Duncan Robinson tell a story about Fred VanVleet.
Raptors fans have been spoiled the last couple seasons. With a championship in 2019 and a deeply satisfying 64-game title defense clouding people’s minds, it’s easy to get hung up on recency bias when discussing the greatest moments, games and performances the franchise has produced. Of course, this is a franchise now with a quarter century’s worth of dry ink in its history book, and though not every year has been a rousing, 50-win success, there have been plenty of moments of brilliance doled out by the 236 players to have worn Raps colours.
Because this particular week of the calendar brings with it a thirst for bracketized sports that will not this year be quenched, we thought it might be worth trying to decide which of those moments — and more specifically, which single-game individual performance — should hold the title as the greatest in Raptors history, using a fan-voted, knockout-style tournament as the arbiter.
Toronto has contested 1,984 games since joining the league in 1995, with anywhere between seven and 13 players hitting the floor for each and every one. Here, we’ve managed to whittle it down to the 32 box score lines that shine the brightest to this day.
Only a couple of rules applied in building the tournament field. Playoff games were excluded, so as to create some unpredictability — a necessary measure to avoid a stroll to the championship for Kyle Lowry’s Finals-clinching Game 6 performance. To ensure a diverse bracket, the number of entries per player was capped at three.
Don’t yell at me — or anyone, for that matter — about the seeding; that part of the process was done objectively, based on Basketball Reference’s Game Score metric, which gives every player’s box score from every game an overall figure to gauge how awesome it was. DeMar DeRozan’s franchise record-setting 52-point game against the Bucks on New Years’ Day 2018 comes in as the clear top-overall seed, with a Game Score of 44.1.
THE FIRST REPORTS started landing in NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s inbox at about the same time he was writing the eulogy for his mentor, David Stern.
It was mid-January, and news of the coronavirus in China, where the NBA has 200 employees at offices in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei, had begun indicating that COVID-19 had spread outside the epicenter of Wuhan in Hubei province.
Silver monitored the situation closely, staying in daily contact with league employees in China who were witnessing the devastating spread of the virus firsthand. The NBA’s relationship with China had been strained since the fall, following Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet about Hong Kong. But Silver believed it was imperative to keep up the connection, having been counseled by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson that the future of the world was dependent on the U.S. and China working together on matters of global importance.
Public health crises had come up before around the world in locations with NBA employees, but they hadn’t reached this scale or severity.
The former commissioner’s memorial was on Jan. 21 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, and Silver was a featured speaker. On the same day, the U.S. confirmed its first case of COVID-19 in the state of Washington. Two days later, massive quarantines began across China as the country tried to control the spread of the virus.
The NBA began to activate its pandemic protocols from the crisis management guide it distributes internally and to teams every year.
Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy had advised the league on the need for such planning years earlier, even addressing the possibility of a pandemic at a 2016 board of governors meeting, according to sources.
At the Brooklyn Nets’ celebration of Chinese Lunar New Year on Jan. 29, Silver asked Dr. David Ho, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 1996 for his groundbreaking work in treating the HIV virus, to start advising the league on COVID-19.
Senior vice president David Weiss began preparing a memo to distribute to teams, alerting them to the growing threat and providing guidance on how to prepare for it.
Weiss, a lawyer by trade, has run the NBA’s player health programs since 2012, setting up protocols to deal with concussions, infectious diseases and mental health. The challenge in front of him by late January, as the virus spread around the globe, was enormous.
Then, on Jan. 26, former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and eight others were killed in a helicopter crash. The entire NBA world was crushed. Decisions had to be made about whether to postpone the Lakers-Clippers game on Jan. 28. But there was no time to pause the planning for a pandemic.
No player has ever won Most Improved Player of the Year twice, nevermind in back-to-back seasons, but the Raptors forward is making a strong case.
The 25-year-old’s game is growing rapidly, which isn’t shocking when you consider that he’s still fairly new to the game of basketball compared to his peers. After a massive season of growth during Toronto’s title run a year ago, Siakam was forced to take another leap as the Raptors’ go-to guy once Kawhi Leonard left for the LA Clippers in free agency.
He’s handled that role excellently, averaging career-highs of 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.9 blocks per game while his team sits firmly in second place in the East, exactly where they were a season ago despite losing one of the best players in the league.
Siakam’s play earned him his first All-Star selection and although he’s struggled at times this season, his overall production cannot be knocked. It’s unlikely that we ever see a player win two MIP awards, Siakam is doing his best to make history.
