The Toronto Raptors look to their past to bridge the gap to a new era

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The Toronto Raptors spent the 2020-21 NBA season 1,300 miles away from home. As a result, their time in Tampa Bay was mostly forgettable. Following a trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals in the bubble, another extended stay in Florida didn’t seem like a bad choice. But from the start, things seemed off. 

A combination of injuries and illness stripped away any real chance this core group — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam — had to continue their recent postseason success. 

As a result of the team’s sudden turn of fate,  the Raptors found themselves at a crossroads. There seemed to be two distinct paths this team could take. 

Re-sign Lowry and run it back or rebuild and start a new era of Raptors basketball. Either way, the time to pick a path was upon them. The first step came on July 29. 

The Raptors selected Scottie Barnes, the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. 

Rather than retool or rebuild, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster split the difference and opted to reload. They kept their non-Lowry stars, retained young pieces in Gary Trent Jr. and Khem Birch, and will bring back a core of the roster similar to that of the past few seasons. The same in-between path so often derided in the NBA resulted in a championship in 2019.

In the past, Ujiri and Webster unearthed gems like Anunoby and Siakam with late first-round picks. The successful development of those two versatile wings has been crucial to Toronto’s transition into a consistent title threat in recent seasons. 

Adding Barnes to that duo shows the blueprint to the Raptors’ future. 

“As we all see and we all know, the positionless-ness of the NBA now (is king)…from a positional standpoint, we don’t see it as any overlap, we see it as let’s have all five guys look like him and OG and Pascal,” Webster said.

This idea of a roster full of do-it-all wings is something head coach Nick Nurse is on board with too: “He’s a multi-faceted, multi-positional, two-way player,” Nurse said.

Nurse has spearheaded Toronto’s growth on defense.

Since joining the Raptors as an assistant in 2013, the team has finished inside the top 10 in defensive rating five times, including finishing second overall in his first three seasons as head coach. 

Toronto’s defense is predicated on intermittent randomness and change of tactics, but also the ability to force offenders away from the arc and towards the rim. To do that and not give up layup after layup requires outrageously athletic defenders. The team relies heavily on athleticism, length, and speed. Barnes has all three in spades. 

The rookie enters the NBA as a ready-made defensive weapon. From high school to FIBA tournaments to a year under defense-first head coach, Leonard Hamilton, at Florida State, Barnes has gotten the experience and teaching necessary to go toe-to-toe with anyone defensively. 

Under Nurse — the man who famously pulled out a box-and-one defense in the NBA Finals — he will be free to wreak havoc all over the floor.

Most teams are in a constant search for astute defenders that can guard multiple positions well. The Raptors now have three: Barnes, Anunoby, and Siakam. 

And the team is going to count on them to do a lot of the heavy lifting now that Lowry has chosen the South over the North. Lowry’s departure changes the texture of the team. His decision to take his talents to South Beach marks the end of the most successful era in Raptors history. 

The memories are endless. For someone previously miscast as a postseason disappointment, Lowry sure had his fair share of all-time Raptors moments in the playoffs. 

Game 5 against the Brooklyn Nets in 2014, when Lowry’s scoring held off the hard-charging Nets Game 7 versus the Miami Heat in 2016, Lowry dropped 35 points to blow out the team that is now his own. Game 4 in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers, when Lowry outdueled LeBron James in the fourth quarter to tie the series 2-2. Last but not least, the entire 2019 run will always be his legacy. 

Losing Lowry is a tough pill to swallow. He’s been the team’s heart and soul since July 2012. His nine seasons in Toronto are unmatched. He leaves as the franchise’s all-time leader in playoff wins, three-pointers made, assists, and steals. 

But it was more than just stats with Lowry. He was everything the team needed him to be. 

Toronto’s Mayor John Tory released a statement on Monday in which he said, “Kyle Lowry is the Greatest Raptor of All-Time. Everyone knows that.”

When discussing Barnes during his introductory press conference, it sounded at times like Nurse was describing Lowry, “He has a high-energy type of personality,” Nurse said, “He is a great communicator and has a passion for winning.”

Fans have already taken a liking to the rookie. They documented and followed his first few days across the border more closely than a visit from the Royal Family. 

There’s no way Barnes can fill Lowry’s shoes in one season, and I’m sure Nurse isn’t expecting anything close to that from him. As we saw with Siakam and Anunoby before him, Barnes will require patience before becoming a fully developed version of himself. 

Still, his play will be scrutinized next season as all eyes will be focused on the team’s first lottery pick since 2016. Of course, that’s true of all lottery picks, but all the more so because his entrance coincides with Lowry’s departure.

Throughout franchise history, the fourth overall pick has brought significant returns. 

In 1998 they selected Antwan Jamison fourth and swapped him for Vince Carter in a draft-night deal. Carter would spark a fire that still burns brightly in the bellies of Canadian basketball players. In 2003 they selected Chris Bosh at four. Like Carter, Bosh was a multi-All-Star selection and helped Toronto to a couple of postseason berths. 

The team hopes Barnes will continue the trend and become a Hall of Fame-caliber player. But, for Barnes, the idea of making the Hall of Fame is selling himself short.

“I feel I can be the greatest player in the league,” he said during his post-draft interview. 

He’s not only ready for the pressure that comes with being a lottery pick; he’s also going to apply tons of it on the court. 

This off-season is one of changes for the franchise. Ujiri will reshape Toronto’s roster. He just cemented his status as the driver of the Raptors train for the foreseeable future, but his job is far from done.

After choosing not to undergo an in-season fire sale at the trade deadline last year, the plan for the future has come into focus. Stay the course, develop, keep the veterans as thru-lines from the previous era to the next one, and bide your time when opportunity strikes. The same plan from 2016-2018 saw Toronto finally swing for the fences with Kawhi Leonard.

The names may be different, but the hope is that the DNA of this franchise remains the same. 

Versatility and defense are the calling cards of the Raptors. Ujiri and Webster are searching for players with both. Nurse is expecting them on the floor. With their most recent move, the team is doubling down on it. 

The team will not be the same; Lowry’s departure slashed away the head of the snake. 

However, the hope is the Raptors have found the basketball equivalent to a hydra. Remove a Lowry, and in his place, an Anunoby, Barnes, and Siakam shall grow. 

2 Comments

  1. […] Tall, long, athletic, and versatile wings are heralded by many as the most valuable players in the modern NBA. If guys like Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and now Scottie Barnes all fit the archetype of the league’s preeminent asset, then why not deploy all three of them at once? Immediately after drafting Barnes, Bobby Webster told the Canadian media that he wants “all five guys [to look like] OG and Pascal.” […]

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