Raptors enter COVID-impacted season with ‘next man ready’ mentality

Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse talks managing roster in the likelihood of a COVID-19 outbreak in a press conference.

TORONTO — Just a day after the Toronto Raptors announced that three members of their organization tested positive for COVID-19, it was business as usual on the campus of Saint Leo University, where the Raptors are preparing for the coming 2020-21 NBA season in Tampa, Fla.

“We were in full contact today, we sure were,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said Tuesday after the team concluded its morning practice on a Zoom call.

Scary as it may be to think about, the positive tests the Raptors came back with always seemed like an inevitability as the league is attempting to play a full — albeit shorter — campaign without the help of all that Disney magic that allowed a safe conclusion the 2019-20 season.

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Probably because of privacy laws, the Raptors haven’t disclosed who, specifically, on the team has contracted the virus, but judging from the team’s tone and business-as-usual approach to Monday’s incident on Tuesday, it doesn’t sound like it’s a player.

But, let’s be honest, this is likely only the first of at least a few more positive test results we’re going to hear about from the team, and the possibility of a player contracting the virus is as high as it is for anyone that’s going to be travelling around the U.S., especially considering the close proximity to other people playing competitive basketball requires.

With that said, for how pessimistic a scenario that’s all painted out to be, the Raptors have reason for optimism in tackling what will surely be a difficult season with challenges likely never seen in league history before.

Last season, prior to the Disney bubble, the Raptors suffered injury after injury with players all over the roster missing significant time, forcing Nurse to adjust on the fly and get creative with lineup combinations.

Despite this, the Raptors entered the bubble with the third-best record in the NBA and finished last season with the second-best record in the league.

As such, for Nurse and his coaching staff, the challenges faced last campaign have prepared them, in a sense, for what they’re likely to face this season.

“I think as we all look around, this pandemic in the sports world and other sports and things, there’s obviously a lot going on and not much you can prepare for other than to say, ‘Hey, let’s stay flexible and do the best we can. When something comes up, do the best we can,’” said Nurse. “I know that’s a pretty simple answer, but that’s the way I look at it.”

Yes, sometimes the simplest solutions are the best, and in the case of Nurse, a coach who earned his stripes helming clubs at many different levels before reaching the NBA, not necessarily playing with a full hand is something he’s grown accustomed to over the course of his career.

“I’ve had a lot of training in the minors of guys coming and going constantly,” said Nurse. “After you get used to that, you know, it spins your head around your first year or so doing it, but then you just say, ‘This is the world I’m living in, I better figure out how to thrive in this world I’m living in.’

“So I think that last year, we had a lot of bodies out a lot. We try to coach all the way through our roster and make sure that the guys understand what we’re doing if we need ’em down past 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, whatever it is. … So I think just lots of years of training, of being in strange environments and players coming and going and stuff like that would be what I would lean on.”

Nurse and the Raptors won’t just be relying upon past experience to help them navigate what might be a tricky season of roster shuffle, however. In a year like this one, it’s wise to have contingencies in place for the real possibility that someone — or multiple bodies — might be forced out.

As Nurse said, the backup plan in the event of a particularly COVID-ravaged roster will come from the team’s internal style of play.

“I think one of the biggest contingency things we’ve got to do is try to get all 15, 17 guys ready, right? I mean, you just gotta make sure you teach these guys how you want to play. Obviously we have a number of new guys, so that part needs to continue. We need to accelerate that — especially the new guys — from day one. And I think that’s the best contingency plan we can have is to continue to say ‘next man ready’ or ‘plug in and play,’ and we got to have confidence in the system at both ends of the floor.

“The system has to do its job defensively, first of all, first and foremost, to give you a chance. Then if the way the system offensively is generating shots, that’s when we always say, that’s all we can do.

“And then instead of just maybe great individual one-on-one play generating shots, the offence generates the shots and all the players — hopefully one through 17 — will be able to fit into that system and execute it.”

This egalitarian approach Nurse spoke of is similar to how the Raptors navigated the rough waters of what could’ve been season-debilitating injuries last season. So, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

That seems to be the philosophy the Raptors have, for now at least, concerning COVID-19’s potential to become a true problem with the team, but it’s not like they’re actually trying to court this danger, either.

The Raptors are doing the best they can to try to make as safe an environment as possible for its staff and players and, so far, despite the positive tests, seem to be doing a good job of it, at least according to one of the team’s players.

New centre Aron Baynes recently saw the birth of his child, someone who is obviously at risk of COVID-19, but said Tuesday how comfortable he feels with the Raptors and the safety precautions they’ve put into place.

“That’s one of the things about what we’re doing is we’re in the best possible circumstance to be doing what we’re doing,” said Baynes. “They look after everything for us. So it’s really not much stress on us in terms of what we have to do on a day-to-day schedule. The hardest thing for us is going out to get a test every single day. That’s as tough as it is for us. We’re protected, we’re looked after so well and, sure, we can’t do some things some days but at the end of the day we’re lucky to be able to do what we do.”

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Baynes is no stranger to COVID-19. In an interview with The Athletic’s Shams Charania back in July, Baynes revealed he had contracted the virus and, on Tuesday, he opened up to the assorted members of the Raptors media of just how harrowing the experience was for him and his family.

“The worst thing about it was the stress of initially not knowing if I was going to pass it on to my family,” he said. “Not knowing if they were going to get extremely sick and what the repercussions were going to be on their end.

“At the time when I was first diagnosed, my wife was pregnant, so she was in the high-risk category, my daughter has asthma, so she was in the high-risk category and then all the unknowns of what it was going to do to children and adults alike — but definitely the kids — we were definitely worried about what was going to happen.

“As much as it knocked me on my butt any moment that I was awake, it was just complete dread and [fear] as to what was going to happen for them, for their safety.”

After going through an experience like that, Baynes and his wife obviously have been taking the novel coronavirus as seriously as anyone, he said. So, therefore, hearing his confidence in the Raptors’ staff and seeing how high-spirited he was Tuesday should be a good sign that Toronto can make it through this pandemic-shadowed season well enough.

So, as scary as it was to hear of the positive tests coming from within the Raptors organization, hearing about them now before games start can be seen as something of a blessing in disguise. In a sense, they served to put the Raptors on notice and now that the reality of the coronavirus has hit the team, hopefully they will be the last positive results Toronto sees.

“I don’t think it feels like a wake-up call, but I think it does add a sense of awareness, said Nurse. “Wake-up call might just be a little too strong, but it does add a sense of awareness. I think a lot of things do. You look around and see something happen in another sport, or another team, or college, or whatever, and you’re kinda getting these awareness reminders because it’s kinda what’s going on. That’s the way things are moving in the world of sports right now. But yeah, it hits a little closer to home.”

The virus, as almost an inevitability, hit the Raptors. Should it do so again, the club seems like it’ll at least be prepared for it.

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