Over/Under – NBA back before August 1
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What do you think is the biggest thing you’ve learned this season about the team you cover?
Koreen: Nick Nurse is a top-five coach in the NBA. Last year was an odd one to assess a coach, as Kawhi Leonard’s presence masked what everyone else was doing. Nurse actually played things fairly conservatively last year, until the playoffs. This year, Leonard’s exit and injuries have forced Nurse to get very creative, and he responded in kind with rotation and stylistic departures that have helped the Raptors be one of the best stories of the year. He was/is probably in line for the coach of the year award, and should be headed for a big-money extension if he wants one.
Schiffer: Although it’s my first year on the beat, weird things have happened with the Nets. Kyrie Irving played just 20 games before opting to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, but he saw enough without Kevin Durant to say the team needed an additional star before walking back those comments. Kenny Atkinson did more with less for the second straight year only to part ways with the team after losing his voice in the locker room, and we don’t have enough space to get into everything that went down in China during the preseason. So I’ve learned that when covering the Nets, anything is on the table.
Vorkunov: The Knicks are back at the beginning. There is no bigger takeaway from this season than that. They fired a coach and then a president. The whole roster is basically an Etch A Sketch except for a handful of players. There’s a new boss in town. It’s become cliche to say but time really is a flat circle at Madison Square Garden. So now it’s time to see what the Leon Rose era will bring. The Knicks have RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson and everything else is up in the air.
“He’s telling us that the numbers are concerning and it’s continuing to grow at a rate that’s very concerning and it’s going to hit us at some point,” Rosas said. “You hear it. You think about it. But unless it’s here, you don’t realize it.”
The Wolves went about their business, pulling off a series of trades at the deadline in early February that remade the roster. All the while, Sikka was studying the data. The virus wasn’t going away. By the time the contingent convened with the rest of the league in Chicago for the All-Star Game in mid-February, Sikka was starting to hear other high-placed team executives express concern about what they were seeing overseas.
That’s when Sikka went to Rosas and Wolves CEO Ethan Casson and dropped a bomb. Sikka told them it was time to start talking about a scenario where scouts would no longer be traveling, and that more restrictions likely would not be far behind. Two weeks before the NBA shut down, the Wolves had already pulled their “high-risk” personnel, either because of age or any medications that compromised the immune system, from the road.
“There were too many indicators to ignore it and there were too many smart people that were out there speaking about what we need to do to prepare,” Sikka said. “When you look at the numbers, we were going to be at risk.”
There was an all-staff meeting with personnel from the basketball and business sides on March 4 in which Sikka drove home the severity of the problem. On March 9, two days before Gobert’s positive test for coronavirus was revealed just before his Utah Jazz were set to tip off in Oklahoma City against the Thunder, the Wolves held a meeting with their players. They were preparing to begin a 12-day, six-game road trip, and there was real concern that the situation was about to come to a head.
As the players gathered around for that meeting at the team’s practice facility, Sikka knew most of them had not yet started to take the coronavirus seriously. Then, coach Ryan Saunders opened the meeting with an impassioned plea, telling the players that he was worried how his family might be affected. Saunders told the players it was time for them to start thinking about it as well.
The coronavirus continues to make its way through the NBA, with Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart and two Los Angeles Lakers players testing positive for COVID-19.
Both teams released statements Thursday announcing the positive tests, though they did not identify the players by name.
Smart posted a tweet later Thursday confirming that he had tested positive.
Members of 76ers, Nuggets test positive for virus
Sources: NBA teams must close practice facilities
“I’m OK, I feel fine. I don’t feel any of the symptoms,” Smart said in a video he posted on social media. “But I can’t stress enough practicing social distancing and really keeping yourself away from a large group of people and just really washing your hands and help protect yourself. And help protect others by protecting yourself.”
Smart was more emphatic in his tweet in addressing the issue of social distancing, writing, “The younger generation in our country must self distance. This is not a joke. Not doing so is selfish. Together we can beat this, but we must beat it together by being apart for a short while.”
Boston said in its statement that the Celtics player, later confirmed to be Smart, was tested because of “exposure to a known positive case.” The team said he was not exhibiting symptoms and has been in isolation for several days.
Smart, 26, said he was tested five days ago and got his results Thursday evening. Lakers players were tested Wednesday and received their results a day later. L.A. was prompted to have its players tested after four Brooklyn Nets players tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday.
