Top 5 NBA teams with the most player days missed due to COVID-19 protocol since All-Star weekend:
– Raptors (111)
– Celtics (83)
– Spurs (52)
– Kings (47)
– Lakers (40)
— Fansure (@fansure_sports) May 10, 2021
Aug. 2 — Free agency/start of the new league year
You know the deal by now. There is a calendar for NBA free agency, and every year it is obviously ignored with a flurry of deals right at the opening of the free-agent period. This year, the starting line is 6 p.m. ET on Aug. 2.
The free-agent moratorium period extends until Aug. 6 at 12 p.m. ET. That means only certain transactions can take place in that window — RFAs being signed to offer sheets, minimum contracts being signed — and most of the deals you hear reported won’t be made official until Aug. 6 or later. That gives the league time to lock in cap figures and teams time to line up their moves in a particular order that best suits their needs and, in the Raptors case, maximizes cap flexibility.
Lowry, Stanley Johnson and Khem Birch are all unrestricted free agents, in addition to Trent and Harris as RFAs.
Once the free agency window opens, so does trading. (Trading can also take place before or at the draft.) The amount of cash teams can send and receive in trade also refreshes at that point.
Meaningful or not, the Raptors were a demonstrably better team in Tampa this year than on the road, going 16-20 at Amalie Arena compared to 11-25 elsewhere. It was just never a real home.
No statistic can accurately measure what not having the familiarity and predictability of home cost the Raptors. While some teams such as the Knicks and Jazz had decent-sized crowds that made a good bit of noise, especially as the season wore on, it was not as if any road arena was especially intimidating.
To a person, though, the Raptors felt a toll and attributed a lot of it to the distance.
“It’s a lot harder probably on our staff members who are kind of entrenched in Toronto or the Toronto area, have many family members in school, and they’re picking up and coming,” coach Nick Nurse said. “And that’s gonna affect what we do. If you’re gonna sit here and say to them (that) they’re critical to our success, which we say often, ’cause they are, and if they’re jostled a little bit and affected by it, then that’s gonna affect (the coaches and players), too. There’s some effect. I can’t sit here and say to you it cost us at least six wins, or we played really bad in the third quarter because we just were uncomfortable, we had to get out (of Tampa for an extended road trip during) Super Bowl week.”
The move was complicated. Some found a home before the regular season began, and some stayed in a downtown hotel for a while before they found a more permanent dwelling. Bembry, for instance, said he stayed in a hotel for two months before finding a house to rent on the city’s outskirts. Pascal Siakam’s search dragged on as well. OG Anunoby said on Sunday that it took some time to figure out how to best access the facilities the Raptors had organized for them, just because everything in Toronto had become second nature to the veterans.
That was the reality for those who were able to come to Tampa. Last summer, assistant coach Jama Mahlalela stayed in Toronto when the Raptors finished the season in the bubble, as he had spent the season coaching Raptors 905 and the size of the travelling party was restricted. The Raptors had a bigger group in Tampa than they had at Disney last year, but there were exceptions.
“Within our organization, some of our IT support, some of our behind-the-scenes service people, weren’t in Tampa. So you’re connecting with them or asking them questions over email or Zoom calls or whatever it is,” Mahlalela said. “They’re missing out because the bulk of us were obviously within Tampa… I have a sense of what that felt like to not be part of the main team. You try to reach out and make sure people are doing OK and keep them as connected as you can.”
As a unit, the move inevitably divided the Raptors. On an individual level, things were often more painful.
In terms of timing, it is believed that, pre-pandemic, Ujiri’s contract ran until June 30, but since the entire NBA calendar has been pushed back by about six weeks, there is likely some flexibility on that. There is even the possibility of extending the existing deal while terms of a new one are being finalized.
But given the significance of the Raptors’ off-season — with a high lottery pick in play; franchise icon Lowry heading to free agency; and the potential to have significant cap space to use — getting the Ujiri question resolved is at the top of the agenda.
For logistical purposes, the draft is July 29 and free agency begins on Aug. 2, but a lot of groundwork is laid well in advance of those dates. The club would benefit from certainty, and after giving Ujiri the space and time he wanted, conversations about his future with the team will be starting imminently.
As of late last week, specific times and dates to meet hadn’t been worked out. But after Ujiri finishes tying up loose ends in Tampa this week he is expected to return to Toronto ready to talk, and MLSE chair Larry Tanenbaum and the rest of the ownership group will be eager to listen.
And while the ball remains in Ujiri’s court, there is good reason to give good odds, in part because Ujiri’s hardly given the impression he’s on his way out the door.
There is a sense that Ujiri’s been more forward looking and engaged in recent weeks than at times over the Raptors’ draining and irregular regular season, according to those who have had dealings with him.
Certainly general manager Bobby Webster has more than ever become the first point of contact, which hasn’t gone unnoticed around the league, and having his staff grow into their responsibilities has always been one of Ujiri’s goals. Whether that’s being a good leader empowering his staff or laying the groundwork to leave without unnecessarily disrupting the Raptors business is something that league insiders have speculated about.
But as the Raptors’ critical off-season rounds into view, Ujiri is giving the impression he plans to be in the thick of it.
“We talked about winning and winning another title with the Raptors,” said one player agent who met with him recently. “He seems like he’s in a really good place.”
He’s been more active communicating with players, both in-person and via text, according to another source.
Certainly those that have gone to battle with him want to stay the course.
