry. The stability at the centre position was totally rocked with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka both moving on to Los Angeles, and Nurse is still searching for the right combinations with a full month of games under his belt. The front office already pulled the plug on career journeyman Alex Len, and veteran Aron Baynes hasn’t been doing any better despite starting on most nights.
Their unfamiliarity pokes through during inopportune times. The Raptors are abysmal in crunch time, having been outscored 81-59 in 32 minutes, which only ranks ahead of the lifeless Washington Wizards. The Raptors generally have no issue building leads, especially early in games. But they are also the first team in NBA history to start the season with three straight losses despite holding double-digit leads in each of them, only for that to be followed with consecutive one-point losses against Portland and Golden State. This is especially confusing since the Raptors were the second best team in the clutch last season with largely the same cast of characters running largely the same sets. Therefore, the argument follows that as things even out and a few more bounces go their way, the Raptors could easily be sitting at .500 or slightly better.
But maybe that’s it: What is the point of sitting at .500? Isn’t that a problem unto itself?
It may be harsh to judge the Raptors season on a sample of 32 minutes, especially when they are plus-six in nearly 700 minutes this season, which ranks 13th behind the Boston Celtics. But again, what is so impressive about being average? The Raptors have been fully healthy, have miraculously ducked any effects of the pandemic despite other teams missing half their roster on a consistent basis, and yet they are still average. It would be a stretch to say the Raptors have performed at their best, but it is true that with all their best players available they have still performed around average.
Similar to last season, the Raptors have been average offensively, ranking 13th. The big change has come on the defensive end, where the Raptors slipped from being elite — and arguably the best in the league with Gasol on the floor — to now being 19th in defensive efficiency. Nurse tried to run the same system with aggressive perimeter defence promoting frantic decisions and funnelling drives towards the middle, but it doesn’t work without a stopper. Gasol and Ibaka struck fear into the hearts of their opponents, whereas Baynes and Chris Boucher present an invitation. Baynes was thought to be a player in the same mold as Gasol, except he’s looked like the Gasol from the Celtics playoff series, and the undersized Boucher is learning on the fly after being handed the biggest role of his career. Look no further than the matchup against Joel Embiid. Gasol and Ibaka held him to a total of 15 points in three appearances last season. In his lone appearance against the Raptors this season, he had 18 by halftime.
Without solidity in the middle, Nurse is reinventing the Raptors as a switch-happy perimeter team. By relying heavily on switching and zone coverages, the Raptors can at least mask their weakness by cutting off drives at the source. Stanley Johnson has been a bench staple as a stopper who can guard all five positions, and lineups featuring Johnson and another versatile forward in Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby have been effective. There are still mismatches, particularly when Boucher is left on an island, but it’s the best the Raptors can do unless Baynes miraculously rediscovers his mobility. At least they look like themselves when they downsize.
Offensively, the Raptors are just short on weapons, which was made abundantly clear in the Celtics series. Lowry, Siakam and Fred VanVleet are not elite scorers who can carry the offence and it leaves the Raptors prone to long and untimely droughts. Siakam comes the closest, and he did have a strong five-game stretch on their road trip out west, but he is also just as likely to be off and gasping for air against teams who can capably shut off the paint. And when Siakam struggles, he compounds his problems by forcing bad shots and switching off on defence, which is why he has the second worst net rating on the team ahead of only Baynes. He doesn’t just struggle, he craters. VanVleet and Lowry have been more steady, but they are six-foot guards who can only do so much. As compared to other “Big Three” combinations around the league, they are middle of the pack.
The supporting cast is inconsistent, as is the case for most supporting players. Anunoby is the best of the bunch. He’s by far the best individual defender on the team and his 3-point shooting has surged over the past two weeks. Norman Powell got off to an error-prone start and is falling short of expectations as the go-to scorer off the bench. Boucher’s nightly double-doubles have felt like minor miracles and he kept the team afloat through turbulent times, although there is hardly a track record to suggest that it will be the norm going forward. Johnson and Yuta Watanabe have been strong and eager defenders, but any offence from them is strictly seen as a bonus. The constant churn between Terence Davis, Malachi Flynn and Matt Thomas at the bottom of the rotation has given the Raptors more mistakes than moments.
