It’s been a tumultuous year for the Toronto Raptors, to say the least.
For one reason or another, it just hasn’t come together for the Raptors for long enough stretches this year.
Between injuries, health and safety protocols, navigating large roster turnover, being displaced from their home city and just about every other conceivable roadblock, the Raptors have had a tough go of it this year. The result is the Raptors sitting at 17-22, last in their division and 11th in the Eastern conference – just outside of a play-in tournament spot.
Nick Nurse finally found his ideal starting five of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam, but he has only been able to start that unit a grand total of two games.
It’s easy to look at these frustrating aspects in a vacuum and think the Raptors have wasted this season away. It is unlikely they are good enough to win the championship and yet they are not quite bad enough to find themselves at the bottom of the standings, vying for the best lottery odds.
Still, despite all of this, this has not been a waste of a season. This year was always slated to be an evaluation year, serving to transition from the championship roster and attempting to find a vision for what the next Raptors era will look like.
The Raptors built this roster on the idea of flexibility, that they could go in any direction they choose to depending on how the team performs. If they performed above expectations, they had the contracts to push their chips in and make a move. If they underwhelmed, they would still have all their future draft picks and cap space for the off-season. Either way, the Raptors would allow their young players to play through growing pains and develop their identity.
Even if it hasn’t directly translated to wins, the Raptors have gotten closer to figuring out who they want to be and have taken clear steps forward. There were no real expectations for this year, as the season was truly capable of going in any direction. There are no pressures to win a championship like years past, the expectation is simply to play and learn, regardless of wins or losses.
Still, despite the struggles, lots of positives have come out of this season:
The core has taken steps forward
One of the biggest questions coming into this season was whether or not the Raptors’ big-money core of VanVleet, Anunoby, and Siakam would continue to take steps forward as they became focal points of the team’s development. Each of them have taken strides forward in a different way and this is critical to shaping the Raptors’ future which has been a pleasant development of this season.
Despite early-season struggles, Siakam has turned it around and is showing tremendous improvement in his court vision and playmaking ability.
VanVleet has gone from solid starter to just missing out on his first All-Star bid, and is sure to make an All-Defensive team this season.
Anunoby has continued to evolve his offensive game and become a two-way player, upping his shooting numbers and converting more drives thanks to improved coordination and handles.
Powell is making a serious case to be a permanent starter into next year and beyond with his emergence since mid-January.
Add to the fact that Chris Boucher has emerged as a key contributor off the bench, solidifying himself in the discussion for Sixth Man of the Year.
Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris just began their first year of the Raptors’ development program and their progress in the G League already bodes well going forward.
Many of the Raptors’ struggles this season have stemmed from a lack of depth, but the good news is their foundational pieces continue to find ways to improve. There is a good chance the roster will once again look very different next year, but with building blocks in place, the Raptors will have the opportunity to build around those core players however they choose.
With all their draft picks and lots of cap space at their disposal, these guys are proving there is something worth building around once everyone is healthy and playing together. This alone makes this season worth it and should serve as a source of optimism for Raptor fans.
Nick Nurse has figured out a new identity
Another great thing to come out of this season is that Nurse has figured out a way for the new era of Raptors to play to be successful.
Compared to previous years, the Raptors are shooting three’s a lot more and playing with pace. When the right lineups have been available for the team, this has been a very successful approach and led to wins for the Raptors.
When fully healthy, the Raptors have adjusted their lineups to play small, running Siakam or Boucher at centre. Nurse’s strategy has been clear: put capable shooters on the floor and use strong on-ball defence to force turnovers and leak out in transition the other way.
When the Raptors have played this way, they have been an incredibly difficult team to stop. Unfortunately, due to players coming in and out of the lineup, they have not been able to play the style they want.
However, by placing an emphasis on the transition game as they have the last couple of years, Nurse has found a formula for this new core’s success and by building the right team and surrounding them with the necessary depth, there is room for improvement. It hasn’t looked pretty all the time, but the process has moved forward in this regard.
There’s Still Much More to Come
Perhaps the most important point of all as to why this has not been a wasted season is that the season is not even close to over.
The trade deadline is still a little over a week away and the Eastern Conference is so tied up that the Raptors can end up almost anywhere in the standings still. The Raptors, by all accounts, have not decided whether they’ll go for the playoffs or turn to build for the future yet. Whether the story is that they fought through adversity to make the postseason, or have set themselves up nicely for the future by laying the foundation, it has not been written yet.
Therefore, how can we judge them when the most critical junctures to define the season have yet to take place? Without affording them the opportunity to see their plan through, whatever it may be, it would be unfair to say they wasted the season without actually playing out the important components of it.
A lot can change quickly in the NBA, and the Raptors’ vision will become more clear in a week, wherever they are in the standings ahead of the trade deadline. Granted, they will be faced with some tough decisions at the deadline.
Despite all the challenges this season, it is important to appreciate the little things and focus on the bigger picture when evaluating this season. With tempered expectations and an understanding that this season is more about the process than it is wins and losses, it becomes easier to see that this season hasn’t been lost at all. In fact, amidst all the chaos, the Raptors have actually found quite a bit. To state that they have gained absolutely nothing from this year would be disingenuous at best.
There’s no telling what the future holds, but at the very least, the Raptors continue to move in the right direction. The results of the development from this season will be judged years down the line, but fans should continue to trust the process and know that everything is going to be okay, one way or another.