There’s no point living in the past, but since the Toronto Raptors are in limbo while playing out the string on 2020-21 with dreams of the draft lottery dancing in their heads, why not visit?
That the Raptors were hosting the San Antonio Spurs, who started the three players they acquired in the landmark trade that brought Kawhi Leonard to Toronto in 2018, is as good an excuse as any.
Not that anyone would seriously attempt to rewind history.
Leonard came, saw and conquered. The evidence hangs in the form of a championship banner the Raptors brought with them from Toronto to hang in Amalie Arena while they call Tampa home.
That said, those days seem a bit distant at the moment. Even with Toronto’s 117-112 win Wednesday night, the Raptors are still just 22-34 and on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs with 16 games remaining.
Oh sure, there’s fun to be had as the Raptors figure out how to bridge a championship past to what they hope will be a competitive future.
The win over the Spurs was a handy example.
The Raptors sat Kyle Lowry (rest), Gary Trent Jr. (ankle) and Fred VanVleet (who served his suspension for his role in OG Anunoby’s scuffle with the Los Angeles Lakers the other week) but were in control most of the game, other than a late 13-5 Spurs flurry that pulled them within three points with 15.4 seconds left, but no closer.
Watching rookie Malachi Flynn develop game by game – he may have shot just 4-of-15 from the floor but he was seemingly in command every moment he had the ball as he finished with 16 points, seven assists, two steals and no turnovers – is fun. After a season of almost no production from their centre position, newcomers Khem Birch and 10-day signee Freddie Gillespie combined for 23 points and 14 rebounds – including seven on the offensive glass – and five blocks as they split 48 minutes in a platoon format. Yuta Watanabe and Paul Watson – playing to establish their careers after bouncing around the league’s fringes – each put in convincing performances as Toronto got 33 points off the bench, even though half the bench was starting.
Anunoby started as an oversized two guard and finished with 22 points, four rebounds and three assists, and earned some love from former Raptors icon DeMar DeRozan, who only knew Anunoby as a raw rookie.
"Oh man, he started out [his career] stiff as a cardboard box,” said DeRozan, who finished with 19 points and 11 assists, but had to work for it as Anunoby guarded him for much of the night. “Now to see how he handles the ball, how he drives the ball, his post game. I saw him a lot this summer, we worked out a lot this summer, and to see his skill set grow from when I first saw it speaks volumes of how much he loves and appreciates the game.
"He’s come a long way. He deserves everything that comes his way. I hope he keeps growing. It’s fun to see that, it’s fun to compete against that, and I’m glad I was a part of his career early on.”
Toronto led by a point at the half and by three heading into the fourth quarter before steadily pulling away down the stretch until the Spurs made it interesting.
How some of the Raptors' newer faces navigate the close to the season is the story of Toronto's present and future.
But it was all set in motion by the trading of DeRozan, developing then-second-year big man Jakob Poeltl and the first-round pick that became Keldon Johnson for Leonard and Danny Green.
It was always a risky move.
Would Leonard even come to play? Would his troublesome knee allow him to put a franchise on his back? Would Green, coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, find his game again?
Would that be enough to actually improve a team that won 59 games in the regular season in 2017-18?
As we know, everything worked out pretty well.
But one of the underlying themes of the Raptors' title was how close it came to not happening: Leonard’s durability was a constant concern as he introduced the concept of load management into the NBA lexicon. And even as he played at a superstar level in the playoffs, there were points when it didn’t seem like it was going to be enough.
Had Leonard’s leaning jumper bounced four times on the rim and out instead of dropping in, would Toronto have prevailed in overtime of Game 7 against Philadelphia in the second round?
What if Milwaukee had gone up 3-0 by winning one of the overtime periods in Game 3 of the conference finals?
What if Kevin Durant doesn’t tear his Achilles or Klay Thompson doesn’t blow out his knee against the Raptors in the NBA Finals?
Would the parade have ever happened?
But the costs began to mount once Leonard left the Raptors in free agency.
Part of the need for Toronto to rebuild can be traced back to dealing from a position of depth and strength for what ended up being a season each from Leonard and Green and one more from Marc Gasol. That they all left in free agency and the Raptors got nothing in return has put them in a hole.
How they manage their way out of it will determine the Raptors' trajectory for years to come.
So what if the 59-win Raptors team that lost one of the strangest four-game sweeps you will ever see — an unlikely loss in overtime of Game 1; victims of one of LeBron James' best playoff performances in Game 2 and then losing on a James buzzer-beater in Game 3 before the bottom fell out in Game 4 – had stayed together?
Or what if the roster had remained intact and Nick Nurse had taken over as head coach anyway, giving Toronto a new voice and a fresh approach?
To hear Nurse tell it, there wasn’t much left on the bone.
“Yeah, I think that team was maxed out pretty good,” said Nurse when I asked him about it before the game.
“Well, I think the 59 wins is one reason,” said Nurse. “And I think they played really well most of the season."
There’s more to it than that.
History has shown that team to be remarkably deep and still in the early stages of its prime.
Pascal Siakam, VanVleet and Poeltl were coming off the bench, each of them in the second season of their careers. Three years later and Siakam is an all-star, VanVleet is trending that way and Poeltl has established himself in his third season in San Antonio as one of the of the most efficient big men in the game.
In a season when the Raptors have struggled for production from the centre position, how does a rotation of Poeltl, Jonas Valanciunas – in the midst of a career year in Memphis and just developing his playmaking abilities on the perimeter when he was traded in 2019 for Gasol – and Serge Ibaka sound?
There would be none deeper in the league and even if it’s unlikely the Raptors would have been able to keep all three of them, any two of them would make Toronto’s current status as one of the NBA’s worst rebounding teams a rumour.
And what of DeRozan?
He’s not the same player he was in Toronto. For a team that has struggled for long stretches to score and for longer stretches to get to the free-throw line and that thrives on getting the ball into the paint to break down defences and initiate a blizzard of ball movement and cuts, few do it better than DeRozan in today’s game. At age 31 he’s become – in his own style – one of the most efficient offensive players in the sport.
He rolled into Tampa averaging 22 points and seven assists a game, while getting to the free-throw line seven times per night. His true shooting percentage of .596 is the second best of his career and his offensive rating of 123 is by far the best.
“He was a joy to coach, it was fun to watch him pour in 20, 25 every single night,” Nurse told Raptors play-by-play voice Matt Devlin in an interview. “Not many nights go by when he’s not getting 20-plus. I always say, guys that are doing that in this league, it’s really something, night after night. He’s even developed more, he’s become much more of a passer now, an assist guy. Good player.”
The Raptors – if they had gone untouched – would have been loaded with good players. The lineup dynamics would be interesting and the salary cap gymnastics, too.
But could that version of the Raptors have won a title in 2019? Maybe. Would they have found their way past Boston and into the conference finals and quite possibly beyond a year ago? I have no doubt of that.
And if Toronto had to reconfigure in 2020-21, it would be doing it as one of the deepest and most successful teams in the league.
Or maybe they wouldn’t have to do it all.