1. Toronto Raptors win NBA Championship (2019)
The number has continued to grow over the course of the last year. By the time the story is retold in 2030, some 5 million Canadians may have been at the Raptors’ championship parade. It will be the seminal “I was there” moment of this era of sports in Canada, or at least in Toronto. Because it looks conceivable that everyone was there. Who’s to say you weren’t?
In winning the 2019 NBA championship, the Raptors accomplished something 24 years in the making. It’s bigger than that, though. They accomplished something that began with Naismith at No. 10 on this list and nearly 130 years earlier. They accomplished something that the awarding of the franchise and their first home game set in motion, that Carter pushed forward, that Nash localized and that mounting success at the international and professional levels kept the faith in.
As hockey became more expensive and exclusionary and as participation numbers in basketball and soccer swelled, the Raptors fulfilled their destiny of giving Canada an alternate sporting identity.
That’s not to say Canada isn’t still a hockey country, or Toronto a hockey city. The Raptors simply illustrated that there’s an appetite and a capacity for more, and that being a country whose history is rooted in one sport doesn’t mean its present and future can’t be rooted in another. The history of basketball in Canada has been an uneven one, but it has all led to where things are right now for the sport: More prominent, with better ratings, higher participation, a terrific talent pool, and pipeline, and an NBA champion.
4. Toronto Raptors (Previously 4th), 45-18 (+6.3 net rating)
Orlando schedule: Lakers, Heat, Magic, Celtics, Grizzlies, Bucks (B2B), 76ers, Nuggets
What to focus on: If the Bucks are still taking it seriously by the time we get to that back-to-back, the Toronto Raptors could have one of the tougher schedules coming back. They hold a three-game lead on Boston for the 2-seed, so they should be fine in eight games coming back. That showdown with Boston in the fourth game of the return will probably determine just how seriously the Raptors have to take the second half of this. Maybe the biggest thing to focus on is whether or not skinny Marc Gasol can still hold his own against Joel Embiid.
Why didn’t the Raptors move at all? They seem healthy, and I’m very impressed by how these guys respond to the creativity of Nick Nurse. I am talking myself into a Raptors Finals appearance more and more each day, but I’m still not sold on them being in the top 3 here.
While winning the championship is front and centre, the challenge of potentially going around 100 days within a “bubble”—despite amenities such as daily movie screenings, DJ sets, ping pong, and lawn games—will be immense. Ujiri is confident his group of players has the mental toughness, chemistry, and self-belief to persevere through whatever challenges come along the way. Ultimately, these players want to play because of their passion for the game of basketball and the desire to play the sport at its highest level. He’s also impressed by the competitive spirit of the workouts he’s seen thus far.
Those workouts are staggered throughout the day for different players to maintain distancing as group workouts aren’t permitted until July 9 when training camp begins. VanVleet was one of the first Raptors to arrive at the hotel and so at a point was one of five people in the entire building. He has been working out early in the day, which allows him to then eat and sleep before getting some treatment to work on sore muscles or whatever may be nagging him. Then, he spends the rest of the day playing video games, FaceTiming his family, or just sleeping to burn the time. For now, VanVleet says it isn’t too dissimilar to when the Raptors hold their training camp in Vancouver or Victoria where the routine is generally hotel-gym-hotel-gym. The challenge this time will be to see if they can do it for three months.
“It sucks. It sucks, man. It’s terrible timing but that’s been 2020 for us,” VanVleet said about having to adjust to living in a literal bubble. “We all know the right thing to do is to not play, to take a stand. Morally, yes, that makes sense. But life goes on. We’re all young Black guys. None of us want to give any money back. I don’t think that we should. I think that money can be used in a number of different ways.
“This is not going to end this summer, regardless, or over the next couple of months. This issue, racial injustice, social injustice, police brutality, all these things are not ending anytime soon. Our fight was long-term. That was part of my decision.”
In the here and now, Ujiri has pushed the discussion of Black executives in the NBA with commissioner Adam Silver. There are currently six Black general managers across the 30 teams and Ujiri represents the only Black team president.
