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The Raptors will have to prepare for more than just the draft and free agency. Nurse’s contract ends after the 2020-21 season, making an extension for him a top priority, if a bit of a formality. (The contracts of Ujiri and a number of other key figures also run out in 2021, creating a sort of organizational inflection point and what could be a tough winter of negotiating, likely before there is medium-term revenue certainty.) Conversations with agents are often managed.
“Obviously, he’s done an incredible job for us, and those types of conversations are always top of mind for us,” Webster said. “Obviously, we’ll address them in due time … I guess I’d describe it as ongoing. We’re always in communication on any of the contract issues, and so I’d say it’s no different than our typical conversations with him.”
The biggest question organizationally might concern the Raptors’ biggest strength: How does player development work in the bubble environment?
There simply won’t be enough games and minutes for all 17 players to get consistent game reps, and the limited practice time that the rotation players will see deeper into the playoffs will limit actual five-on-five time beyond scout-team work. A significant part of the Raptors’ success in this area has come through their summer incubator program, with players building on Las Vegas Summer League with minicamps in Los Angeles, Toronto and Burnaby to work on everything from individual skills to the team’s system to each player’s physical health and conditioning plans.
Host William Lou is joined by theScore features writer Joe Wolfond to discuss the state of the East heading into the NBA restart.
- How the Raptors will be featured in the award races
- Nick Nurse wants to play jumboball
- Can Philadelphia put it together (no)
- Is Miami a paper tiger? (maybe)
- Are the Celtics and Bucks legit? (yes)
- Why are the Wizards and Nets even in this? ($$$)
By all accounts, the Raptors’ practices have been spirited. A few players have described them as being “intense.” That shouldn’t come as a surprise given how competitive most professional athletes are and how long it’s been since they’ve had an outlet for that fire. Still, going up against guys on your own team gets old pretty quickly when that’s all you’ve been allowed to do.
“Practice is a little more junked up and physical and the coaches are the worst officials in the world,” guard Fred VanVleet joked. “I don’t know how many times I’ll be [able to say I’m] looking forward to having NBA refs, but I’m definitely looking forward to it.”
The players are amped up, which is something Nurse and the coaching staff will have to be mindful of going into the first of three scrimmage games on Friday, and then over the course of the next few weeks as guys work to get their conditioning back.
Nurse has been asking each of his players to self-monitor and pull themselves out of drills when they feel like they need a breather. That’s easier to do in practice than it is in a game-like environment, once those competitive juices start flowing.
“I only really know how to play one way and it will be the coaches’ job, Nick and the staff, to hold the reins a little bit, pull the reins back,” VanVleet said. “If it’s up to me, I’ll play all 48 [minutes]. So, that’s how I like to play and I don’t really know any other way but to compete at a high level.”
In an effort to help ease everybody back after such a long layoff, the NBA shortened each team’s first scrimmage to 40 minutes. From there, it will be on the coaches – with the assistance of the medical staff – to keep a close eye on players and ensure they’re not doing too much too fast.
Nurse has already indicated that he’ll likely hold out a few of the rotation guys in each scrimmage. Don’t be surprised to see him make quick substitutions and utilize his entire 17-man roster.
“Being real careful, we certainly have to use these scrimmage games as a conditioning tool, a rhythm type thing and an opportunity to get guys out on the floor and see where we’re at,” Nurse said. “I think, especially this first one, will give us a real, true indication of where they’re at conditioning-wise and then we can make any adjustments from there.”
During the season, we saw Anunoby’s offensive game grow in fits and starts. Per Synergy Sports, spot-up shots and transition shots made up more than 60 percent of the possessions he finished, but his attempts as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and as a post-up threat grew as the season went along. On the other hand, Anunoby used just 16 isolation possessions all year, which amounts to about one every four games.
The Raptors were not efficient in any of those scenarios, which is key: If they can go from poor to average in those scenarios, possessions are less likely to fall apart at the end of the shot clock.
“I just think that if we call his number, (he has got) to make the right play,” Nurse said. “There are times when we may run a side clear out for him or something, that means it’s a drive, maybe times when we post him, we know we’ve got a switch on a smaller guy to post him up. Again, making the right play doesn’t necessarily mean taking a shot. It’s just making a read. In your one-on-one coverage, if you can score it, great. If they send more bodies, you’ve done your job, he’s just got to make the right read.”
The Raptors also used Anunoby effectively as a passer inside Miami’s zone in an unwatchable game in January. Anunoby had just three assists that night, but he constantly made the right looks. Sometimes, your team shoots 6-for-42 from 3-point range. According to Synergy, the Raptors scored 0.772 points per possession in 250 reps against a zone defence, the worst mark in the league this year.
