Lottery-bound Raptors reminded of silver linings in loss to Bulls

Toronto Raptors guard DeAndre' Bembry (95) drives to the basket against Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Chicago, Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

When Nick Nurse was asked for one word to sum up the 2020-21 season for the Toronto Raptors, he chose “tumultuous.”

An excellent selection. The details of the Raptors’ downfall can be rhymed off by anyone who has been paying attention – the last-minute relocation to Tampa; the hole at centre after failing to re-sign both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol; COVID-19 striking just when the team seemed to gain some momentum, contributing to a season-breaking 1-14 month of March.

How else to sum it up?

“The pandemic, I mean, I don’t know how else to put it,” said Raptors forward Stanley Johnson, who put up a career-high 35 points and tied his career-best 10 rebounds while dishing five assists without a turnover in the Raptors’ playing-out-the-string 114-102 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night. “I think just at the end you really realize how much we lost not being in Toronto this year. You know, truly playing road games all year long, truly not being in your own house, truly not having your own practice facility. It wasn’t giving us the best foot forward.”

For a team that was attempting to extend its franchise-record playoff streak to eight seasons, just one year removed from having the NBA’s second-best record and two years removed from a championship, it’s also been frustrating, strange, disappointing and lots of other adjectives.

But it hasn’t been disastrous.

Nurse wasn’t blowing smoke when he said earlier this week how optimistic he was about what next season could look like.

Johnson remains optimistic, too.

“I’ve been on a couple of teams that have ended like this a little early and, you know, every year you come back the following year and you got a chip on your shoulder,” he said. “And I know the guys in this locker room are those type of guys, and this year is only, only just, you know, put a chip on people’s shoulders for the next one.”

The Raptors have three quality players under contract and in their prime in Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. They have an interesting rookie point guard in Malachi Flynn who looks like he’ll be a rotation player, at worst, which is a nice return for a 29th pick. Chris Boucher was a smart off-season signing. Yuta Watanabe, DeAndre’ Bembry, Freddie Gillespie and Jalen Harris – taken with the 59th pick in 2020 – all have shown flashes of being able to contribute to a winning NBA team at some level.

Khem Birch was an inspired addition after he was bought out by the Orlando Magic. A pending free agent, the Montreal native clearly wants to stay with Toronto and he’s shown that he’s a much more well-rounded player than he had the opportunity to demonstrate while buried in the rotation in Orlando.

He looks the part of a quality back-up — and maybe more if his game expands significantly over the summer.

They have the inside track to signing 23-year-old Gary Trent Jr. as a restricted free agent.

Johnson is a free agent, but the 24-year-old has shown he can defend elite players at a high level and pop off a big offensive game every once in a while, staying ready even when he’s not required. That should get him another job in the NBA, and maybe another crack with Toronto.

So, even as the Raptors finish 12th in the East, there are some bright spots.

You know who’s had a disastrous season?

The Bulls, who hung on against a Raptors team playing without Kyle Lowry (rest), VanVleet (hip), Siakam (shoulder), Rodney Hood (hand) and Paul Watson (knee) at the United Center Thursday night.

Nurse used just eight players – mostly seven, since Watanabe left after nine minutes with a sore ankle. Trent Jr. was dressed but didn’t play.

Flynn finished with 16 points and seven assists in his 12th career start, but was just 2-of-12 from three. Harris had 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting in his first career start.

The Bulls are what the Raptors wanted to avoid being once it became apparent that a deep playoff run wasn’t in their future. They have to win out against Brooklyn and Milwaukee and hope the Indiana Pacers lose their remaining games.

They may have won a few more games, but they have more problems.

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At the trade deadline, the Bulls pushed their chips into the table as they traded away two future first-round picks and some promising young talent to the Magic in return for two-time all-star Nikola Vucevic.

The hope was that pairing the sweet-shooting big man with Zach LaVine – as effective a scorer as you’ll find east of Steph Curry – the Bulls could become a factor in a fairly pliable Eastern Conference.

Instead, it looks like they’re going to finish in the worst position possible: one spot removed from the play-in tournament and without their own draft pick (as long as it falls outside the top-four in the draft).

It will hurt even more in 2023, when the Bulls – who don’t project to be anything more than first-round playoff fodder at this stage – give up another top-four protected pick to the Magic.

As much as the current season has been a letdown for a team used to such steady success, the Raptors aren’t about to fall off a cliff.

They have all their own picks and their returning core; they will likely add Birch and Trent and may yet re-sign Lowry. In addition, they should be able to cobble together some depth from the other complementary pieces who are effectively getting an early start on next season’s training camp here in May.

The loss to the Bulls guaranteed them finishing with the seventh-best lottery odds. From there, they have a 7.5 per cent chance of drafting first overall and a 31.9 per cent chance of drafting in the top four, and an 85 per cent chance of choosing in the top eight.

Given the success the Raptors have had late in the draft – Anunoby was taken 23rd overall, Siakam 27th, and VanVleet was undrafted – a mid-to-high lottery pick is worth getting excited about.

The Raptors have picked seventh or better once in 15 years, coming away with Jonas Valanciunas with the fifth pick in 2011, one of the most consistent and productive centres in the league, even now with Memphis. Jakob Poeltl was the ninth pick in 2016 and is getting some all-defence buzz as the starting centre in San Antonio. DeMar DeRozan was the ninth pick in 2009 and has four all-star nods on his resume, currently playing some of the best basketball of his career in San Antonio in his 12th season.

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Done right, the upcoming draft will yield an important player. With luck, it might even yield a star, especially given the view that the projected top-five players in the lottery all have all-star potential.

There’s no guarantees. One of the reasons the Bulls may have felt the pressure to push their chips in is that the draft hasn’t been all that fruitful for them. They acquired LaVine by trade.

Patrick Williams has some promise, but the No. 4 overall pick in 2020 may not make either the first or second all-rookie teams. Coby White was taken No. 7 in 2019 and the jury remains out on him as a speedy point guard who struggles to shoot . Wendell Carter, whom they took seventh in 2018 was traded to Orlando for Vucevic.

Lauri Markkanen was the seventh pick in 2017, acquired by the Bulls when they sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota (the same deal that got them LaVine). The big Finn will head into free agency this summer as a restricted free agent having lost his starting role and having a similar skillset as Vucevic’s, though not nearly as good.

The draft offers no guarantees, but given the way this season has gone the Raptors will doubtless be happy to take their chances and thank their stars they aren’t in the situation the Bulls are in.

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