After winning a championship, the Toronto Raptors followed up with another solid season. They finished second in the Eastern Conference with a 53-19 record last season, losing to the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the conference semifinals. With their core relatively unchanged, expectations were that the Raptors would once again contend for one of the top spots in the East.
To say that this season was a disappointment for the Raptors would be a massive understatement. Toronto finished the regular season with a dismal 27-45 record, which placed them 12th in the final standings. It was a wild and herky-jerky season for most teams, but especially the Raptors. Not only were they hit hard by COVID, but they played all 72 games on the road. They called Tampa Bay “home” for this season, but it was anything but that.
Now that the season has concluded for this team, players and coaches can return home and get some sense of normalcy back into their lives. They will have time to exhale, but as is life in the NBA, they will need to get back to work quickly. There are several issues that the organization must address before they prepare for the future and that all begins with their executive management.
Looking at this situation, several factors will determine the direction of this team.
One of the biggest strengths of this team is its core group of players. Both Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet are under contract through the 2023-24 season. OG Anunoby is locked in through the 2024-25 season at a decent salary number. The real question comes with their veteran point guard, Kyle Lowry. While it is difficult to imagine him leaving, he will likely have plenty of suitors in free agency, many of which will covet his playing style.
The organization would like to keep its fearless leader, but it has to make business sense for them. VanVleet has shown the ability to lead the offense, but should they lose Lowry, they will likely need to go shopping themselves as the only other point guard on the roster is Malachi Flynn.
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“He can bring the dog out of anyone.”
Teammates and Masai Ujiri discuss the impact of Kyle Lowry and his future with the Toronto Raptors pic.twitter.com/1BZoNjtJ62
— Yahoo Sports Canada (@YahooCASports) May 20, 2021
Another strength this organization possesses is its continuity with the coaching staff and management. Nick Nurse obviously isn’t going anywhere, but the fate of Masai Ujiri is the one giant question mark that has been hovering over this franchise for more than a year now. Should Masai return, that continuity will continue to serve them well heading into the offseason. Should he move on, Toronto would have another puzzle to solve this summer.
While the coaches and players largely remained the same after their solid 2019-20 season, the on-court product did not. Last season the Raptors had the second-best defensive rating in the league at 105.0 but that skyrocketed to 112.5 this season, which was 15th in the league. Last season they held their opponents to 106.5 points per game, which was the best in the league. This season it ballooned to 111.7 which was 15th. Their ranking for net rating also dropped from 4th to 19th this season.
One major reason they struggled out of the gates this season was due to the loss of the frontcourt. Losing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka in the same offseason is rough, especially when the guys you replace them with contribute absolutely nothing. The additions of Aron Baynes and Alex Len were massive flops, as they eventually moved on from Len. The only silver lining here was the emergence of Chris Boucher, who solidified himself as Toronto’s best big man on the roster.
The defensive slippage this season was a major concern for Nurse, and the fact that he was unable to fix that to a large degree implies that most of the blame should be put on the players for failing to execute. The inconsistent play of their top players was clearly something that plagued them all season.
There will be plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to improve heading into next season. It all begins with the NBA Draft Lottery on June 22. Now that the regular season is over, the lottery odds have become more clear. According to NBA.com, the Raptors have a 7.5 percent chance of landing the number one overall pick and a 31.9 percent chance of getting a top-four pick. The latter is important as this draft class has four consensus players that are all considered to be franchise cornerstone caliber players.
“Just like everybody else, you do the best you can to look into the future on what you think a guy may be five years from now.”
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) May 17, 2021
Most of the mock drafts have the Raptors picking around the 7th spot, which could net them a talented wing player like Scottie Barnes, Jalen Johnson, or Keon Johnson. Should Lowry not return, a guy like Davion Mitchell would seem to be a great selection as well. Toronto can also address many of their needs in free agency, as this year’s class is oozing with talent as well.
Toronto also has the luxury of developing its own young talent. They have proven to be one of the best at doing that, finding and grooming guys like VanVleet, Siakam, Boucher and Anunoby. The roster may be young, but most of these guys have solid experience and have flourished under established veteran leadership over the years from Lowry, Ibaka and Gasol.
The obvious threat would be the vacancies left by Lowry and Ujiri and needing to fill those voids. Their experience and talent will be difficult to replace but not impossible. Lowry might also not be the only guard that they lose. After trading for Gary Trent Jr. just before the trade deadline, the scoring guard is likely to hit free agency where he will command a high salary. The Raptors were well aware of this when they made the deal though, so it should not catch them by surprise.
Another threat that the organization must consider is the slumps that Siakam has been in over the past couple of seasons. Whether it is a mental block or something more serious, Toronto needs to get it ironed out before they begin next season. Every franchise player has off nights, but Siakam’s mysterious struggles were far too frequent.
There will be issues that pop up now and again, but none that should be too difficult for this team to overcome. Winning a title was an invigorating feeling for everyone within that organization, but returning home to Toronto for next season should feel equally as good.
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