It's best for Toronto Raptors fans to purge the 2020-21 season from memory. It was an inconsistent run that saw the Raptors snap their seven-year playoff run as they finished the year 12th in the East. The team battled sudden relocation, felt the full weight of the pandemic, and lost three more pieces from the championship run. The only good to come of it was the lottery pick, which will be their highest selection since 2012, but that's a bitter consolation prize for an entire year of frustration.
But if you must remember this season, here are 10 moments to forget:
1 - Moving on two weeks' notice
It was always going to be impossible to operate locally in the midst of a pandemic due to border restrictions, but the Raptors tried to make their case. When the federal government officially declined on Nov. 20, there was a mad dash towards Plan B. Tampa Bay’s weather and lack of state income tax won out ahead of other finalists including Newark, Nashville, Kansas City and Louisville. It was the equivalent of booking a last-minute motel.
The transition from Toronto to Tampa took place over two hectic weeks. Not only did the Raptors need to build a practice facility from scratch out of a ballroom in the Marriott, borrowing pieces of the court from the NBA’s bubble in Disney World, but there was a tangible human cost of relocating 60 staff members and their families. This also coincided with a hectic free agency period, which saw the Raptors lose two core pieces from their championship run. By the time they finally convened in Tampa, many of the players were living in the hotel above the practice court, and three members had tested positive for COVID-19 which stalled an already shortened training camp. There was also a small conspiracy over the whereabouts of Kyle Lowry, who didn’t appear until the last night of preseason.
The Raptors tried their best to make it feel like home, but at no time did it ever feel remotely like the same. The players openly talked of the season as “72 road games” despite thoughtful decoratives like the Raptors’ court designs, shipping their banner south (which feels sacrilegious in retrospect), and this regrettable clip of president Masai Ujiri sticking a lucky toonie under the practice floor on behalf of the “Tampa Bay Raptorneers.”
2 - 72 road games and hearing “We Want Tacko”
It quickly dawned on everyone that the Raptors were not “home” in Amalie Arena. Florida was open for most of the pandemic which meant the Raptors hosted fans as early as preseason. But the majority of attendees were American fans of the visiting team, which made for very awkward moments. The Raptors had to pump in crowd noise at times to create a positive atmosphere, and still there were incidents like travelling Celtics fans chanting “We want Tacko” as the Raptors were getting pummelled, which added to the embarrassment of losing to a bitter rival.
It happened again late in the season when the Wizards killed the Raptors’ play-in hopes. It was a tight game that came down to the wire, and eventually needed overtime to decide the winner. Pascal Siakam had 44 points on the night, but missed a few key free throws late while the supposed home fans were loudly booing him. Meanwhile, when Bradley Beal was on the other end, there were loud cheers when he was icing the game.
3 - From $50 million to $15 million at center
There was a fair amount of excitement when the Raptors first signed Aron Baynes, who was coming off a career year with Phoenix. Even though he was in his mid-30s and was never an impactful scorer, the Raptors did manage to sign the best of the rest after losing both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol to Los Angeles. It was clear the Raptors went from spending $50 million to $15 million at the center position, but the drop off was shocking.
It became apparent after two weeks that the Raptors had a massive issue on their hands. Baynes was way out of his depth on both ends of the floor, unable to meet the athletic demands of the Raptors’ swarming defense, while being as bad as ever offensively. His three-point shot never translated, and he was benched in favor of Alex Len just eight games into the season. Some sequences from Baynes were so bizarre that it eludes description by the English language.
But Len didn’t fare much better, as he played a grand total of 14 minutes during his two starts before being relegated to the bench. Len’s most notable moment was hitting three corner threes in the Raptors’ first win of the season on New Year’s Eve against the Knicks (which was a pretty solid win considering how the Atlantic Division turned out), then revealing post-game that there was “tension in the locker room.” Len was cut after just seven games where he played 76 minutes, and the Raptors didn’t even provide a good reason for it. Len reemerged in Washington a few weeks later and has been in the rotation all year as a solid rim protector. Meanwhile, the Raptors intentionally played without a center for two months.
4 - From four bounces to the four that bounced out
Siakam led the Raptors in scoring and rebounding, while ranking third in assists and steals, yet he might have caught more scrutiny than anyone on the team. Perhaps that is just a function of being labelled as the go-to guy, or it was just residual bitterness from the Celtics series, but the missed opportunities in crunch time ruined his reputation. He had four game-deciding shots roll off the rim, in addition to a handful of untimely turnovers that contributed to the Raptors being the second-worst team in crunch time this season.
There are fair critiques to be made about Siakam as a player, and whether his skillset allows him to be effective as a closer. But what’s strange is that Siakam went from shooting 27-of-52 last season in crunch time, to 14-of-40 this year while playing in largely the same role. That’s part of the curse of being asked to close, because the sample is so small and every mistake gets magnified. In any case, adding a reliable midrange jumper would solve a lot of problems.
5 - COVID-19 effectively ends their season
The Raptors fought back valiantly after starting 2-8 on the season, and got themselves to 16-15 after a string of impressive wins against Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Indiana and Miami. Nurse turned to smallball to address his problems at center, Chris Boucher was hitting every looping jumper off the bench, and the Raptors were sitting at fourth in the East before their season was undercut by COVID-19.
Up until February, the Raptors had been one of the last teams to be directly impacted. Even stretching back to last season, the Raptors were able to duck the pandemic with no positive cases on the team. However, an outbreak occurred and knocked out five rotation players and six coaches all at once, which made it nearly impossible to compete. Lowry and Norman Powell were the only players producing for the team, with Boucher as an occasional third, and the result was a string of devastating losses.
