The following is part of Raptors Republic’s pieces reviewing the seasons for the Toronto Raptors. You can find all the pieces in the series here.
Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with a maxim that applies to far, far more situations than it should: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The NBA is not one of those situations. In fact, the reverse is more applicable to the Toronto Raptors of 2021-22. The successes and roles of players like Pascal Siakam or Scottie Barnes were as different as could be, defined by disparities in style and form, expectations and fulfilments. Both wonderful in their unique ways.
Toronto’s 2021-22 season may have been close to perfect, but not every component of the team exceeded expectations. In fact, some disappointed, and they did so in somewhat similar ways. Sorry Tolstoy.
Khem Birch has long been defined by his solidity. The center is a brick wall of muscle, and he’s shockingly mobile and springy for his enormous strength. That is, when he’s healthy. Unfortunately, we never got to see Birch at his best during 2021-22. He started 28 games for the Raptors, but he averaged fewer than half as many points as he did upon joining the squad last season. He didn’t make a single triple and saw his efficiency plummet, as Birch began to rely almost exclusively on his push shot from range — extremely difficult at the best of times, and Birch is far from automatic there.
There were some highs, as Birch recorded two blocks and four steals in a win over the Sacramento Kings, anchoring a staunch defense. He had a four-assist game against the Chicago Bulls, fitting in as a hub of connecting passes and quick decisions. But ultimately, Birch’s minutes dwindled as his defense slipped — he had the worst defensive on/offs on the team among rotation players — and his offensive output melted to practically nil beyond solid screen setting. Injury sapped whom I thought would be Toronto’s starting center throughout the year. He was unable to contribute positively in the playoffs.
Malachi Flynn similarly saw his minutes shrink. He scored 26 and then 27 points to end the 2020-21 season, but that spark failed to light a fire in 2021-22. He didn’t play outside of garbage time until the eighth game of the season, and he made one shot in that game. He simply never was able to seize a role. He played 20 or more minutes only nine times in the season. His statistical output shrunk in every way from his rookie season to his sophomore year, barring slight bumps in efficiency — although he remained extremely inefficient.
While injury sunk Birch, Flynn seems to be miscast. He’s a pick-and-roll player, and the Raptors have never given him an opportunity to thrive in his element. Instead, he’s been asked to cut off ball, hit spot-up jumpers, and make rapid decisions. Those are his weaknesses, and it’s no wonder he’s never seized a role. The Raptors didn’t want a backup point guard; they wanted one more wing with size and shooting chops. That’s not who Flynn is, and he never was able to improve in the right areas.
That might have been who Isaac Bonga could become, but he similarly never had an opportunity. He played in only 15 games for the Raptors, and though he had the size and ability to play solid defense, his inability to offer enough elsewhere meant he never really saw the court. He shot 1-for-4 from deep all season and 2-for-9 from 2-point range. He played outside of garbage time in three games and totaled six points in them.
To be sure, Bonga had an end-of-the-bench role, and no reasonable observer expected him to play a significant role entering the season. But his ship was sunk before it ever had a chance to launch. His season with Toronto constituted the worst of his four-year career.
David Johnson simply never had a chance at the NBA level, playing in two games for a grand total of two minutes. He missed the only shot he took, a triple. For a rookie billed as a smooth scorer, he really didn’t earn more minutes with the Raptors, either; he shot below 40 percent from the field and below 30 percent from deep with the Raptors 905. His playoff games were even worse.
The similarity of course between all these players is that for one reason or another, none were put in positions to thrive by the Raptors. That’s not the fault of the team or the coach; the team was maximized beyond belief in its winning 48 games. The right players were given the opportunities — and the team was far worse with any of the four above players on the court than on the bench. And maximizing a team means some players fell through the cracks. That’s life in the NBA, and it made for a few players with unhappy seasons. Unfortunately for the Raptors and for Tolstoy, those disappointments bore all too much resemblance to one other.