When Fred VanVleet made disparaging comments about the NBA’s referees last week, it was the perfect epitome of the Toronto Raptors’ frustrating season.
Toronto entered this campaign with high hopes of improving on last year’s showing where they went 48-34 in the regular season and finished with the fifth seed in the East before bowing out in the first round of the postseason.
However, things have not gone the Raptors’ way as they have struggled to find any semblance of consistency this year and are in the thick of the Eastern Conference play-in race. Their 34-36 win-loss record has them in ninth place and, with only 12 contests left on their schedule, it is unlikely that they will be able to catch the sixth-place Brooklyn Nets who lead them by five games for the last guaranteed playoff berth.
The poor play of Toronto led many to question whether the most appropriate course of action for their front office is to let go of the last few remnants of their 2019 and rebuild around last season’s NBA Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes. The 21-year-old forward was a major reason behind their inspiring run last year and showed the potential to become their next franchise cornerstone.
Instead, Barnes has endured a sophomore slump, punctuated by a dip in his field goal percentage from 49.2% to 45.3%. The rest of his statistics are rather unchanged from his rookie year and much of the excitement surrounding him has inevitably waned. This may have led to their decision at the trade deadline to keep their core together in the meantime and double down on their commitment to this season.
After being linked to almost every superstar that came up in the rumor mill, the Raptors settled on reacquiring center Jakob Poeltl from the San Antonio Spurs. It may not have been the headline-grabbing move that most expected, but the 7’1 center addresses their gaping hole at the center position. He played the first two seasons of his career with the team before he was sent away in the trade that acquired Kawhi Leonard in 2018 and has had no problem reacquainting himself with the team—improving his per-game numbers to 14.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.7 blocks in 13 appearances so far.
Toronto has gone 8-6 since Poeltl’s arrival and while that may not be particularly impressive on its own, it is a marked improvement from their sloppy play over most of this season. What makes their 8-6 record more palatable is that it includes their disastrous road trip from last week where they dropped four out of five games. Since then, they have bounced back with two double digit wins, including a 15-point victory over the West-leading Denver Nuggets.
While those two wins are a small sample size, there are quite a few encouraging takeaways from them. Last year, the Raptors’ depth was their biggest weapon and this was the case for them versus the Nuggets and their most recent win against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Six different players scored in double digits for Toronto in both games, though their performance versus Oklahoma City stood out as each player had at least 16 points.
VanVleet and Anunoby led the way in their win over Denver, scoring 34 and 26 points, respectively. True to his reputation as one of the league’s best defenders, Anunoby also played stellar defense against reigning back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic in the win.
Against the Thunder, it was Pascal Siakam and sixth man Gary Trent Jr. who took charge as they combined for 48 points. Poeltl was solid in both outings as well, putting up back-to-back double doubles for the Raptors.
If Toronto can use this as a springboard and close out the season with momentum on their side, they have all the tools to emerge from the play-in tournament and even pull off a subsequent upset in the first round of the playoffs.
Though it is difficult to imagine them ever making a return trip to the NBA Finals with the core of this roster without the addition of a top level superstar, a gutsy playoff performance should help boost the value of their players and make them more attractive trade assets come the offseason. This should help expedite the reconstruction of their roster as they look forward to the future.
The current state of the Raptors may be disappointing when considering that they just won the NBA championship four years ago, but it is critical to remember that they toiled in the second tier of the East for several years before finally making a breakthrough.
They could be in another consolidation period and adding a superstar to this team without breaking up most of their current group will position them as legitimate contenders. Toronto may be an afterthought in the current title race, yet it should only be a matter of time before their front office figures out a way to put them back into contention.