The Toronto Raptors are built for this. Masai Ujiri is sure of it.
Asked why the strangest end to the strangest season the NBA will ever know could work in favour of his hand-crafted club as they pursue their second-straight championship, the Raptors president didn’t have to qualify his answer.
“Mental toughness, chemistry, just the way our guys are built, the experience we’ve had being together for a long time,” he said, his team’s list of attributes rolling off his tongue easily.
“The chemistry of the team is so important, and the (players’) belief in themselves. I think there’s great camaraderie with them,” he continued on a conference call Monday. “And yes, there’s going to be concerns, but our guys are being responsible as much as we can in these situations.
“Yes, there’s family concerns — everybody is going to miss their families, and these are tough situations, but at the end of the day, you know, there’s a passion for basketball and a love for the game, to play the game at a high level, and go out there and compete and get back to what we’re doing.”
The Raptors were 46-18 — good for second in the Eastern Conference and third overall — when the NBA shut down due to the pandemic on March 11, shocking many pundits who figured they would stumble with the off-season losses of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Instead the Raptors have thrived, even despite six of the top seven members of their rotation missing at least 10 games due to injury.
Now the Raptors are the first team to have their resolve tested as the NBA begins to ramp up for a return to competition. Training camps begin formally on July 9 in Orlando in the so-called ‘COVID Bubble’ at the Disney campus.
However, since the NBA required teams to centralize and begin coronavirus testing two weeks before they could gain access to Disney, the Raptors elected to gather in Naples, Fla., beginning on June 23.
They’ve opted to train at nearby Florida Gulf Coast University rather than navigate the 14-day quarantine that would have been required of team members returning from outside Canada had they assembled in Toronto first.
For all the discussion and speculation around the unique challenges entailed in defending their NBA championship, reality began to set in for Fred VanVleet last Sunday when he arrived at the Raptors’ current home base – a Ritz Carleton hotel that had otherwise been closed during the pandemic. The Raptors were able to hire out to serve as their own pre-bubble for a party comprised of 45 players, coaches, executives, medical staff and support staff.
“I think I was the first player here,” he said Monday. “So, it was like five people in a hotel. Walking around in an empty hotel for a while was weird.”
As the rest of his teammates and other members of the organization filtered in, the vibe grew a bit more familiar – kind of like training camp except with nowhere to go for dinner; everyone is wearing masks and having to be tested for a potentially deadly disease every other day.
“I think we’re just keeping it simple,” VanVleet said. “Going to your workout, staying in your room and eating. That’s kind of your time to mingle, when you’re going to and from places. Everyone’s masked up. All the staff are taking their precautions. I think I’m going into it trying to get ready for Orlando…it’s just been different and not ideal.
“But these are the times that we’re in. I think us getting here (early) was a good thing. Hopefully going forward we’ll be ready.”
Ujiri is confident. He’s witnessed about a week’s worth of individual workouts – full practices and scrimmages are still a no-no until all 22 NBA teams are on campus in Orlando – and is enthused about what he’s seen, even beyond pictures of a svelte-looking Marc Gasol or Kyle Lowry on Instagram.
“I think they’re going to be awesome,” says Ujiri, who last season put together the first team to win an NBA championship without a lottery player (i.e. a player drafted among the top-14 picks) and his hoping the Raptors can be the first to win a title the year following losing the Finals MVP.
“Watching them work out, they’re all, there’s anxiousness to come back and play. They’ve been away from the game for a while, and I think it will be good to see the whole league back together again, and the whole process of, just the NBA, and playing. So, they’re competitive by nature and they want to go out there and compete, but just playing the game that they love, I think, will be fulfilling to them.”
The potential complications are many and varied. A number of Raptors have young families and the NBA’s restart plan coupled with the Raptors’ two-week stint in Naples means the soonest they will be able to see their loved ones will be the middle of August after the first round of the playoffs wrap up. By then the Raptors will have been separated from their children and partners for nearly seven weeks.
“I’ve been gone a week and I miss my kids already,” said VanVleet, who has a daughter and a son, each under three. “I think that is the plan for my family (having them join him in the bubble). I will re-evaluate once I’ve been in Orlando for a little while. If it’s something that suits us, then we will do it. If not, then we won’t.
“But I like having my family around for sure (but) I’m here by myself for a while and I still will be able to make that decision if they are able to come before the date that allows them to come. I will be there for a month or more before they are actually allowed to come. So I will have some sense of what it is like and what things are like and how risky or dangerous it is.”
In the meantime, there’s plenty of downtime.
“It’s been different. I think that is the word I will keep using. It’s just different from the norm, from what we are used to. My routine has been pretty simple. I wake up really early and get tested and check all your vitals and then go work out. Then I have the rest of the day to do whatever. I have been catching up on some sleep. Being a stay-at-home dad over the last three-and-a-half months, I haven’t been sleeping too much so catching up on that, playing some video games.
“There’s not really a whole lot to do. But just trying to get back and ramped up in terms of basketball activity and getting your body ready for what is to come. I think even us being here is going be different than being in Orlando. I mean I know we’re in Florida, but I think we still get to control all of our environment here and I don’t know if that will be the case when we go to Orlando. There will probably be more rules and things we have to go by with much more people inside the bubble, obviously.”
Navigating those rules and finding a way to keep focused on the task at hand will be a challenge that unfolds over time. If the Raptors advance to the NBA Finals and it goes the full seven games, they will have spent an estimated 94 days in Florida, almost entirely consisting of practising, competing and hanging out at their hotel. It’s not coal mining, but it’s a long stretch removed from the standard freedoms NBA players – and most people – are accustomed to.
But it’s precisely those wrinkles the Raptors believe make them well-suited for the road ahead.
“I don’t know if this benefits anybody but I think that we’ll have everything back and we’ll go into something new and fresh and it’ll be different and we’ve got open-mindedness,” VanVleet said.
“Nobody on our team is too cool for anything or too accomplished to do anything. So, we’re definitely in a good spot to be able to win the rest of the season as it is because it’s such a different thing. I think we’re a very, very flexible team. Just gotta get back to work and hopefully everybody stays healthy and try to win one.”
Win one more, he means.