It was assumed that the Toronto Raptors, with their Coach of the Year Nick Nurse, impressive culture, and three potential All-Stars would use this short break between seasons to reload and make another run at the NBA Finals.
After all, the Raptors lost to the Celtics in an epic seven-game series and were a play or two from facing the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. They addressed their biggest offseason concern by re-signing shooting guard Fred VanVleet to a four-year, $85 million contract extension.
Yet the Raptors’ ascension has been derailed by a 1-6 start and continued poor play from All-Star Pascal Siakam as well as key reserve Norman Powell. In a game they felt they had to win last Wednesday, the Raptors allowed 74 points to the Suns over the second and third quarters and lost, 123-115. They continued their four-game West Coast swing Friday at Sacramento, with games at Golden State and Portland to come before they head home.
But the word “home” isn’t as accurate as it is for the 29 other NBA teams. The Raptors moved their operations to Tampa because of COVID-19 restrictions in Canada and are playing at Amalie Arena, the home of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Listen, there’s a long list of excuses we could use, to be honest with you,” VanVleet said. “There’s no growth there. You can’t lock into that way of thinking. The season is not going to stop. We’re not moving. We’re going to be here in Tampa. This is not our home. The fans are going to cheer for the other team and that’s the reality of situation. We can sit around and cry about it or try to figure a way to work through it.”
In an Eastern Conference that has emerged as surprisingly competitive, and in a shortened season, the Raptors know they need to start winning soon or perhaps risk missing the playoffs.
“There are things that have to be adjusting in how we play and how we think,” All-Star guard Kyle Lowry said. “With all that being said, it’s about playing basketball harder. It’s about getting tougher, mentally tougher, physically tougher. It’s one thing that I think we can probably do that can happen quickly.”
The question is whether the Raptors are simply fatigued from a long NBA title run in 2019 followed by the stretch in the bubble last season. Lowry, who turns 35 in March, hasn’t been the issue. His numbers are identical to last season.
VanVleet has been even better than last season after the contract extension. He dropped 35 points on the Celtics this past week and has emerged as the Raptors’ most consistent scorer.
The issue could be Siakam, who looked tired and lethargic at times in the bubble, with the Celtics essentially daring him to shoot at times in the playoffs because they feared Lowry and VanVleet more. Siakam’s overall numbers are down, and he was suspended for one game by Nurse because he headed straight to the locker room during a loss after fouling out.
His player efficiency rating is 131st in the NBA, meaning he’s barely in the top one-third of players, despite coming off an All-Star appearance. The forward is not the only problem, but it’s an issue that’s persisted for months and the Raptors need him to get back to previous form to compete.
“We can’t worry about him too much,” Lowry said. “We’ve got to figure it out and all of us come together. We can’t try to force-feed [Siakam]. We can’t make him go get 40 a night. The best thing about Pascal is he gets [points] in other ways.”
The Raptors’ bench has not produced as expected. Powell is shooting 30 percent from the field. Terence Davis has not responded after a promising rookie season, and former Celtic Aron Baynes has struggled. The Raptors repeatedly beat teams in the past with their depth, but now it’s a problem. Several players on the roster are playing poorly at the same time.
“We’re doing a good job of trying to lead and lead by example on the court,” Lowry said “We’ve still got to get everybody to believe in what we’re doing and believe in what Coach is trying to get us to do. I don’t think we have that belief. I’m just being honest. We get down and Coach says we’re down 4 and we look like we’re down 10. We’re down 10 and we look like we’re down 20. I don’t know how he can change that.
“I just think we need to be tougher, get a little more grittier, a little bit more nastier.”
Lowry and VanVleet said they are taking it upon themselves to change the environment. Mentally, the losing has been difficult, compounded by living on the road — after three months last season in the bubble. VanVleet said he’s worried about the mental health of some of his teammates because of the circumstances, but he won’t use location as an excuse.
“There’s no secret recipe; there’s a boatload of problems,” he said. “We’ve got to find ways to solve them. I’ve got to keep trying to lead, find new ways to help guys. Nobody is above criticism and I’m certainly not. Whatever I’m doing is not good enough, obviously. The part we need to be embarrassed about is the belief. Going down 8 and letting it balloon to 20, that’s the part as a team we have to take more pride in. We’re good enough. We’ve got enough on this team to do it.”
