The Toronto Raptors’ post-championship season has emerged as one of the best stories in basketball — for those paying attention at least.
After overcoming expectations and winning the NBA title in 2019, the Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard in free agency, the player most assumed was responsible for their great leap forward. That Danny Green – one of the NBA’s best “3-and-D” specialists and a respected locker-room presence – also left in free agency was another blow.
They’d be lucky to make the playoffs, was a common prediction.
But with one game left before the All-Star break – Wednesday night in Brooklyn – the Raptors are sitting on a 15-game winning streak, have the second-best record in the East and third in the NBA (better than Leonard’s Clippers) and are on pace for a franchise-record 61 wins.
Between now and the playoffs there isn’t much that could make the season more fun. There have to be limits.
But I bet people could get excited about an old-fashioned homecoming.
No. Not Vince Carter. No room at the inn for him.
The veteran big man and pending free agent was expected to be dealt at the trade deadline but wasn’t.
He’s one of 12 players in the league averaging a double-double (11.8 points and 10.3 rebounds) and given Thompson’s championship experience, versatility on defence and the Raptors’ poor defensive rebounding, he’s a perfect fit.
Come home, win a title? What’s not to like?
Another feel-good story just when it appeared the Raptors had the market cornered.
Toronto has reached out and expressed interest in adding Thompson if he gets bought out from the final months remaining on the five-year, $82-million contract he signed in the summer of 2015.
Hmmm, let’s not get our hopes up.
The primary complication — according to sources on either side of the non-deal — is that neither Cleveland or Thompson see it as wise to terminate his deal early.
He would have to be bought out by March 1 to be eligible for the playoffs, but as one person who would be in a position to know texted me:
The basic explanation is that by Thompson playing out his deal, the Cavaliers maintain his “bird rights” meaning they can sign him to a deal that takes them over the salary cap in the summer and trade him to a team in the market for Thompson’s consistent, high-effort basketball and ideally take back some assets to help them in their otherwise floundering rebuilding effort.
From Thompson’s perspective, taking a buyout – even if he landed in Toronto or maybe with his old pal LeBron James with the Los Angeles Lakers — would mean he’d be entering a tight free-agent market where only a few teams are projected to have cap space during an era when the market for bigs that don’t space the floor is increasingly limited.
The best chance Thompson has of getting a deal for above the mid-level exception is to play things out with the Cavs.
Could the Raptors move the needle by being willing to sign Thompson to a long-term deal this summer? Probably, but with incumbent bigs Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka also heading into free agency and the Raptors desire to maintain flexibility for the summer of 2021, there might not be a fit.
Whether staying in Cleveland pays off for Thompson and the Cavs is to be determined, but in the short term it appears any hope of another narrative log on the Raptors’ cozy hearth of a season ain’t happening.
He’s missing out on something special.
That the Raptors have stayed among the league’s elite while having six of their top-seven rotation players — all returnees from their title team — miss an average of 13 games due to injury – feels like a minor basketball miracle.
Role-playing specialists Matt Thomas and Patrick McCaw have missed big chunks of time too.
But nothing is perfect. A quick scan of the Raptors statistical profile reveals one significant shortcoming: Toronto ranks 26th in defensive rebounding percentage on the season.
They rank 28th during their winning streak, so it’s not like they can’t win as they are, but eight of the league’s 10 best defensive rebounding teams project as playoff-bound while only three of the bottom 10 teams do.
It makes sense. Limiting an opponent’s offensive possessions by rebounding their misses at a high rate can’t hurt.
“There’s been a couple of games where the defensive rebounding hasn’t been as good as we would like it,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said Monday. “And that’s just a combination of making sure we’re blocking out a little better, but then chasing them down and trying to sense where the long ones will fly to, with all the threes there’s a lot more long rebounds and we struggled with that early in the year, and it (has) kind of reared its head a bit again.”
Getting Marc Gasol back from his hamstring injury — likely after the All-Star break — will help. Getting more rebounding contributions from the likes of Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby at the wing positions will help. Making sure the guards are locked into chasing down long rebounds will also help.
But any hopes the Raptors might have of getting Thompson to come home and help solve their problem seems unlikely.