“He’s been the focal point of everything that’s Toronto Raptors ever since I’ve been here. Kyle Lowry is obviously the greatest Raptor of all time, and No. 2 might be Masai,” Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet said on Sunday. “He challenges every player and he rewards most of the players when you do what he asks you to do. He paid me twice so you’ll never hear me say nothing bad about him, and obviously we’d love to have him going forward…. He’s shown no signs of anything other than commitment towards us throughout this entire year, so obviously he is a part of what we think going forward, but contracts are contracts and you gotta negotiate. We’ll see where he ends up, and hopefully he’s back with us.”
Ujiri’s work atop the Raptors is basically unimpeachable. He once dealt Greivis Vasquez, a point guard who’d go on to play 26 more NBA games, for picks that became Norman Powell and OG Anunoby. He drafted Pascal Siakam 27th overall, where hits to that degree are rare. The evolution of Fred VanVleet from undrafted free agent to NBA Finals hero is well-documented.
It’s rare to find an executive who can build a young talent base like Ujiri, but also knows when the right time to strike is, as he showed with the deal of DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard.
In 2013, New York Knicks owner James Dolan reportedly vetoed a trade with the Raptors out of fear of Ujiri — a swap that would’ve made Lowry a Knick.
Ujiri has previously been linked to openings in New York and Washington, but those have since been filled. Barring a major surprise, it’s unlikely a top basketball job opens up that is more appealing than Toronto, where negotiations were set to begin as soon as the season ended, owner Larry Tanenbaum told The Toronto Sun.
However, Ujiri could be eyeing more than basketball. His Giants of Africa program was influential in the NBA’s recently launched Basketball Africa League. He once travelled with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in an attempt to win Canada a seat on the United Nations Security Council. He has a relationship with former U.S. president Barack Obama.
Considering Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s financial might, a blank cheque should be placed in front of Ujiri—leaving him with the decision.
If he heads elsewhere, a succession plan is in place. Bobby Webster was Ujiri’s first hire in 2013 before slowly growing into general manager.
Either way, it’ll be crucial for the organization to have a chief decision-maker set in stone before Lowry reaches free agency.
2 – 72 road games and hearing “We Want Tacko”
It quickly dawned on everyone that the Raptors were not “home” in Amalie Arena. Florida was open for most of the pandemic which meant the Raptors hosted fans as early as preseason. But the majority of attendees were American fans of the visiting team, which made for very awkward moments. The Raptors had to pump in crowd noise at times to create a positive atmosphere, and still there were incidents like travelling Celtics fans chanting “We want Tacko” as the Raptors were getting pummelled, which added to the embarrassment of losing to a bitter rival.
It happened again late in the season when the Wizards killed the Raptors’ play-in hopes. It was a tight game that came down to the wire, and eventually needed overtime to decide the winner. Pascal Siakam had 44 points on the night, but missed a few key free throws late while the supposed home fans were loudly booing him. Meanwhile, when Bradley Beal was on the other end, there were loud cheers when he was icing the game.
Nick Nurse – B+
At a certain point, it became clear Nurse’s hands were tied. I don’t mean that some executive edict came down to tell him not to play his full squad and not to try and win games. I just mean Nuse seemed to realize there was no point in breaking his back for the smallest of short-term gains. Barring unforeseen disaster, he’ll be the coach in Toronto for many years to come, and sometimes the long view wins out. Nurse tried different things, rolled with the players he had as best he could, and after the fury of that disappointing start subsided, seemed to get the Raptors where they inevitably had to go. Now we just have to hope everything between him and Siakam is cool.
Although players were eager to hop on a plane and bid farewell to Florida when the season came to an end on Sunday afternoon, and many of them haven’t spoken highly of their Tampa experience, there’s obviously some results-based thinking at play. If the Raptors had overcome the adversity, as they’ve done so many times before and fully expected to again, then Tampa would probably look a lot different. Instead, it’s the place they’re naturally going to associate with a frustrating campaign.
Their Toronto homecoming will have to wait at least a little while longer, though. The organization will continue to use Tampa as a home base for most of the off-season. Makes sense considering they’re already set up there and can host pre-draft workouts, with prospects making regular trips in and out. Assuming Summer League is a go this year, they’ll spend the bulk of August in Las Vegas.
The question is, what happens after that? It’s still unclear whether the Raptors will be able to open next season in Toronto, though the organization remains optimistic.
“I’m very hopeful and I’d be very, very, very disappointed [if it doesn’t happen],” Nurse said on Monday.
Getting the green light is dependent on a number of factors, most notably how quickly Ontario’s vaccine rollout curbs the case count in the province. The Raptors will also be keeping a close eye on developing situations with the Blue Jays and Toronto FC to see if they’re cleared to play games north of the border at some point this summer.
It’s hard to project what things will look like in a month from now, let alone when the 2021-22 NBA season tips off next fall. They’ll need an answer from the government well before that. According to multiple sources, the league is unlikely to allow the Raptors to wait as long as they did last year. There’s no official deadline date in place, but it’s believed the team will need to know where its playing at least the first half of its home games by early August.
Tampa is the fallback. If it comes to that, the transition would almost certainly be smoother the second time around. Selling players on it again may be tougher, though. But that’s an absolute last resort. Even if they have to play in an empty Scotiabank Arena, as opposed to the possibility of hosting full capacity crowds in Florida, the Raptors preference is clear, and it’s a strong preference.
“You want to feel comfortable, you want to feel at home and Toronto’s that for us,” said. “So I think that we’re definitely looking forward to that. Then again, there’s a lot of things that we can’t control, but obviously our hope is definitely to be there [next season].”
Bryan Hayes, Jamie McLennan and Jonas Siegel discuss the importance of this off-season for the Raptors and the 5 major items in flux.