Some other things are also true though: Ujiri and Webster bet wrong on more than a couple of players and it cost the Raptors big time. Obviously the centre pick-ups, Aron Baynes and Alex Len, were a mistake. It’s clear that keeping Chris Boucher around was a good idea as he’s blossomed into a unique presence on the court, but also: he’ll never be a true centre in the NBA. Meanwhile, the downcard choices on the roster were mostly off — Matt Thomas didn’t work out, Terence Davis was a mess for various reasons, and as inspiring a story as Stanley Johnson and Yuta Watanabe were for a brief moment, they’re just not able to take on a larger chunk of minutes and responsibilty for a team presumably trying to win on a nightly basis. (The jury is still out on Paul Watson.) In short, the Raptors gambled that what they had — plus a couple of additions — would be enough to compete, and they were proven at times to be almost comically incorrect.
Here’s where it gets complicated — or downright unfair. The Raptors also had to weather a totally unprecedented injury situation, with the core of their team getting seriously ill with the same virus ravaging the entire planet. If the margins for Toronto were thin in February after their rough start, they were obliterated once Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and VanVleet had to miss games because of COVID-19 — and not because of the league’s health and safety protocols but because they had actually gotten the virus. Factor in their much-needed rest and comeback time, along with the conditioning issues that come with having a respiratory system knocked out for a couple of weeks, and it makes for a shorter runway for the Raptors to get back on track. In fact, it makes that runway suddenly seem much less important overall.
Now it’s not hard to point this out, but it’s clear that some combination of the losing, the pandemic, and the temporary re-location to Tampa has totally crushed the Raptors, each issue feeding into the next in an unfortunate loop of misery. The situation got bad enough in March — a 31-day period that saw the Raptors win exactly one game — that the inspiring story at last week’s NBA trade deadline was Toronto’s decision just to keep Lowry, come what may. It allowed us all a reprieve, a chance to enjoy the Raptors’ leader for a few more games while even imagining a near future where the Raptors rally together for this season. But the other trade the team made, moving Lowry’s long-time teammate Norman Powell for Gary Trent Jr. (and Rodney Hood), was the kind of canny move a team makes when they know things have already fallen apart. Trent Jr. is a solid young player with upside, but Powell was the best player in that trade.
As it happens now, Lowry is out for a week to ten days with a legitimate foot issue. The Raptors are still putting Baynes in the starting lineup. It does not look like any buyout candidate players will be joining the roster. Hell, Toronto has even been quiet on the 10-day contract market too, watching as Raptors 905 standout Alize Johnson signed with the Nets, while quietly letting centre Henry Ellenson’s 10-day deal expire. As VanVleet pointed out after last night’s loss, it’s as if he, OG, and Pascal are hitting the same wall at the same time in every game. And it feels like we’re all — management and the fanbase — slamming into that wall along with them. To add to the sense of cruel injustice: because of their re-location to Tampa, the Raptors and their fans aren’t even in the same building to help each other out. They can’t fire us up with some superlative play, and we can’t cheer them on to greater heights. In all, it just feels like there isn’t any real way to get over the hump this time.
This is all quite understandable, yet that emotional absence is the last point here that should concern. Can the Raptors bounce back for next year, assuming they’re reinstalled in Toronto for the 2021-22 season? A player like Lowry, who may not even be around by then, has been through the ups and downs of the NBA. But what of the team’s core, a squad of players who joined and developed along with a veteran team already operating at a high level? As has been pointed out, this young Raptors core had the pride of being part of a championship squad in 2019, and could hang their hat on an astounding and hard fought 2020 title defense. Now that’s all up in the air, and it looks very likely Toronto will ride out the final 24 games of this season in a state of dislocated despair. That takes a mental toll.
Despite the continued success of the 905, the NBA Raptors have really struggled with depth this year. Some of that is entirely situational and understandable. Show me the team that won’t struggle down three starters and five players overall for an extended period. At the same time, one of the disappointments of that stretch was that nobody, save for maybe Paul Watson Jr., really stepped up into the opportunity. As a player development system, how do you evaluate that lack of NBA depth success? Does the NBA preparation process need to be revisited?
