If Raptors can't play at home, Tampa Bay area emerging as most likely choice

Sportsnet Michael Grange joins Sportsnet Central to discuss where the Toronto Raptors might play as the NBA season now begins on Dec. 22, giving them a short period of time to figure out where to play and where they can start training camp.

The Toronto Raptors management team is back in town.

The pandemic dictated that. How long they stay in Toronto and whether or not their players join them will be dictated by COVID-19 and the rules the Canadian government has in place to deal with it.

With the NBA draft set for next Thursday, Nov. 18, Raptors president Masai Ujiri, general manager Bobby Webster, assistant general manager and vice president of player personnel Dan Tolzman and the other key decision makers have returned from Los Angeles -- where much of the pre-draft work was being done -- in order to prepare for the day itself.

That they’ve already been in town for a number of days is simple math: at minimum they had to take the day of the draft and work backwards 14 days in order to satisfy Canada’s quarantine rules for returning travelers.

It’s that hurdle — the requirement for "non-essential" workers to self-isolate for two weeks and the Raptors' ability to find some way around it — that will dictate where the team trains and plays this season, which is set to begin Dec. 22 with training camps opening Dec. 1.

The Raptors' preference is clear: “If we can get it done in Toronto, we’d do it tomorrow,” said one team executive.

But getting it done is outside their control, requiring sign off from three levels of government.

In the meantime, the Tampa Bay area has emerged from several potential destinations as the most likely temporary home for Canada’s only NBA team should it come to that, according to both Raptors and NBA sources.

“Ideally, the Raptors are able to play their upcoming season in Toronto,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of Tampa Bay Sports Commission in an email message Wednesday. “But should that not be possible, we would have a strong interest in working to successfully meet and exceed their expectations as an alternative host. We’ve enjoyed our preliminary conversations with their organization and stand ready to assist if needed.”

As they lobby for a favourable outcome – MLSE has had a roughly 20-person committee dealing with issues related to the pandemic since January – their plan is to push the timing of the decision as close to the limit as they possibly can.

Training and playing in Toronto means having a world-class practice facility at their fingertips and it means that Raptors staff don’t have to navigate being separated from their families for the bulk of the season.

For Toronto Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro, watching the Raptors try to figure out their next move is “hauntingly familiar.”

The Blue Jays were similarly trying to lobby the government to gain exemptions that would allow them to play in Toronto, while travelling back and forth to the U.S. and hosting visiting teams.

“I can empathize with the challenge of balancing the obvious need to support public heath while trying to find a way to maintain a competitive adventive in a trying time,” said Shapiro.

The Blue Jays were allowed to train in what was described as “modified cohort quarantine” – where the baseball team and staff arrived in Toronto together and were limited to the Rogers Centre and the adjoining hotel.

Those familiar with the Raptors' proposal to the Federal government say it is almost identical to the plan the Blue Jays presented, where visiting teams would be “bubbled” from the moment they arrived at the airport, for example.

It was a success – they recorded no positive tests – but in the end they couldn’t get a favorable decision from the Federal government on the border issue and had to play their season in Buffalo.

That scenario – having to begin training camp without a guarantee they can play the season in Toronto -- is something, insiders say, the Raptors won’t accept.

“If we’re here for training camp, we’re here for the season,” one insider said. “We’re not going to come back and then have to find another place to play.”

The Raptors are well-connected politically, with Ujiri counting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau among his long list of friends in high places. But that may not be enough to tip the balance on such a sensitive issue.

Attempts to reach the office of Marco Mendocino, the minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship whose office is responsible for border security, were unsuccessful.

However, with Ontario setting records for COVID-19 case numbers and the Greater Toronto Area being the provincial hot spot -- as well as the second-wave of the pandemic cresting across the U.S. -- timing could be working against the Raptors playing at home under any circumstances.

The idea of NBA teams travelling back and forth across the border may simply be too difficult a sell both from a public health standpoint and politically.

The need for some resolution one way or the other is urgent. As one player agent put it: “There is no way they can go into the draft and free agency without knowing where they are playing. As an agent, that would be the first thing I would want to know.”

So far the team has kept its plans – other than their desire to be in Toronto for training camp and the regular season -- close to the vest but that will have to change soon.

“We’re on the clock,” said one Raptors executive.

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