When teams fail to meet expectations — and there were expectations to at least make the playoffs — the obvious culprit is the coach. And while Nurse isn’t faultless, it would be lazy to place the blame at his feet. Nurse is the same shrewd poker player he’s always been, with his usual assortment of janky defences, motivational tactics and inventive lineups as the aces up his sleeve. The problem is that he’s holding an average hand and no amount of bluffing will change that, at least not in the long run. His best move would be to start over with new cards, which can only come from the front office.
Ujiri famously said when he took over the Raptors in 2013 that he “will not be trapped in the middle,” and he backed those words by trading Rudy Gay when the Raptors started 6-12.
It was a move intended to trigger a rebuild, but it had the opposite effect. The new group rallied, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan emerged as franchise pillars, and the Raptors finished the season going 42-22. Toronto was never in the middle from then on, going 373-187 since that trade, culminating in the 2019 championship, and ranking as the most successful franchise in the NBA behind only the Golden State Warriors. One happy accident gave rise to the happiest decade in franchise history. The Raptors didn’t once dip below .500 for seven years, until this season.
To be clear, the situation in 2013 was more dire than it is in 2021. The Raptors have more accomplished and more talented players under contract, certainty in coaching and own all their picks moving forward. But the front office has a similar decision to make at this fork in the road, because it’s leading to the exact middle ground that Ujiri was afraid of to begin his tenure. The Raptors are on pace to finish the season at or slightly above .500, with a ceiling no higher than the second round, and little hope of a top lottery pick. If Ujiri is still committed to that line of thinking, then he needs to make a move.
One way to salvage the season will be to acquire a centre who can produce on both ends of the ball. Baynes has not produced, nor does he show signs that he will, and his fit with Siakam has been especially disastrous. Boucher is fantastic, but he is prone to mismatches and cannot be expected to hold the fort down for all 48 minutes. The roster is extremely unbalanced, with seven players available to play shooting guard as compared to just two centres, and it only makes sense to strike balance through trade. Acquiring a rim-protecting centre who can rebound and finish a lob, such as Cleveland’s move for Jarrett Allen in the James Harden deal with Brooklyn, would give the Raptors some much-needed stability on defence and put pressure at the rim.
The other way would be to bottom out. Lowry is on an expiring deal and although Raptors fans would all prefer him to stay until the wheels fall off, it would be malpractice if the front office didn’t at least sit down with the 34-year-old to discuss his future plans. Would he re-sign at a number that fits the Raptors’ plans? What are his intentions with the last prime years of his career? Given the current landscape of the NBA with so many teams being middle of the pack, it will likely be a seller’s market, and Lowry’s skill set would be a difference maker for just about every team in the league.
With flattened lottery odds, the Raptors wouldn’t and shouldn’t gut their team entirely. The Raptors hold the sixth-worst record at the moment, which is good for a nine percent shot at the first overall pick. Even dropping down to ninth would still give the Raptors more than a 20 percent shot at a top-four selection. The Raptors would still have three young starters under contract and an abundance of cap room next summer. With the team already in Florida for the year, there also wouldn’t be the same drop in attendance that comes with rebuilding in your own house. It could be a quick fix if the right lottery balls bounce their way. Of course that is much easier said than done.
Before any significant roster decision is made, Ujiri will first have to answer to his own status. He is also in the last year of his contract, and despite being pressed each time he meets with the media, his answers have remained purposely vague. Ujiri will command one of the largest deals ever for an executive, and MLSE would be foolish to pinch their wallet. Ideally, a deal can be reached in the next month so that the Raptors can move with full confidence at the trade deadline in March.
Last year’s team had an identity, this group has imposter syndrome. There was a clear directive to defend the title despite losing the Finals MVP, in front of the most raucous fans in the league, and they did so admirably. Siakam was out to prove that he was a max player, VanVleet was on the cusp of life-changing money, Nurse was a star on the rise, and the three veterans at the top had each other. What is this season about? With no reinforcements and no new tangible targets to hit, and temporary relocation inside a global pandemic, what are the Raptors striving for? And what will they do now that they are 5-9?
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