“Triumphant,” “validating” and perhaps even “defiant.”
These are all words that can properly sum up the Toronto Raptors’ 2019-20 season to this point.
Despite opening the season with an emotional and raucous banner-raising ceremony, the Raptors weren’t widely considered contenders to repeat. Before the season, many prognosticators had the Raptors pegged to finish no better than No. 4 or 5 in the Eastern Conference.
After all, the Raptors had lost their Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and key role player Danny Green to the two Los Angeles teams in the off-season, surely signifying that the Raptors’ ragtag supporting cast would show its true colours and the team would then fade into the distance, right?
Well, as it turned out, the remaining pieces from last season’s squad did end up showing their true colours when given a chance to step out from Leonard’s large shadow, and came away looking every bit the part of defending champions eager to protect their prize.
At the time of the season suspension, the Raptors sat No. 2 in the East — the same way they finished last season — with the NBA’s third-best record.
Across the board, nearly every player remaining from last season’s team upped his production, with Pascal Siakam, in particular, becoming a legitimate No. 1 option and a first-time all-star. Additionally, the Raptors enjoyed signature moments of brilliance this season, including a stunning 30-point comeback – the largest in franchise history – against the Dallas Mavericks just a few days before Christmas, as well as a Canadian pro sports record-setting 15-game winning streak.
It’s been as good and enjoyable a title defence as you’re likely to see and was even more gratifying when you think that the Raptors did it all while being among the most injured teams in the entire league.
And now, as they get set to officially resume the season in the 22-team Disney World NBA bubble, they have nothing but confidence knowing their 2019–20 body of work to date proved that they’re every bit as good as they always thought they were. What’s more, the best could still be to come with the team back to full strength at long last.
Can the Raptors keep the No. 2 seed in the East?
It will be critical for the Raptors to come out of the gate hot and show well in their eight seeding games.
The team holds a three-game lead over the No. 3 Boston Celtics and will want to ensure they don’t allow the C’s to overtake them as dropping to third in the East likely means a date with the Philadelphia 76ers or Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. Remaining in second place, however, would mean an encounter with either the extremely shorthanded Brooklyn Nets or the just-plain-far-less-talented Orlando Magic.
While the Raptors have the benefit of a pretty sizeable cushion over the Celtics working in their favour, they also have the problem of drawing a very tough schedule.
There’s definitely a silver lining to be found here, however, as getting thrown straight into the fire could prove useful for the Raptors to get playoff ready. Additionally, their Aug. 7 matchup with the Celtics will certainly be one circled on the calendar — a big win then would go a very long way to securing that No. 2 spot.
Who will step up as the Raptors’ secondary scorer?
At this point everyone is well aware of Siakam’s talent as a legitimate go-to scorer for the Raptors, and given how often he elevated his game in clutch situations this year there shouldn’t be much fear about him managing to produce in the post-season.
There are concerns, however, about what happens when opponents force the ball out of his hands or when he goes to the bench. Who picks up the slack?
The Raptors have options with four other players besides Siakam averaging 16 or more points per game. The most obvious choice for the Raptors’ de facto No. 2 scorer would be Kyle Lowry, whose 19.7 points-per-game average is his highest since the 2016–17 season when he averaged 22.4.
But as logical as it might be to think Lowry will be the choice, you have to wonder if his extra responsibilities running the team’s offence and acting as one of the team’s defensive leaders under the intense pressure of the playoffs might see his scoring productivity drop off.
That’s why a candidate like Fred VanVleet or Norman Powell stepping up and becoming a consistent option might be a more intriguing possibility. It would not only spell Lowry a little, but it would also — similarly to what Siakam did in the post-season last year — likely catch opponents off guard as they’d be less prepared for this “surprise” so-called third option.
Does Nurse have any more tricks up his sleeve?
It will also prove intriguing to see what head coach Nick Nurse plans to do during the seeding games and the post-season.
Among the front-runners for Coach of the Year, Nurse has proven himself to be innovative in his play calls and a great motivator, as evidenced by the team’s complete buy-in to his ideas and philosophy.
But if last season’s championship run is any proof, Nurse always has one or two more tricks in reserve.
From adjusting the team’s defence to a pack-the-paint style against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks to his infamously successful use of box-and-one against Stephen Curry in the Finals, Nurse isn’t afraid of experimentation.
Do the Raptors have a legitimate chance to repeat?
This is probably the question most top of mind for Raptors fans. The answer, put simply, is yes, but it’s going to be tough – probably even tougher than last season.
Look, as good as the Raptors have proven to be without Leonard, it’s worth noting that they were also damn good without him last season when he missed 22 regular-season games because of his much-maligned “load management” program. However, when the post-season hit, the team leaned on Leonard, who proved to be everything the Raptors wanted and more.
Siakam is a very, very good player, and, as mentioned before, there shouldn’t be any nervousness about whether he’ll be able to produce or not. But can he produce like Leonard can? That’s a tall order to ask of anyone, and not a very realistic request, either.
So, in the absence of a league-wide top-five type player to bail them out of sticky situations, the Raptors have a tougher road ahead of them. But that isn’t to say they can’t traverse this thorny path.
Because of the many injuries the team suffered throughout the season, players like Terence Davis, Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson saw their roles expand beyond what even they thought they would be.
This, in turn, gives the Raptors a plethora of depth and should be seen as an advantage for them, especially as after more than four months off conditioning for everyone won’t be all the way there. Additionally, all that time off gave Toronto a chance to get fully healthy.
This is all good news for the Raptors. While it hurts not having that one guy like Leonard that they can just rely upon, but at least on paper this is a team that can and should be able to hang with absolutely anyone and everyone.
How will the Raptors keep up the ongoing social justice conversation?
More important than anything else league-wide during this restart will be how the NBA furthers the conversation surrounding social and racial justice in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
The Raptors have been at the forefront of this as they arrived at the Disney bubble in a bus with “Black Lives Matter” painted onto it in giant letters. Also, during their restart camp Zoom media availabilities, many members of the team have spoken eloquently and pointedly about what’s going on around the world now.
But what will happen to this conversation when the Raptors actually begin to play games and basketball-specific questions naturally begin to crowd out issues of social justice?
The Raptors might have to force the issue during media availabilities – even during the thick of a playoff run – or do something on-court. Who knows?
Either way, given how important this issue is — and appears to be to the organization — there should be an expectation that the Raptors will continue to spread the message even in the heat of an intense post-season battle.