“I remember that game very well,” Nurse said. “I wish we would’ve run those (plays involving Anunoby as a passer) more often.”
It’s the kind of gesture players, coaches and staffs notice. It builds loyalty, solidifies bonds and avoids the awkwardness or resentment that could fester if they don’t feel management is on the same page and making the same commitment.
The least amount of time that anyone in the Raptors travelling party will have been away from their families by the time the second round of the playoffs begin – which is when families can come to Disney World – will be 10 weeks.
Webster and Ujiri – each with young families at home – are no exception.
“They’re really committed to the organization — that goes without saying — but they’re committed to what we’re doing,” said Raptors guard Norman Powell.
Says wing Patrick McCaw: “It’s huge, honestly. Think about it, them making the sacrifice to be here with the team, being away from their families and their kids and their wives just to support us and help us finish the rest of this season with everything going on right now, the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, they chose to be here with us and support us and be with us every step of the way. I believe it’s huge for them to do that.”
It’s beyond basketball. Social justice issues have been prominent as players are determined to use the NBA platform to advance change. Webster and Ujiri understand that too.
“They’re very active in talking to us and making sure we’re good mentally or if we need anything in terms of the movement and going forward, how we’re gonna get our message out,” says Powell.
“They’ve been really active in that and sitting in practice talking to the guys. It’s good to see those guys in practice and really interacting with everybody. We preach that it’s a family organization, and you can really tell.”
Webster admits that he, along with team president Masai Ujiri, got a bit of a crash course in navigating a short off-season a year ago with the championship and all the celebrations that followed, but nothing like what they may be facing this coming off-season which could be less than two months long depending on how far the team goes this year and how soon next year’s schedule starts.
As of now, it’s tentatively set to begin on Dec. 1, but there also has to be a training camp and likely abbreviated pre-season before that.
Either way, Raptors management looks like it is in for a very busy and rather rushed off-season.
Beyond that business, there is a draft to contend with and all that it entails, from potential workouts to a potential combine.
“I think we’re all trying to figure out this new schedule,” Webster said from Orlando, where he has joined his team inside the NBA bubble.
“Obviously we can do a lot of stuff on-line. We’ve talked to, I don’t know, how many kids, probably 50 or 60 kids already, so we’re continuing to do our background, continuing to do our film work, and I’m sure the NBA is working on it as well.
“What form of a combine will there be and will there be the ability to bring kids to Toronto at some point, obviously barring COVID and travel?” Webster wondered aloud. “It’s something that will heat up here as we get closer to the October draft.”
If all goes according to plan, that draft preparation will continue while the Raptors are vying for a second title. Should they reach the Finals and go the distance in a seven-game series, the final game would not be played until Oct. 13.
But all of that is down the road.
The Raptors really haven’t made a misstep since the coronavirus pandemic and social justice movement forever altered society’s existence. The franchise has kept its players medically safe — storing them away for two weeks in a closed Naples, Fla., hotel worked wonderfully — and the support Ujiri and Webster have provided for players who wish to speak out on social issues has been unwavering.
“They’re very active in talking to us and making sure we’re good mentally or if we need anything in terms of the (Black Lives Matter) movement and, going forward, how we’re going to get our message out,” Norm Powell said. “They’ve been really active in that and sitting in practice talking to the guys. It’s good to see those guys in practice and really interacting with everybody. We preach that it’s a family organization, and you can really tell.”
There are things Webster and Ujiri could be concentrating on from the comfort of their Toronto offices. The coming off-season will be compressed — maybe no more than a month — with significant decisions to be made. Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol will be unrestricted free agents, and the team has a first-round draft pick for the first time since 2017. It would be much easier to meet, plan and discuss the endless possibilities and permutations with scouts and other members of the senior staff in person. Instead, meetings are done remotely.
“I think you guys know how we operate, and having both of us here is good,” Webster said. “We can communicate back to Toronto, but I think more than anything … we’re here in full support, we’re in this together.”
The important business is being with the players, being able to help them navigate the little hiccups that come up, being able to support them with social justice initiatives. It’s made things better for the players.
“They’ve been really quick to respond to the feedback from the players and being really proactive and making sure they’re behind us every step of the way,” Powell said. “I thought (wrapping the buses that brought the team to Orlando with Black Lives Matter) was really cool and the publicity that it got. Those are the type of little things that show where we stand, and we’re going to continue to take strides and steps forward and really effect some real change.”
