After a poor start to the season the Raptors sit 13th in the Eastern Conference but only 1.5 games out of a playoff spot. Given how close many of their games have been, the statistics seem to show the Raptors are a better team than what their record states. So the question arises, who really are the 2020-2021 Raptors?
Let's go back to the game against the Golden State Warriors on January 10th. The Raptors were down by one with 4.3 seconds left in the 4th quarter, the ball fell to Pascal Siakam who put up a turn around jump shot but unfortunately couldn’t get it to fall.
If this sounds familiar it’s because almost the exact same thing happened to the Raptors the following night against Portland. To make matters worse this time the Raptors had blown a 17-point lead and once again found themselves trailing in the 4th quarter. With 9.3 seconds left, the ball was again in Pascal’s hands who had just achieved his first career triple double. Siakam put up a decent looking jumper but yet again could not get his shot to fall.
After the game against Portland the Raptors were 2-8 and had one of the worst records in the Eastern Conference. This was the 6th time the Raptors headed into the last minutes of the game in a one-possession situation, and in that scenario they were 0-6. In 5 of their 8 losses this season the Raptors have held double digit leads at one point in the game, to put that into perspective last season the Raptors were 48-4 when leading by 10 or more.
But the main sentiment all the major sports media outlets seemed to be echoing was that the Raptors are better than what their record shows and cooler heads will prevail.
What happened? The Raptors went on a 3 game winning streak beating Charlotte twice and Dallas once and things seemed to be on the up. That came to a screeching halt on Wednesday after the Miami Heat who didn’t even have Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro walloped the Raptors. The 4th quarter was painful to watch as the Raptors went on a 6-minute stretch of not scoring a point and for some reason found it impossible to break the Heat’s 3-2 zone defence.
So now with a record of 5-9 the question many Raptors fans are asking is where do we go from here?
The case for tanking
The five wins Toronto has had this season have come against the Knicks, Kings, Mavericks, and Hornets twice, not the fiercest competition to say the least.
Mind you the win against the Kings included the Raptors allowing them to score 43 points in the first quarter. Letting any team score 43 points in a quarter isn’t good, but the KINGS!!! Damn.
The losses of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol really sucked in the offseason and their absences have shown, especially on the defensive end. The Raptors have gone from being one of the elite defensive teams in the NBA to now being 19th in defensive efficiency. As for their “replacements” Aron Baynes has been shooting an abysmal 15.8 percent from three and has been one of the least effective players in the league so far, while Alex Len was recently waived (insert slow clap here).
This team is clearly flawed defensively, has been average on offence and things don’t look like they’re getting better. So why not tank and try and get a young star like Cade Cunningham? Honestly it doesn’t seem that far fetched.
Even if they weren’t able to pick Cunningham, this year’s draft class is pretty stacked. Evan Mobley, Jonathan Kuminga, Jalen Suggs and Jalen Green are just a few of the top prospects projected to go this year and any of them would likely be welcome additions to the Raptors.
Well its never really that easy is it? Not only have the NBA’s new tanking rules made it more difficult to acquire a top pick, let’s not forget that the Raptors play in the East.
Even with additions that Brooklyn has made the East still includes the Pistons, Wizards, Bulls, Hornets, Knicks and Cavaliers. None of these teams (aside from Brooklyn) are really great and it’s likely all or most of them will be competing for a top draft pick rather than an NBA title.
Also, with the NBA adding the playoff play-in tournament this year, the Raptors would have to be incredibly bad to assure themselves great odds in this year’s draft lottery.
There’s also the issue of the sheer competitiveness of this team. Nick Nurse, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are incredibly competitive and are winners. Breaking it to them that this team’s future is tanking could be difficult and would likely lead to Lowry’s future not ending in Toronto.
Don’t get me wrong I’m pretty sure every Raptors fan would love to see Kyle retire as a Raptor. At the same time, wouldn’t it be better for him to spend his final seasons competing for championship on another team rather than wasting away on a poor Raptors squad?
But with the Giannis 2021 sweepstakes over it could be more likely that the Raptors find their new number one guy through the draft rather than free agency.
The issues of being mediocre
Masai Ujiri famously said when he took over the Raptors in 2013 that “we will not be trapped in the middle,” and since then the Raptors have gone 373-187 culminating with the championship in 2019.
In the NBA, being mediocre or middle of the pack is arguably the worst position a team could be in. The team that wins the title is usually the best team in the league and unlike some other sports there aren’t really major upsets specifically in the finals. The past five NBA champions have been the Lakers, Raptors, Warriors twice, and the Cavs. All of these teams were either the best or one of best teams in the league during the season they won.
Finishing middle of the pack around the 8th seed or what people like to call the “limbo state” doesn’t really do a team any favours. You’re never really good enough to compete in the playoffs and you’re also not bad enough to increase your draft lottery odds to get a top pick.
Even if the Raptors start playing amazing basketball all of a sudden, given the competition in East can they really finish any higher than the 5th seed?
Now finishing around 5th in the East doesn’t sound bad on paper but let me point your attention to the Orlando Magic.
The Magic have finished 7th and 8th in the past two seasons and were bounced out of the first round of the playoffs in both seasons. They haven’t made any noise in the playoffs, don’t have much cap space and haven’t really had much luck in the draft. Their roster is solid but nowhere near good enough to win a title but also too good to be bottom of the East and in the draft lottery. Case in point the “Limbo State”.
It’s clear the Raptors most glaring issue at the moment is they need a better center to help out Chris Boucher. But how much better would that really make them?
Let’s say for arguments sake the Raptors somehow land Andre Drummond (a name whose been thrown around recently) without giving up a ton.
Could this team plus Drummond really beat some of the top dogs in the East like the Nets and Bucks in the playoffs? I’m not so sure.
Lack of identity
The biggest issue the Raptors have had thus far is a lack of identity; they don’t seem to know who they really are or what they’re fighting for.
Last season there was a clear objective to defend their title despite losing Kawhi Leonard, and in front of one of best crowds in the NBA they did so admirably. Siakam was out to prove he deserved his max deal, VanVleet was balling out on a contract year and Nick Nurse was a star coach establishing himself as one of the best.
What is the goal this season? They didn’t get solid reinforcements in the offseason, don’t seem to have any tangible goals set, and after being temporarily relocated to Tampa bay, what are the Raptors really striving for?
The Toronto Raptors seem to have turned into the Tampa Bay Raptors. An imposter team that blows double digit leads in the fourth quarter, plays poorly on defence and struggles to score with any consistency on offence.
Before any big moves are made the Raptors need to establish an identity for themselves this season. Do they still believe they can compete with the best in the East if they get some solid additions through trades? Or is it time for them to accept that they are no longer one of the best teams in the league, and that it’s time for a rebuild?
Now it isn’t all doom and gloom for the Raptors. It’s still early and the Raptors have plenty of time to turn this around. They’re still adjusting to playing in Tampa and Chris Boucher has been a great silver lining so far. Masai is still at the helm and even though they aren’t playing great right now the Raptors have 3 key things that bad teams need to succeed in the future: 1. Cap space 2. Draft picks 3. A solid young core.
Who knows? A Kawhi return next off-season isn’t completely off the table, crazier things have happened we just saw James Harden join Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
One thing I do know for certain is that a clear direction for this team is necessary, I’d much rather see the Raptors be horrible and try and get a top draft pick rather being stuck in NBA purgatory like several other mediocre teams in the league.