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The end of season roundtable

26 mins read
Image Credit: Morry Gash/AP

What a long, strange trip it’s been. The longest NBA season in history is over, at least for the Toronto Raptors. We’ve had enough time to let the dust settle. So with some small bit of hindsight as perspective, I thought it made sense to bring together an abridged version of the Raptors Republic roundtable crew to look back at the year and forward at the off-season.

So the year’s done. I heard / read a lot of you say that this was your favourite year in Raptors history. Now that we have the whole thing to look at, do you still feel that way?

Zarar Siddiqi

If anyone says that this is their favorite year in Raptors history they must be very good at lying to themselves. I shudder to think what else they lie to themselves about. I would imagine these are the people who Socrates was thinking of when making his case against democracy.

Esfandiar Baraheni

Absolutely. There’s something about the national media underestimating how good a team can be the season after winning an NBA championship, that perfectly describes the Toronto Raptors. This season really encapsulated what it means to be a fan of this team. Through the naysayers and doubters, the injuries, the historic comebacks, ridiculous game-winning shots, and most importantly, perseverance, this roster and this season embodies everything you would love about a basketball team.

Lukas Weese

I’ll still say that the 2018-19 was my favourite because of the ending. You can’t beat winning a championship and all of those moments leading up to the iconic moment. But you can’t ask for a better title defense than 2019-20. 

Oren Weisfeld

I do. My favourite regular season for sure. The bubble/playoffs were obviously very weird and different for a number of reasons, but the real regular season was so entertaining. The Raptors really gave so much to their fans this year and, speaking as a former Maple Leafs fan, that is actually a rare thing in sports: for a fan base to be rewarded night after night. This Raptors team played so hard and were so organized and unorthodox, it was amazing. 

Louis Zatzman

This year was never about expectations. The weight had been lifted. And there was only room for fun. Sure, the season ended bitter and strong like an IPA gone bad, but that doesn’t discount how enjoyable the entire championship defense was. It surely wasn’t the most fun season of all time — last year, for me, will probably be my favourite sports season of all time, seeing as how it was also my first ever year with credentials — but this season was as good as a non-championship year can get.

What was your favourite part of the season?

Zarar Siddiqi

Watching OG Anunoby’s composure in the playoffs put me at ease. He missed the championship playoff run and you got to see what a huge contributor he would’ve been last year. Bright future ahead of that guy. For those people who questioned the championship credentials with “oh but Durant…”, you saw what a weapon OG can be. Am I reaching? Maybe, but I’m not backing down.

Esfandiar Baraheni

Every time I heard the phrase “Defending Champion Toronto Raptors”. If you’ve been through the Andrea Bargnani days, the Mo Pete and Jalen Rose days, and lived to see the day the Toronto Raptors hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy, you’ll remember that even less than a decade ago, none of this seemed possible. I thought I’d be old and wrinkly when the Raptors would finally be crowned champions, but they actually did it and they got to do a victory lap (the longest one in NBA history, by the way). 

Lukas Weese

The 30-point comeback against the Dallas Mavericks. 

Oren Weisfeld

Maybe the comeback win against Dallas. That was peak Lowry and peak weird Nick Nurse lineups bunched into one incredibly exciting second half. 

Louis Zatzman

There were some individual games that stood out: the Dallas comeback, the Lakers win on the road, the final win over Utah before the shutdown. But Toronto’s 15-game winning streak felt like it lasted forever. The Raptors were a threshing machine, grinding and chopping opponents into paste. Those games felt like opponents never had a chance. 

What was your least favourite part of the season? Be as specific as possible.

Zarar Siddiqi

Pascal Siakam choking for seven straight games on offense might be one of the saddest sights I’ve seen. I have hope that he’ll come around but watching the Raptors lose game after game when only a slightly below-average offensive contribution from him would have been enough to beat Boston was not fun.

Esfandiar Baraheni

Um… the global pandemic that ravaged the entire world and the NBA along with it? I mean, I don’t want to make excuses as to how this season ended, but I do think the Raptors could’ve used their lovely fans in the Playoffs as a way to motivate themselves. Regardless, the whole ordeal of the season suspending and then re-starting in the summer, in a bubble that kept the players away from their families was/is definitely my least favourite part of the season. 

Lukas Weese

The bubble. While it’s great to have basketball back after a three-month layoff, we cannot understate the mental toll returning to basketball in Orlando had on players, including several members of the Raptors. 

Oren Weisfeld

Probably when we lost to Boston. That series was great in the aggregate but a lot of games could have been more competitive if the Raptors played as well as they are capable of. It was unfortunate to see the Raptors not play up to their potential in the bubble, especially Siakam, who was never himself, but it also sucked seeing the online reaction to Siakam playing poorly. 

Louis Zatzman

My least favourite part of the year was the first quarter of game five against the Boston Celtics. The game one no-show was excusable. After storming back, injecting fun back into the game, the Raptors seemed like they were going to do to the Celtics what they did to the 18-19 Bucks. Instead, they were flat as the Prairies to start game five, which ended up being very, very winnable. It was disappointing, particularly because I think the Raptors would have been favourites against both the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers. Missed opportunities sting. 