Yeah, that’s a good question. And it’s a tough question. It’s definitely something to evaluate. I probably would say in any other scenario, you’re maybe losing one guy and you’re inserting one piece of the bench in with other starters. I think it’s much easier to blend in and to be ready, inserting yourself into maybe a starter’s position because that starter is out. But yet when you lose three starters, five of your top eight, I guess you could say, it’s really tough to just insert everyone in there together and expect it to all work. It’s just the climate of the world that we’re in and the situation that we were dealt with. That’s a really tough question, Blake.
Potential Buyout Candidates
(These players’ situation makes them a buyout candidate, but there’s no guarantee that teams would buy them out.)
Age: 28 years old (29)
Tape: Height — 6’7.5” / Wingspan — 7’1”
Draft Year: 2014 Undrafted
Given how they pushed the reset button at the trade deadline, it’s a bit surprising that Birch is still with the Orlando Magic. He turns 29 this year, but his defense, physicality, and mobility should be enough for a look this season to see if he fits the system. He is also someone that’s not going to command a lot of money in the market, so his range should be somewhere between the minimum and what he’s making right now.
Age: 26 (27)
Tape: Height — 6’10” / Wingspan — 7’1.5”
Draft Year: 2015 Round 2 35th pick
Willy Hernangomez hasn’t been playing much for the New Orleans Pelicans, with their stacked frontcourt. He’s turning 27 this year, and his combination of size, mobility, and IQ makes him a good fit on both ends of the court. Sometimes he shows flashes of Marc Gasol’s vision, but sometimes there’s a bit of bad Alex Len or Enes Kanter in his game. Perhaps he’s a version of Alex Len with a better IQ on both ends of the court.
The other factor, which goes to roster construction and has to fall at the feet of president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster, is that the Raptors don’t have the depth to withstand too much. None of the team’s backups has provided consistent play the entire season and none can really be counted on.
It’s not as big an issue when the top players are playing at their best. When they aren’t, the fact no one has stepped up in an enhanced role is crippling to the team’s chances.
There are other issues at play, obviously. Scant production from the centre position, a teamwide inability to rebound consistently and a few bad breaks here and there are contributing factors. The players and coaches know it, but they also know there’s no pity coming from any opponent and words are really empty right now.
Despite a 1-13 March, they still see themselves as possible playoff participants — and being just two games out of the play-in process with a full third of the regular season to go is not at all an insurmountable mountain.
And talk is cheap.
“I think we’ve been through our frustration period,” Nurse said. “We’ve got to try to do better with that.
“I think the quickest way to get out of your individual lack of confidence is, do everything your team’s asking you to do. Really focus in on the game plan, doing little things, doing whatever.”
It’s never a good sign when you’re outrebounded 14 games in a row, a deficiency that allows opponents to feast on second-chance opportunities.
Aron Baynes has gone from a guy who appeared to be a serviceable big to someone who provides very little. He even got teed up in Oklahoma City.
One of these days, the Raptors must take a page from the Thunder and simply showcase their young group.
OKC has shut down veteran Al Horford and the day is growing closer when the Raptors will have to make a similar decision on Kyle Lowry, whose foot woes will sideline him for at least one week.
By the time he’s ready to return, the Raptors might be deeper in the muck.
There’s even an argument to be made that VanVleet’s minutes should be cut back.
Pascal Siakam basically disappeared in Wednesday’s second half.
Gary Trent Jr. came out aggressively and confidently against the Thunder, scoring 10 first-quarter points en route to a 20-point half. He ended the night by posting a career-high 31. More sets were being drawn up for Trent and more awaits as he settles into his role with the team.
Rookie Malachi Flynn needs to be playing more, ideally in a backcourt with Trent. Flynn has played in eight straight games, his longest stretch of the season. On Wednesday night, he was on the floor for 19 minutes and 32 seconds, the most he’s played. There’s no reason why his minutes shouldn’t be increased.
The Raptors find themselves in a very delicate stage. They haven’t raised the white flag the way OKC has, but there are plenty of red flags surrounding them that aren’t going away anytime soon. Truth be told, these red flags have been obvious for a while.
Toronto isn’t big, has no depth, can’t sustain its level of play and time is beginning to run out, if it hasn’t already. Even if the Raptors do make some kind of late-season run, only the most delusional believes this unit can actually make any noise in the post-season.