A year-and-a-half ago, the Toronto Raptors became the first Canadian team to win the NBA Championship, dethroning the greatest dynasty in recent memory: The Golden State Warriors. In the months that followed, they lost their star player to free agency as well as another important starter, yet last season they responded with even more will to win than before, astonishingly improving their winning percentage and remaining a top-2 seed.
Now ten games into the 2021 season, one of the most successful groups of the last five years finds themselves 14th in the Eastern Conference, sitting with a 2-8 record.
How did this defensive-powerhouse with lots of offensive skill plummet so quickly to start the year? Are the players to blame, or is it the personnel?
Here are the many reasons why this great organization is starting to crumble.
1. Loss of Key Veterans
An underrated element of Toronto’s title run was the impact of veterans, coming from big men Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. Their extensive playoff experience and on-court leadership were instrumental in winning championship gold.
Ibaka was terrific creating open outside shots and ramping up defensive pressure late in the game. Gasol crafted a reliable two-man game and was great contesting bigs down the stretch. They both left for Los Angeles this fall, and while the play of their younger replacements has been subpar, it’s obvious the team is missing a veteran presence.
Key veterans, even with less skill, focus younger players and give them confidence down the stretch while making big plays when their backs are against the wall. The Raptors are losing many second-half leads and several games down to the wire this year, so it’s clear some veterans would’ve helped them close out thus far.
2. Awful Depth
Another critical part of Toronto’s title run was the play of their supporting cast, consisting of Danny Green, Norman Powell, and Fred VanVleet. They were unselfish, ready to contribute, and excellent playing their roles leading them to the top prize.
The veteran Green also left for Los Angeles, but the young Powell and VanVleet have since emerged as starters to carry part of the offense. Their previous spots on the bench were subsequently filled by new free agent finds and prospects.
But much of the new supporting cast and nearly all of the bench unit has been abysmal. Signings Alex Len and DeAndre’ Bembry have extremely low production, youngsters Yuta Watanabe and Malachi Flynn are barely outside threats, and wing Stanley Johnson has had awful efficiency. President Masai Ujiri has put more pressure on the stars to win games since he’s given them no skill talents or veterans to contribute to the reserves.
3. Horrendous Center Play
Ibaka and Gasol were skilled big men, combining tremendous defensive pressure with efficient offensive flare. Their roles in the frontcourt, whether starting or backing up, were essential for Toronto’s success.
The replacements this fall came in the form of two players: floor spacing shot-blockers Aron Baynes and Alex Len. They’re cheaper, less-experienced versions of their predecessors, but have a higher ceiling with less mileage.
The problem is they don’t fit well together, and they’ve each been horrific in their own right. Baynes’ scoring has been cut in half from last year because his 3-point shot is way off, and he’s nonexistent protecting the rim with no blocks on the season. Len’s barely shooting or rebounding, and he’s turning the ball over more than he’s contesting shots. They’re very similar talents, both not capable of playing most of the game or closing it right now.
4. Slow Start from the Forwards
The forward tandem of Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam were the pinnacles of the 2019 title, carrying the offensive load and leading the defensive game plan.
Leonard (predictably now) left for Los Angeles in free agency, leading the promising OG Anunoby to take his spot in the lineup. Last season, the tandem was terrific providing a similar scoring punch and defensive prowess that led them to their championship.
Yet in 2021, Siakam has begun to struggle as the #1 option dipping his scoring and shooting efficiency, and Anunoby hasn’t taken a step forward despite a big increase in playtime, as his outside shooting and rebounding rate has fallen off from last year. They were both set to take strides carrying the team’s offense, but ten games in they don’t appear to be ready. The poor production from the tandem has put a lot of weight on the backcourt’s shoulders.
5. Surprisingly Mediocre Defense
The Champion Raptors were a symphony of offensive skill, but they were dominant and able to win the big one because of their menacing defense. They had scrappy guards on the perimeter, scary athleticism on the wing, shot-blocking in the paint, and lots of mental toughness.
It should’ve fallen off the following year since their star defender walked, but they came back with more tenacity and pressure, and pace forming the league’s top defense. Except for the center, all of their starters were returning for 2021 keeping a devastating unit intact.
Ten games in the defense have shockingly started to crumble, with the backcourt not forcing as many turnovers, the bigs not contesting as many shots, and the rim protection is nonexistent. They’re allowing tons of outside shots, and alarmingly losing games in the final minute. The core is looking overworked on the offensive side, and the bench doesn’t seem capable of stopping anyone outside Chris Boucher, causing them to lose their identity.
The Raptors have dug themselves into a huge hole because of lackluster offseason additions, stunted development, and sluggish defense out the gate.
The franchise calling themselves “Jurassic Park” is no longer scaring opponents, but rather horrifying to watch sitting with the worst record in the NBA.
So, to the star players, the head coach, and the leading executive, answer this for me: Is The “Park” Closed?