Think back to your expectations at the beginning of the year. Did the season fulfill / exceed / disappoint those?

Zarar Siddiqi

Disappointed. I discount the regular season completely – it means nothing to me or to what a team is remembered by. Losing to Boston while getting blown out twice was heart-breaking. Yes, there were positives to the season but the end result was disappointing. I expected at least to make it to the conference finals.

Esfandiar Baraheni

I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I legitimately predicted the season to end exactly how it did. I knew the Raptors would still be contenders in the Eastern Conference (unlike Sam Mitchell). I knew they would end up facing the Celtics in the 2nd round and I knew that Siakam would take his bumps in the Playoffs and that people would overreact to his struggles. I also predicted that despite Siakam’s struggles, the Raptors would be able to force a game 7, just to fall short. Call me Estradamus. 

Lukas Weese

Fulfilled expectations. I knew this team would surprise a lot of people because of their championship pedigree. They produced a lot of memorable moments and showed why you can never underestimate the heart of the champion. 

Oren Weisfeld

The season definitely exceeded my expectations. I expected Toronto to be a 4/5 seed and use this past year as a building year for the young players. I did not expect Siakam or VanVleet to have the seasons they had in terms of consistency and scoring, nor did I expect OG Anunoby to have such a great year on both sides of the ball. I also never could have expected the Raptors to play the way they did defensively and loved watching that unorthodox style that changed night after night.

Louis Zatzman

This season exceeded my expectations. I did not think they would be second in the league after the regular season. In fact, I think I predicted they would be in the four-to-five seed range heading into the playoffs, and I absolutely had the Celtics higher than that before the season began. The Raptors blew me away with their grit and malleability. Sure, it ended in a way I expected, at least before the season began. But everything up to that point was delightful.

If you had to sum up the season in one word, what would it be?

Zarar Siddiqi

Long.

Esfandiar Baraheni

I’m going to cheat: KLOE

Lukas Weese

Cool.

Oren Weisfeld

Adaptability.

Louis Zatzman

Carefree.

If you had to choose one center to start next year for the Raptors, who would it be and why?

Zarar Siddiqi

Nikola Jokić.

Esfandiar Baraheni

Out of anyone in the NBA? I’ll take Nikola Jokic or Anthony Davis if you don’t mind. I mean, imagine Jokic or Davis learning from Gasol? However, I assume you’re asking for realistic options. I think one of Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol will return next season and they will most likely assume the position of starting center. Some options for the backup center spot: Harry Giles, Bismack Biyombo, Tristan Thompson. But… Yikes. 

Lukas Weese

Serge Ibaka. He showed his ability this season to still shoot from beyond the arc while being physical inside. The Raptors need veteran leadership and he will provide it. 

Oren Weisfeld

Any center in the league or on the Raptors? I think in terms of a free agent, I would love to see the Raptors bring in Tristan Thompson and bring Ibaka off the bench. 

But in terms of Ibaka vs. Gasol, I would say Ibaka because he is significantly younger and looked much better than Gasol throughout the bubble. Plus, the Raptors have enough big wings to cover for some of his defensive liabilities. 

Louis Zatzman

I agree with the others that one of Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol will likely be back on a one-year deal. Probably Gasol, given that he’s older and is less likely to receive a multi-year offer from another team. But in terms of other realistic options who could capable slip through the crack to Toronto, while also being affordable, and effective, I like: Harry Giles, Ian Mahinmi, Aron Baynes, and Kyle O’Quinn, to name a few. Any of those guys would be really positive additions to the team.

A lot of expiring deals next season, including Kyle Lowry. Do you expect him to play the full year through or be traded next season? And if he does end the year as a Raptors, do you expect / want him to sign with the Raptors for his next deal?

Zarar Siddiqi

I expect him to play the full season with the Raptors because the East looks like it’s there for the taking if they add a little bit of support, and Siakam doesn’t disappear entirely in the postseason. Next year will be Lowry’s last with the Raptors.

Esfandiar Baraheni

On the record? Kyle Lowry is going to play for the Raptors until his knees give out and we will build him a statue and hire him as the GM right after he’s done playing so that he can stay with the Toronto Raptors franchise for the rest of his life so that I don’t ever have to imagine Lowry playing/working for another team. Off the record? I think Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have proven that they’re opportunists and are never afraid of pulling the trigger on a trade that could potentially help the team. If the right offer is there, I do believe the Raptors will listen. 

Lukas Weese

Kyle Lowry’s highest value is right now, given how he performed this season and in the playoffs. However, I don’t see him traded. His value and impact for the younger players on the Raptors team are massive. As much as I want Lowry to forever stay and remain a Raptor, I would not be surprised if he resigns with a championship contender when his contract expires. It all depends what Masai and the front office do to lure a notable free-agent in the 2021 offseason. 

Oren Weisfeld

I expect Lowry to play out the season with the Raptors. I think the Raptors will be competitive next season — they have no reason not to be considering they will bring back a simular team combined with more experience for the young guys. It’s possible that Lowry is moved at the deadline if the Raptors are struggling, but I doubt that will be the case.