Every imaginable scenario for restarting games is being discussed, league sources say: a postseason play-in tournament could replace the remainder of the 2019-20 regular season; the playoffs could feature shortened series; all or some games could be played at a neutral site; the start of the 2020-21 season could be delayed until December or possibly until 2021. In a worst-case scenario, the current season is canceled and next season is postponed. League sources told me that if games do resume, fans likely won’t be in attendance, and players, coaches, and other team personnel would have to go undergo regular testing for the coronavirus to prevent community infection. It’s a lot to ask—maybe too much—for games to happen this spring or summer, though the league is trying to plan for every potential situation. No one really knows when Steph will splash deep 3s, Giannis will pulverize rims, and LeBron will challenge Father Time again. If a multibillion-dollar enterprise like the NBA doesn’t know when it will get back to business, then how could any of us know when our normal lives will resume?
The truth is, we can’t know. Our cultural norms have shattered and the coronavirus pressed the pause button on life as we know it. The NBA, as an institution, is grappling with the same kinds of issues facing families and individuals across the globe.
In conversations with executives and agents around the league, questions are being asked, some big and some small, about how significantly the salary cap will be impacted, whether the league will mandate all teams close their practice facilities to players, when the draft lottery and the draft itself will happen, and how the league and teams will coordinate with draft prospects. Most team executives expect meetings to happen through FaceTime or a similar video software like Zoom, but they wonder how players will go through the type of extensive medical checks they would experience at the NBA combine.
Is it possible the NBA could stumble upon something that works? Perhaps. Many members of the league office, and individuals in team front offices, have long supported moving the start of the regular season to December. Hawks CEO Steve Koonin recently proposed the idea at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, claiming it would limit the amount of time the NBA overlaps with the NFL schedule, which dominates sports news coverage from September through February. Plus, it would give the NBA a kind of TV programming pole position during the slower summer months. “Relevance equals revenue,” Koonin said. “We’ve got to create the most relevance, and the revenue will fix itself.”
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the Raptors’ parent company, originally set this Friday as the deadline for season ticket holders to secure playoff tickets. A new deadline has yet to be set.
The NBA was the first major sports league to suspend its season last Wednesday after Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Six NBA players are known to have tested positive for the virus since, including Gobert’s Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell, Detroit’s Christian Wood and Brooklyn star Kevin Durant and three of his teammates.
Durant played for the Golden State Warriors when they fell to the Raptors in six games last year as Toronto clinched its first NBA championship.
The Raptors’ 24-game playoff run to the Larry O’Brien Trophy will be replayed on Sportsnet and TSN over the coming three and a half weeks, starting with Game 1 against the Orlando Magic on Sportsnet on Friday at 8 p.m. ET and concluding with Toronto’s championship-clinching Game 6 win over the Warriors on April 12 at 8 p.m. on TSN.
The Raptors, who all tested negative for the COVID-19 virus after playing against the Jazz days before Gobert tested positive, are currently in self-isolation. They were second in the Eastern Conference with a 46-18 record, trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks, when games were suspended.
It is still unclear if and when the NBA will return. NBA commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols on Wednesday that he wants “to believe we can salvage some form of the season.”
Like many people were last Wednesday night, Malcolm Miller was relaxing at home.
The 27-year-old Toronto Raptors guard was watching an old episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, scrolling through Twitter. Then he saw the news.
“I was just flipping through Twitter and I saw it and I was like, ‘Wow! We’re going on a hiatus,’” Miller said in a telephone interview.
Miller was shocked at the turn of events and — like a lot of people — seeing the NBA decide it would suspend its season amplified just how severe the COVID-19 pandemic really was.
And for Miller, perhaps it was doubly so because of the Western Conference road trip the Raptors had just been on. That trip included two stops in the state of California (where confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus had already been reported) and, of course, a game in Salt Lake City against the Utah Jazz and the NBA’s first two confirmed players to contract the virus, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.
“We were in San Francisco, we were in a couple of places that had a confirmed case. It was like, ‘Be careful. Make sure you wash your hands’ and everything, but when we got home and realized we had been around and had been in contact with some people who had tested positive, it made the situation a lot more real and a lot more tangible to everybody,” Miller said.
Because of this close contact, Miller and the rest of the Raptors were tested for COVID-19. These results came back negative but, in accordance with the advice of leading health professionals, the team issued a mandate for all members to self-isolate.
This directive came as a big eye-opener for Miller as well.
“There was a little bit of fear at first but after educating ourselves on it, realizing our part to play in it and how self-isolation will not only help ourselves but help those that might have worse symptoms than us or might be affected in worse ways than us it really became something real and we realized it was everybody’s responsibility as a society,” he said.