At Walt Disney World, he’s spending his downtime — and there is a lot of it — studying film. There’s a championship to resume defense of in a week or so, and Nurse sounds like he’ll be ready.
“I didn’t watch a ton during the pandemic, to be honest. … So, I’m watching a lot more tape now that the games are approaching,” Nurse said.
He’s doing the bulk of his work now, coming up with the sort of ideas that helped Toronto win its first title a little over a year ago. Some of his key players have been getting big-time work in throughout the league shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic — point guard Kyle Lowry looks slimmer, center Marc Gasol looks much slimmer. And if the Raptors are going to make another deep playoff run, those veterans will likely be big reasons why.
“It’s clearly Kyle’s team,” Nurse said. “His care factor is way up there. His intelligence factor is way up. We’re in good hands with him being the leader of this team. When a guy plays the way he does, the leadership by example … that phrase is probably overused, but it’s certainly the case.”
The Raptors were amused earlier this season when the widespread belief was that losing reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in free agency to the Los Angeles Clippers doomed their hopes for another strong season.
Those whispers are long gone. The Raptors come into the restart holding the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference, and probably can’t fall past the No. 3 seed no matter what happens in the eight seeding games.
“We just want to play,” Raptors forward Pascal Siakam said. “I miss playing basketball.”
Basketball is back. So are the champs, who do not intend to yield their spot atop the league easily.
Yesterday, it was announced by Metrolinx, the organization responsible for coordinating and constructing transportation and transit projects in the Greater Toronto Area, is pulling out of a deal to donate land in the Jane Street and Finch Avenue West area of Toronto that had been earmarked for a new community hub for arts and culture. This is an atrocious bit of business for a bunch of reasons, so let’s get mad and get into a few of them here.
Now, if you know anything about Toronto, you’ve probably heard Jane and Finch invoked as a mythic urban boogie man, a terrifying no-go zone that only the brave should ever enter. (For the record, my father taught for years at since-closed Regina Pacis high school in the area and he’s fine.) This kind of talk is inspired by, yes, reports of crime in the area, gang- and gun-related violence that just so happens to come to areas left to decay. You see, areas like Jane and Finch (or Rexdale, where I’m from) are also filled with many poor and working class people, often Black or otherwise racialized. For them, only the police ever seem to be around — and they rarely come with a helping hand. As the racists would tell it, the violence that emerges in these communities is because of the people themselves. But anyone with a grasp on reality knows the violence is because of those very same cops, the institutional and systemic racism they enforce, and the crush (and criminalization) of poverty itself. The coincidences here aren’t coincidences at all.
So then, this is a story of a provincial institution, one entrusted with planning and building much-needed transit to service and enrich communities that have been — by design — left behind over the years in Toronto, going out of its way to renege on a deal that would have done exactly that. As has been pointed out across social and news media, this is a gross breach of trust, one that shatters Metrolinx’s credibility as an organization and crushes its ability to ever make a promise to any community ever again.
Now ask yourself: what would have happened if this community space had been promised to a different neighbourhood, one that wasn’t filled with the marginalized of society, one with more of a voice to fight back? It’s possible to conclude such a mistake would not be made in that hypothetical scenario — so why do it here? In our grim reality, I think the truth is this: Metrolinx believes they can get away with it. After all, it’s just Jane and Finch we’re talking about, it’s not stocked with wealthly and well-connected people, right? Right. So Metrolinx crunched the numbers and decided they’ll sell the land to the highest bidder, optics be damned. The community will just have to watch a condominium rise out of the ground instead, filled with housing many of them can’t afford.
But I also think Metrolinx has misjudged the situation. There are voices rising up in protest. And we don’t ever have to forget their grave mistake. In fact, we won’t. Not now, not ever.
Within the organization, Raptors players have been extremely impressed by the way things have been handled lately. Raptors wing Norman Powell said he was surprised and amazed when he first saw the team’s bus before departing to Orlando.
“Those are the type of little things that show where we stand,” Powell said.
Even Webster and Ujiri’s presence in Orlando hasn’t been missed by the Raptors players. Webster said the decision to enter the bubble was an easy one because both he and Ujiri wanted to be with the team, supporting their players and having important conversations with players face-to-face.
“More than anything else we’re in this together,” Webster said. “They know that they obviously have our full support, but just experiencing this with them I think is invaluable.”
That’s been the case for Powell, who said Webster and Ujiri have been committed to ensuring everyone is able to get their message out and has proper support within the organization.
“We’ve preached that it’s a family organization and you can really tell,” Powell said.