At a team level, a committee has been formed consisting of players, coaches, and members of the front office. Kyle Lowry, VanVleet, Bobby Webster, and Nick Nurse—among others—have all been putting time in individually to brainstorm the best course of action, before they can all come together and arrive at collective conclusions. Ultimately, the message will be sent that Black lives do indeed matter.
Even without three rotation players, they managed to pull out an unlikely road win over the fourth-place Jazz, improving their record to 46-18 on the campaign. They were on pace for a franchise record-tying 59 wins, despite losing their best player over the summer and being decimated by injuries throughout the season.
“We were playing really well,” Nurse said. “We were playing really well this season, we’d won four out of five on the West Coast swing when this thing hit, and we were rolling and we weren’t healthy. So, I think everybody is anxious to see us healthy and hopefully we can stay healthy and see what our ceiling can be with this team this year.”
There are plenty of reasons to feel good about their chances heading into the restart – their chemistry and continuity, experience and basketball IQ, adaptability and championship pedigree, among other things. And yes, the time off should have given their older and banged up players an opportunity to heal and get some rest.
But four months is a long time to be away from the game, and from each other. It’s basically the duration of a standard off-season. Is it reasonable to expect the momentum they had built to simply carry over?
“It’s going to be like going into a new season,” said Nurse. “We went into this last season obviously missing a couple of really key pieces to our team [in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green], so you were kind of selling an opportunity to a few guys… Fortunately Pascal [Siakam] took a jump, Fred [VanVleet], Norm [Powell], Serge [Ibaka] were playing amazing, OG [Anunoby] had been fabulous, so that opportunity, there’s a lot of guys that [took] it.”
“I expect to kind of come back into this and see what we are going to look like, but we have a little cheat sheet to know there is a place we’ve been with this group. So, I think if it isn’t all holding hands and skipping rope at the beginning we just have to stick with it and see if we can get back to that level. I think there’s another level this group can go.”
Gasol is with the team in Naples, Fla., right now and so for those who don’t believe the transformation, it’s the real deal.
“The chiselled Marc. Cut up. He looks great,” Nurse said of Gasol’s new physique. “Listen, you guys know how highly I think of him already. He is such a great player. I think it’s motivating for people around him. He certainly looks fantastic. I don’t know, maybe a leaner Marc gets him to more rebounds, gets him to better defensive positions more quickly – not that those are a problem – but maybe he’s going to produce more in those things. Maybe his legs stay in there late in the games for some three-balls. I don’t know. If his conditioning improves him as a player, it’s going to be a super added bonus for us.”
Powell was equally as impressed by Gasol’s transformation.
“The change is that drastic,” said Powell. “I make fun of him all the time looking like a soccer player in Barcelona. He looks great, man, he’s moving great. He’s feeling great, in talking to him. I’m supposed to be playing tennis with him either tomorrow or the next day, so hopefully I’ll still be able to give him a run for his money.”
If Gasol is in good enough condition to chase Powell around the base line, then league look out.
But in all seriousness, if you’re a Raptors fan hearing how well-conditioned the Raptors have managed to keep themselves in this three-month-plus layoff so far has to be encouraging.
Nurse did admit that because the team is just relegated to individual work at the moment, there’s going to be some rust that needs to shake off for proper five-on-five play – “everyone always says that you can never really get in basketball shape unless you’re playing basketball” – but for the most part, the Raptors have done an excellent job of preparing themselves for this moment even before anyone had any clue that the 2019-20 season would resume.
All that extracurricular work will pay off when the season resumes, particularly with how tough Toronto’s eight-game seeding schedule is.
The small group workouts are good for skill development and some conditioning but the true test will come when the players can play again. It’s one thing to get up shots with coaches, it’s another thing entirely to really play basketball.
“I think there’s going to be a little bit of growing pains,” Powell said. “I know guys have been doing a lot of individual stuff once rules were open and guys were able to get in the gym by themselves but just the flow and feel of each other and just the flow of the game, you’re going to have an adjustment period.
“I think it’ll be all right though. I think we have enough time to be able to get our rhythm and flow back and be able to get back to how we were playing.”
How they were playing was extraordinarily well. The Raptors, despite a season full of injuries to every key player, were 46-18, second in the East, third overall in the NBA, when the season went on hiatus in March. They are also the defending champions, and while they don’t talk about it much or act like it openly, it’s still there in their minds. And it’s part of this group’s collective DNA.
