Last summer, after the Raptors fell to the Boston Celtics in the second round of the NBA playoffs, the team’s management said their usual post-season assessment of what had taken place would have a unique twist.
“We have to figure out what bubble basketball was,” Masai Ujiri said. It was a fair point. The league had been shut down for months by the pandemic, and then it resumed amid strict protocols at Walt Disney World, and players, coaches and staff all had different levels of comfort with the experience. What were front offices to make of the performances in that truly weird environment?
But if the end of the 2019-20 season was difficult for Raptors management to assess after the fact, it pales in comparison to — here I pause to wave my arms around frantically — all of this.
If there were teams in any major professional sports league that had seasons that were more disrupted that this one for the Raptors, it must be a very short list. The Vancouver Canucks had a terrible COVID-19 outbreak that put their season on a lengthy pause, although when the worst of it hit the team it had already largely played itself out of playoff contention. Canada’s MLS teams had to play in a Florida bubble, and then in a series of games against each other, and then had to flee the country to set up shop on the other side of the border for the remainder of their schedules last year. The Toronto Blue Jays became the Buffalo Jays, and then the Dunedin Blue Jays, soon to be Buffalo Blue Jays again. The San Antonio Spurs have had an insanely busy second half of their schedule because so many games in the first half were postponed by COVID protocols.
But none of that quite reaches the levels of the Raptors. They went from believing they were on track to play games in Toronto when the NBA season started in December to scrambling to secure a home, eventually in Tampa, and then getting the team housed there and set up with something approaching NBA-level facilities. They had an awful 2-8 start to the season, bounced back and appeared to be back on a path toward respectability, and then watched as COVID crashed like a plane on the deck of the HMCS Raptor, blowing a hole in all the work they had put in up to that point. Much of the coaching staff was lost to COVID protocols, as were regular starters Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, among other players. The team lost nine straight to fall well out of the playoff race.
By the time the Raptors had recovered and were back at full strength, or at least a full roster, it wasn’t clear that they even wanted to get back into the playoff chase. They were trade-deadline sellers, although not so desperate to do business that they would give away Kyle Lowry in a bad deal. When they ended up keeping him and looked like they might be ready for a late-season charge, they instead have given the inactive list quite a workout, putting a rotating cast of key players on there game after game in a not-particularly-subtle attempt to avoid something like an unforeseen win streak that would hurt their draft lottery odds.
And so, a team that under Ujiri has always outperformed its pre-season expectations in the regular season will for the first time do the opposite. But what did any of it mean? Under normal circumstances, the Raptors’ 27-41 record would be cause for serious introspection, if not panic. No team wants to be stuck in the zone that has the salary sheet of a contender but the results of a rebuild. But the front office can’t hang too much meaning on the recent string of losses when those losses are at least partly by design. With the season in the balance on Thursday night against Washington, Lowry and Anunoby did not play in what became an overtime loss. On Saturday against Memphis, VanVleet joined those two on the bench for another loss. Raptors management has for weeks now been sending similar lineups out to do battle, gunfights in which they are sometimes armed with plastic spoons.
It all makes the last half of the season close to useless from an assessment standpoint. What matters isn’t the end result, since the team put itself on this path knowing that the draft lottery was the likeliest outcome, but what the front office thinks this team can do in a season that doesn’t involve a wholesale relocation, a respiratory-illness outbreak and a roster that was poorly constructed from the start. How Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster will be able to answer that question confidently is a mystery. Is the core of Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby enough to be a middle-seed playoff team in the East? Is the late addition of Khem Birch enough to give the team at least competent performance from the centre spot next season? Or is this team doomed to mediocrity unless it can add an elite starter this summer?
The reality is that management would almost certainly want to see this version of the Raptors in something close to a normal season before it would venture guesses on any of those things. And that leads to the bigger question, as the offseason fast approaches: Does the front office have the luxury to wait?