Regardless of the high salaries and plush lifestyle, NBA players are pained by constant losing. Toronto is a prideful organization and falling short on a nightly basis is causing concern. The good news is there is plenty of time left to make a turnaround.
“This game will break your heart,” VanVleet said. “I know we make a lot of money. It’s given me the highest highs in my life, aside from having kids, and it’s given me some of the lowest lows. I put my blood, sweat, and tears into this thing and I care. This stuff keeps me up at night. It’s tough to be in this position. We’ve got guys that can figure it out.”
BEST AND WORST
Biggest surprises, disappointments
Believe it or not, we’re about an eighth of the way through the season, and that’s plenty of time (isn’t it?) to make determinations on the winners and losers so far, the teams who have surprised and those who have disappointed.
Let’s start with the surprises:
Knicks — New York entered the weekend 5-3 with wins over Milwaukee, Indiana, Atlanta, and Utah, and new coach Tom Thibodeau has the club playing well with a roster that was expected to return to the draft lottery. A candidate for most improved player or MVP could be forward Julius Randle, who is leading the Knicks in scoring, rebounding, and assists.
Randle was once considered a potential franchise cornerstone in Los Angeles, but he was dealt by the Lakers to the Pelicans to create salary-cap space for LeBron James. After a couple of years with the Pelicans, Randle signed a three-year, $63 million deal with the Knicks as a means of filling salary space, but he has become their cornerstone. All of this with prized rookie Obi Toppin playing just one game because of a calf injury.
Pacers — General manager Kevin Pritchard maintained that the roster was good enough to compete if healthy. The Pacers weren’t healthy in the bubble and were swept by the Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That cost Nate McMillan his job, but new coach Nate Bjorkgren has inspired the club to a 6-2 start, including wins over the Celtics and Rockets. The early MVP has been point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who is making the Bucks’ decision to go with Eric Bledsoe over him a year ago look terrible. Brogdon is averaging 23.6 points, shooting 47.2 percent from the 3-point line with a 4.3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Domantas Sabonis has come back strong from his playoff injury and become a dominant big man. Victor Oladipo also appears healthy and is averaging 20.4 points as he attempts to regain his All-Star status.
Suns — Should we be surprised the Suns entered the weekend with the best record in the Western Conference after finishing 8-0 in the bubble? Probably not, but it’s encouraging for the franchise that the momentum carried over and they are pushing the Lakers and Clippers for best in the West. What is most impressive about the Suns is their balance. All-Star guard Devin Booker attempted nearly 20 shots per game in the past four years, and that number has dropped to 15.6.
The Suns have seven players who are averaging 11.3 points or more, including newcomers Chris Paul and Jae Crowder. No. 2 scorer Mikal Bridges is shooting nearly 46 percent from the 3-point line. So the Suns have turned themselves from a team that needed a lot of scoring from Booker to win into a club with several weapons.
Cavaliers — The Cavaliers are big, with young talent in the backcourt. For the first time in the post-James era, Cleveland is fielding a competitive team and has a chance to make the playoffs. Third-year guard Collin Sexton has taken the next step, averaging 25.1 points per game. There was concern as to whether he and fellow lottery pick Darius Garland could coexist in the backcourt, but that hasn’t been an issue. Garland is averaging 17 points and six assists.
Look out for the future of Kevin Love, who has played in just two games because of a calf injury and doesn’t appear to fit in the Cavaliers’ youth movement. Love is owed $60 million over the next two seasons.
And the disappointments:
Wizards — When they swapped John Wall for Russell Westbrook and brought back Davis Bertans, the Wizards were immediately tabbed a playoff contender. Instead, they are 2-7 with coach Scott Brooks on the hot seat. Westbrook has been uneven, averaging a triple-double but also shooting less than 40 percent from the field with five turnovers per game. Bradley Beal dropped 60 points on the 76ers, but it was in a losing effort.