“I would imagine that helps, but it’s been really a pleasant thing for this season, I really thought that winning the title would be a heavier burden to carry from the start of the season through, and guys just don’t talk very much about it,” Nurse said.
Health will certainly be a factor and that’s before anyone even begins to consider the possibility of the Coronavirus overcoming all the precautionary steps the league has taken inside the Disney bubble.
For starters the Raptors were on pace for 60 wins this season pre-pandemic and that was with just about every regular missing a month or more save for Anunoby.
The near four month break has brought everyone back fully healthy, including Marc Gasol, who looks like he went back to Spain and lived in his gym eating nothing but the healthiest of foods.
Powell confirmed on Tuesday during his call that Gasol, in fact, is the envy of all his teammates these days.
“He looks great, man, he’s moving great. He’s feeling great, in talking to him,” Powell said. “I’m supposed to be playing tennis with him either tomorrow or the next day, so hopefully I’ll still be able to give him a run for his money.”
Now granted these are still early days in the re-start. The Raptors haven’t had and won’t have a full team workout until they get to Disney but all indications point to the defending champs having weathered this pandemic rather well and sit in a nice position to make a real run at repeating.
It’s only been a week but Nurse doesn’t sense or feel any angst within the team that could be at the beginning of a four and a half month road trip, albeit one minus any real travel.
“The days go by pretty quickly,” Nurse said of his initial assessment of this elongated road trip. “We’re trying to mix in some days off. We’re trying to mix in a lot of different activities, as much as we can do under the conditions. We had a barbecue the other day. It was kind of nice. It takes an evening. It was good. There’s ping-pong. There’s pool. There are a few other things we’re trying to mix in, too. I don’t really sense much anxiety or people worrying about, ‘Man, this is going to be a long time. The language has been positive.”
In the 23 games Powell has started this season, he’s averaged 18.8 points while shooting 51.8 percent from the field. In the 21 games he’s come off the bench, his average falls to 13.7 points, while shooting 47.9 percent from the field. While Powell has been better as a starter this year – he’s also outplayed VanVleet in that role.
Toronto’s net rating of 6.7 is better with Powell on the floor than the 5.1 with VanVleet. Is there some noise with that? Yes, but Powell has started and closed enough games this season to get a more accurate idea of his impact on the floor. Powell also ranks third among shooting guards in real plus-minus (RPM), behind only James Harden and Jrue Holiday. VanVleet comes in at 14th on the list.
Playing Powell at shooting guard gives the Raptors a more traditional look in their starting lineup. It also could potentially eliminate any mismatches they would see in the playoffs against bigger backcourts.
Had my colleague Adams ranked the Raptors’ backcourt with Powell at two-guard over VanVleet, there’s a chance they move up a tad. Would they have broken into the upper echelon of guards? No, but they would’ve likely moved past the likes of Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson who Adams ranked ahead of the Raptors’ starters.
In and all this is a great problem for Nurse to have. One he hasn’t really had to deal with all season because of all the injuries Toronto was plagued with.
Powell may be the better starting option right now, but let’s not forget that with VanVleet as the primary starting shooting guard the Raptors went 46-18.
Gasol, who missed 28 games this season with a hamstring injury, and veteran guard Kyle Lowry have looked noticeably leaner in recent photos circulating on social media.
“The chiselled Marc. Cut up. He looks great,” Nurse said of the big Spaniard.
Nurse said as highly as he already thinks of the cerebral Gasol, his improved fitness is motivating for Raptors teammates, might get him a few more rebounds a night and could give his legs more life down the stretch of games.
“If his conditioning improves him as a player it’s going to be a super added bonus for us,” Nurse said.
Raptors guard/forward Norm Powell called the physical change in Gasol “drastic.”
“I make fun of him all the time, looking like a soccer player in Barcelona,” Powell laughed. “He looks great, man, he’s moving great, he’s feeling great.”
Powell and Gasol have a tennis match scheduled for the next couple of days.
“Hopefully I’ll still be able to give him a run for his money,” Powell said.