I think he only signs a new deal if the Raptors strikeout of free agents, which is anyone’s guess. Or… he takes a hometown discount to stay in Toronto and retires before moving to the coaching staff. You heard it here first.

Louis Zatzman

I do think Lowry will play the full year as a Raptor next season. It’s extremely unlikely that — even if the Raptors listen to offers — a team that’s contending and wants an expiring Lowry will also have a picks+prospects package to offer the Raptors. Whether Lowry is back? I expect he would be offered far, far less money than he makes now. Would he play for Toronto on a mid-level exception, given the demotion nets the Raptors a superstar free agent? Tough for me to say, as I don’t know Lowry’s values and preferences. But it seems possible.

Masai Ujiri will also be on the final year of his deal next season. Do you expect he’ll be back?

Zarar Siddiqi

Yes. Where’s he going to go, to the Knicks? Lol.

Esfandiar Baraheni

Everything about Masai Ujiri indicates that he loves the city of Toronto and that his family has grown accustomed to life in Canada. However, negotiating contracts and deals can quickly sour the same fruit that provides life. Wow, that was really poetic, Es. I think Ujiri is a man who understands his own value and I think MLSE understands the price tag that comes along with that value. He’s probably the most sought out executive in the NBA right now, so they’ll have plenty of competition. That being said, I think the only thing that would appeal to Ujiri would be becoming the commissioner of the NBA or even more realistically, becoming the commissioner of the BAL. 

Lukas Weese

Yes. He wants to bring another championship to Toronto. 

Oren Weisfeld

I do. I think he is just taking his time and, considering the state of the world, I would too. I think he’ll sign a contract extension and move on to non-NBA ventures in the future. 

Louis Zatzman

Yeah, if Masai does leave, I think it will be to a bigger stage than the president of a basketball team. Say, commissioner. Or politician. Those are possible. But more likely is that Masai has a few more years of leading an NBA team, and if that’s true, I expect him back in Toronto.

What would the ideal upcoming off-season look like?

Zarar Siddiqi

Trade for Nikola Jokić and JJ Redick..

Esfandiar Baraheni

Re-sign Fred VanVleet to a long-term deal worth under $25 million dollars per year. Re-sign Serge Ibaka to a 1-year $25 million deal. Marc Gasol signs with Barcelona and finishes his career in Europe. The Raptors would then orchestrate a deal to move Norman Powell on draft night in order to move up and draft USC’s star center Onyeku Okongwu. They would proceed to sign Kris Dunn as a back-up point guard and run it back next season, waiting for Giannis to decline his supermax offer from the Bucks. Sounds pretty good, right? 

Lukas Weese

Sign Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka. Shore up some cap space by trading Norman Powell, so the team can have the money to sign a big-name free agent. 

Oren Weisfeld

Re-sign Fred for cheap (4×20), Re-sign Ibaka for one year and sign Tristian Thompson (somehow). Trade Powell and a pick to move up in the draft and draft a young guard…. Something like that. 

Louis Zatzman

I agree pretty well completely with Es, to be honest. Add in an under-the-radar deal with an unrestricted big, say, Aron Baynes (!) and it will be perfect. But VanVleet is the main target. As long as he re-signs, this off-season is a win. The rest is cherries.

Will the Toronto Raptors in 2020-21 be more, less, or equally competitive as the Raptors in 19-20?

Zarar Siddiqi

They’ll be more competitive assuming that Siakam and OG grow as players, and the Raptors are able to sign some three-point shooting.

Esfandiar Baraheni

This season, the Raptors showed some incredible resilience finishing with the 2nd best record in the NBA and being on-pace to finish with 60 wins, despite having their top guys sustain injuries throughout the year. All that makes me think there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to do it again. Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are going to further develop their games and be provided an even longer leash to fine-tune things. Matt Thomas and Terence Davis will be controlling the bench and Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are the engines that propel this team forward. If this roster looks anything like it did last season, they’re going to be right up there with everyone else in the East. The tricky part is that the East is catching up.

Lukas Weese

I’d say less competitive. The Eastern Conference is getting better with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving returning to the Brooklyn Nets. Milwaukee, Boston, and Miami will still be good. The Raptors will be a playoff team but won’t be as good as this season. 

Oren Weisfeld

In terms of the regular season, probably a little less. But I think they will use the regular season to build for the playoffs even more than they did this year, which is fine. They are championship contenders and it’s no longer a surprise, so they should play the regular season acting like the contenders they are next season. But ya, considering the league parity right now, I think the Raptors will once again have a chance to compete for a title and I think Siakam will have an even better season than he did (btw I don’t think the Celtics series is at all representative of him or how he plays against elite teams, which is a comparison I have seen been made. He was just off his rhythm and looked out of sorts, but I don’t think we should judge him from a weird bubble experience). 

Louis Zatzman

I think the Raptors will be about the same. It’s hard to assume positive growth, particularly given that the Raptors had about half the team notch career seasons in 2019-20. But the Raptors have Lowry, and they have Siakam. Hopefully, they will have VanVleet, as well. It will be tough for a team featuring those guys, alongside Anunoby and others, as anything less than a playoff contender.