When I watched Mad Max: Fury Road in theaters it didn’t occur to me to breathe for the first several minutes of the movie. I’m sure oxygen did enter my bloodstream at points, but the pace of the thing hammered me and kept hammering me until my lungs gave way, and I eventually let out an audible gasp, not because of any individual moment, but for the whole spectacle and because I needed air, besides. That’s one of the benefits of gonzo filmmaking, but so too is it a pitfall. Two hours later, and it was less enjoyable and more uncomfortable. An unrecognized and irresistible thrum. Go too long and the rush will dull.
That’s what this NBA season did to the Toronto Raptors. Covid and misery took their toll on the team. The end was boring despite and then because of the endless cavalcade of basketball,
“At this point, we’re just counting the minutes,” said Fred VanVleet of the last few weeks. “There’s nothing else for us to do. It’s a final game, and I think we all kinda want it behind us. It’s kinda like a blowout game. You know when you get blown out by 30, and the fourth quarter’s taking all day, there’s media timeouts, some dumb coach calls a timeout and draws up a play with 30 seconds left, that’s what these last few weeks have felt like.”
That’s also what it’s felt like covering the Raptors with the playoffs already a flickered shadow and the team’s draft lottery placement fixed in stone. The Raptors were too good to tank for a real shot at the first overall pick and too bad to win basketball games. Instead we’re left watching the incremental improvement of the players, overhyping solid play, and counting down the minutes, just like the Raptors themselves. Fandom — an already flabby and undefined thing — can stretch and wane in such circumstances. There’s no shame for those who couldn’t bring themselves to watch lineups with Aron Baynes, Freddie Gillespie, and Khem Birch together.
So what if anything are we supposed to take away from a season that ended like that?
For one, the Raptors are actually pretty damn good. In 2019-20, the core four of the Raptors was Kyle Lowry, VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam. When the four played together, the Raptors enjoyed a net rating of 7.9. In 2020-21, the core four of Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby, and Siakam enjoyed a net rating of 7.9. That alone bodes well for Toronto’s future, regardless of the clothesline-laundry-left-in-the-rain that was this season.
“I think that that group has had a lot of good time together, spanning over a few years,” said Nick Nurse of that net rating paradox. “I think we all know we’re not a million miles away here, even though finishing where we finished it feels like, ‘Oh my God, how are we gonna…’ Even with half our roster here late in the year, it felt like we were giving some of the best teams in the league all they wanted, and they were trying. They weren’t just coasting. They were trying. We were right there in a lot of those games. I think that’s a good indication as well that we’re OK. Shore up a few places, hopefully get a little help here next year and get ready to rock and roll.”
VanVleet grew as a passer and a pull-up shooter, and he slowly expanded his game into the midrange to compensate for his finishing woes. He had a top-15 season based on FiveThirtyEight’s per-possessions metric. Anunoby grew in every area of the game. Lowry inevitably notched the high-water mark. Siakam, counter to most understandings of his season, improved in most areas of the offensive end outside of distance shooting. The four of them are solid.
Yet the Raptors played twice as many minutes without any of the core four this season versus last; furthermore, they lost those minutes this year and won them last year. That explains both why Toronto is ready to rock and roll next season and why they were burned out shells this season past.
The takeaway there has to be that Toronto needs better players alongside their stars. That was the purpose of acquiring Khem Birch, Freddie Gillespie, and Gary Trent Jr. That’s why Toronto gave so many minutes to Malachi Flynn, Jalen Harris, and Yuta Watanabe to end the year. The team is searching to see who fits alongside the core four, trying to find who can fill the roles required by the Raptors’ system. And some of those guys are keepers. Birch could be supplanted as the starter in Toronto’s offseason, but if he returns as Toronto’s fifth starter, the Raptors would be positioned to return to their former glory.
That presumptive starting lineup finished the season with a net rating of 23.1. They obviously had a ridiculously small sample size, but they scored with ease in the halfcourt, forced opponents into tough shots and turnovers, and seemed like they’d played together for a million years and a day. Birch fit.
“It was kind of nerve-racking,” said Birch of playing alongside Toronto’s core four. “Those are championship-level players and I’ve never been in that kind of situation. So I was kind of nervous, but at the same time it kind of put the pressure off me because those guys are great players and the focus is on those guys, and I’m an unselfish player. So I know I can get my points but I can also just play my role, and it was fun playing with those guys.”
Trent Jr. looks like a fiery scorer, much like Chris Boucher. Paul Watson Jr. had his moments, and his jumper looks fantastic. Flynn looks ready to be a bench guard. Harris is a smooth scorer. The list goes on and on when it comes to the positives, at least the forward-looking ones. But for that group to thrive, they need the main guys as a foundation. Health and availability has to come first.
The observant among us probably knew all that before the season began. The core four were the core four. The team wasn’t deep, but it had role players, and they needed the right situations in order to contribute positively. That shouldn’t be a new lesson.
What does that make this season? A waste? A lost year? I don’t mean for the players, but for us as viewers. Probably something in between. We had some spectacular moments, including an incredible game and broadcast for Lowry’s last night that was actually Norman Powell’s last night. Trent Jr. hit a buzzer-beating game winner. The Raptors pulverized real championship contenders in the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks. VanVleet set the franchise single-game point record. No season is ever a waste, not fully, and even Toronto’s miserable year had highs.
As much as the future can appear optimistic, there are unknowns on the horizon. Lowry may return to Toronto, but his future as a Raptor has never been murkier (other than during his “last” game against the Denver Nuggets). Masai Ujiri may even leave the franchise he built into respectability, although recent signs point to his return. Toronto will have a lottery pick for the first time since 2016, although there’s a big difference in future outlook between rising in the draft and picking at seven or even lower. Those unknowns, more than anything, offer fun. Too much of the same can be more dystopia than utopia. We watch for the unknowns.
Yet this season, for all its downs and ups and downs, ended up numbing more than thrilling, proved to be a source of stress rather than one of enjoyment. The Raptors were forever distant, a thousand miles away, booed on their home court. That’s not the fault of the Raptors, or of Tampa Bay, or of any individual. But added all together, the downs are what make watching a basketball season, something meant to be a fun way to spend an evening, into a chore. The games that came so quickly blended into mush. Leisure thickened into loneliness. Somewhere down the Tampa road we forgot to breathe, and the rush of Raptors basketball dulled. One takeaway, aside from optimism for the next season, or even criticism for this one, has to be that it sucks that something you love can turn limp and lame and flop its way across the finish line.
But the next time I watched Mad Max I was ready. I didn’t let the wave of the movie push me beneath the surface. It was fun. There’s always another watch, if you want it, just like there’s always another Raptors season. After this one, though, it’s okay if you feel like you need the offseason.