The issue is defense, as it has been in Washington for several years. The Wizards have the worst statistical defense in the NBA, allowing nearly 123 points per game. They are 28th in opponents’ field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. The Wizards won’t win many games if they can’t stop anybody, and it’s uncertain how they will improve if even Westbrook can’t improve the team’s defensive approach.
Raptors — Their situation could be dire because they are playing with a healthy roster and appear to be hurt by the departures of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. Like the Wizards, defense is an issue, and the Raptors will have to turn into their former selves or risk missing the playoffs.
Nuggets — For years, the Nuggets stockpiled talent in the hopes their depth would somehow help them overcome the Lakers and Clippers, since Denver was never a popular free agent destination. But their depth may have cost them two key players from last season — Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig — and that has affected their chemistry.
Like many struggling teams, defense has been the issue for the Nuggets. They are 23rd in the NBA in points allowed and 26th in field goal percentage allowed. Grant signed with the Pistons because they offered him an expanded role after he was one of the Nuggets’ best players in the bubble. Nikola Jokic has played like an MVP, while Jamal Murray has been solid, but the Nuggets lack a consistent supporting cast.
Hornets — The Hornets entered the weekend 3-5 after a win over the Hawks in which former Celtic Gordon Hayward scored a career-best 44 points. It’s not that the Hornets are major disappointments, but they don’t appear considerably better than last season. The Hornets are having trouble offensively, and while Hayward is leading the team in scoring, others have struggled, such as former lottery pick Miles Bridges. Bridges’s minutes and scoring are down and he also relinquished his starting slot to Hayward.
Devonte’ Graham is shooting just 26 percent from the field and averaging 7 fewer points than last season. The good news is former Celtic Terry Rozier has improved from his first season in Charlotte and become more efficient offensively.
The issue is the Hornets are the third-worst shooting team in the league and that can lead to scoring lapses and late-game breakdowns.
Trail Blazers — With all of their offseason moves, the Blazers were a popular pick to push the Lakers and Clippers for the No. 1 seed in the West. But they started 4-4 with losses to the Warriors (allowing Stephen Curry to score 62 points) and a home defeat to the Bulls. And like most of the struggling teams, the Blazers can’t consistently stop anybody. They are 25th in the league in points allowed.
An answer may be more of Gary Trent Jr., who was brilliant in the bubble and is shooting 45.5 percent from the 3-point line in limited minutes.
The Pistons were dealt a blow when lottery pick Killian Hayes was diagnosed with a labrum tear in his hip sustained during a loss this past week to the Bucks. Because the Pistons were thin at point guard, they were forced to start Hayes and throw him into the NBA fire early. The results were mixed as Hayes struggled to defend at times, isn’t yet a polished shooter, and lacks the elite athleticism to get to the rim, but he had potential, especially playing with a rebuilding team. Former first-round pick Delon Wright will start at point guard and it’s uncertain whether Hayes will require surgery … One of the key reasons the Cavaliers are off to a surprising start is center Andre Drummond, who was averaging a double-double, including a league-leading 14.2 rebounds. Drummond has always been a rebounding ace, but he was accused of putting up empty numbers that didn’t result in victories during his years in Detroit. Since being acquired last season, Drummond has become a more versatile player and fit well in coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s system. Drummond was considered a draft steal when taken ninth overall by the Pistons in 2012, but he was blamed for the club never reaching its potential because of his lapses and poor free throw shooting. Drummond has improved in those areas and has become more of a playmaker and less of a liability on defense. In today’s NBA, players of Drummond’s massive size have to find a way to contribute besides rebounding. Drummond along with JaVale McGee and Larry Nance make the Cavaliers an imposing defensive team … A dark horse for Rookie of the Year is Sacramento guard Tyrese Haliburton, who has played major minutes and is shooting 51 percent from the field and 48.1 percent from the 3-point line. Haliburton was tabbed as one of the more NBA-ready players in the draft and he has teamed with speedy De’Aaron Fox for an effective backcourt tandem. The Kings have been uneven under coach Luke Walton, who entered the season on the hot seat because he wasn’t hired by GM Monte McNair. Walton was hired by Vlade Divac, who resigned after failing to get the team to the playoffs.