Even when some starters began to return they were far from their best and running into conditioning problems in the second half of games, leading the Raptors to finish 1-13 in March which included a nine-game losing streak. That put them outside of the playoff picture, and even though the Raptors still had some time to bridge the gap, they chose to ease the workload, move Powell at the deadline and compete for the draft lottery instead.
6 - The last coach standing
At the height of the outbreak, the Raptors were coached to victory by Sergio Scariolo. Now this would be a heartwarming story if not for the circumstances. The entire coaching staff had been in health and safety protocols, including Nurse and five other staffers, and the Raptors had just suddenly lost lead assistant Chris Finch to the Timberwolves that same week. There were even jokes made that Nurse would be made to coach his team remotely through video conference, which would have been somewhat fitting given that much of the world has been placed in a similar circumstance over the past year.
But as luck would have it, Scariolo was still able to go. He had been in Poland coaching the Spanish national team in a qualifying tournament, and he just so happened to return and finish his abbreviated quarantine in time for the game. The team couldn't even hold their normal walkthrough in the morning, as Scariolo didn't receive clearance until the afternoon. Fortunately it was against the Rockets who were on their way to a 20-game losing streak (which was unfortunately snapped by the Raptors), so Scariolo's last-second coaching effort was successful.
7 - Siakam takes frustrations out on Nurse
It's still unclear as to what happened between these two, but what is known is that Siakam made his frustrations known after Nurse benched him in favor of Stanley Johnson in a humiliating loss to the Cavaliers. Siakam went beyond cursing and teammates had to intervene, according to Sportsnet's Michael Grange.
There were also reports that Siakam was fined by the team, although the Raptors pushed back on that notion. Siakam played the next night and nothing else really came of it. Nurse said Siakam wasn't happy about being benched, while defending his decision to try and win the game. Siakam's only explanation was that nobody is happy while losing, and he compared the experience of losing to getting stabbed.
It wasn't the first time Siakam was benched, which is rare for players of his stature. Siakam was made to sit out one game after he fouled out and walked off the floor in a loss to the Sixers. Later in the year, Nurse sat Siakam in the fourth quarter during a loss to the Heat.
8 - A premature funeral for the Raptors GOAT
March 24 will always be remembered in Raptors history. It was the first all-women's broadcast in the NBA (which needs to become a regular feature), it was one of the Raptors' best wins of the year as they ran the Nuggets out of the gym, Lowry was turning 35 the day after (although he kept insisting that he was turning 30), and it was also the last time Powell played for the team that drafted him in 2015. And it was also supposed to be the last game for the greatest player in franchise history.
Lowry wore a pained look on his face when he walked off the floor that night. He showed deuces to the camera and spoke for nearly half an hour after the game fielding various questions about his nine seasons with the Raptors. It wasn't goodbye for sure because he was still on the team, but reports maintained for weeks that Lowry was being moved. Lowry can sometimes be short with the press, so it was notable that he was so patient and willing to reminisce.
The deadline came the following day and while Lowry's name was heavily linked to Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Miami, he ultimately stayed put. The Raptors were clearly looking to sell, as they did by moving Powell, Matt Thomas and Terence Davis, but Lowry remained. Raptors president Masai Ujiri essentially said that the offers weren't to his liking and that he was okay with being perceived to overvalue Lowry. It was a calculated risk to not budge on lowball offers, while jeopardizing an even worse outcome if Lowry were to walk for free in the summer.
9 - OG flips out against Dennis Schroder
OG Anunoby is known for being quiet and mild mannered, so it was quite surprising when he randomly decided to flip Lakers guard Dennis Schroder in a random game in April. There was no lead-up to the play, no history of bad blood between the two, Schroder appeared to be trying to help break Anunoby's fall, and seemingly on a whim, he pulled out a WWE move against Schroder leading to a small skirmish between the two sides.
Oddly enough, the consequences were felt more by his teammates than Anunoby, who was greeted with a fist bump from Ujiri as he was ejected. Anunoby eluded suspension, but Fred VanVleet's peacemaking effort and DeAndre' Bembry taking two steps away from the bench out of curiosity earned them one-game suspensions. Anunoby wasn't made available to media until at least a week later when the entire ordeal was forgotten, so there was never any explanation given for why he chose to flip Schroder, which only added to his overall mystique.
10 - Innovative ways of tanking
The last two months after the trade deadline were a drag. At first it was confusing as to why Lowry was still on the team. Did that suggest the Raptors wanted to salvage the year? And if that were so, then why was Powell traded for a less productive player in Gary Trent Jr.? And why did the Raptors upgrade the center position with Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie?
But it quickly became clear that the Raptors were not interested in a play-in run. Lowry stayed, but only appeared in nine of the last 28 games of the season, sitting the last seven games due to rest after returning briefly for a Lowry masterclass with 37 points in a win over the Lakers. Lowry himself joked that he was "very well-rested" in the rare moments he spoke, and even though he is headed for free agency and a potential exit, there wasn't a repeat of his premature exit interview from the trade deadline.
The rest of the regulars eventually joined Lowry on the sidelines, and that's when it started getting strange. VanVleet sat for the final five games of the year with the official reason being to rest his hip, but he took the opportunity to moonlight in other gigs. VanVleet took on coaching responsibilities, running his teammates through warm-up drills, attending strategy meetings, and even completing the look right down to the polo uniform. VanVleet even appeared on the broadcast for the final game of the year. He did everything except playing basketball.
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