New Toronto Raptors fans might think of the dark days as losing to LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. More seasoned fans will remember trying to get excited about names like Luke Jackson, Roko Ukić and Juan Dixon during the mid-2000s.
But if the Raptors can’t find their footing this season, it may just be the toughest season yet for the team and their fans.
The Raptors are off to a 2-8 start, the worst start since 2005, and it’s been systematic failure from the top down over the last two months that has led them there.
If the Raptors’ goal was to sign or trade for Giannis Atentokounmpo next season, the moves general manager Bobby Webster and president Masai Ujiri made this offseason make sense.
Fred VanVleet’s new contract dips in the second year and gives management enough wiggle room to be just a few moves away from being able to offer a max contract in 2021.
Letting Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol go to Los Angeles while they were looking for multi-year contracts also preserved flexibility in the cap. But the moment Atentokounmpo, the Greek Freak, signed a five-year, $228.2 million supermax extension with the Milwaukee Bucks, they failed at putting a competitive roster on the floor this season.
Part of that problem is letting Ibaka walk.
Raptors point guard, Kyle Lowry, and Ibaka made up one of the most consistent two-man games in the association before the bubble last year. Averaging 3.8 assists per 36 minutes, only three other duos ranked ahead of them including NBA champions LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
None of the Raptors’ new signings have even come close to the same connection with Lowry.
The new frontcourt duo, Aron Baynes and Alex Len, have yet to show they belong in the rotation. Baynes has been benched and Len is playing a reduced role after the Raptors started the season second-last in rebounding.
Playing in Tampa Bay due to COVID-19 restrictions in Canada has also led to complications for the team.
When they faced the Boston Celtics on Jan. 4, the crowd cheered for Celtics coach Brad Stevens to put in 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall into the game with chants of “we want Tacko”.
Amalie Arena has since stopped allowing fans into the building – sparking a question of why they were there to begin with – but losing home-court advantage while every other team has one is a blow to the Raptors, who have one of the loudest fan bases in the league.
The Raptors have improved as a team over the past three games and their star player, Pascal Siakam, looks to be finding his form after a disastrous outing in the bubble and start to the season. He has almost doubled his post touches to 4 per game, up from 2.8 last season, and he’s been the key to the Raptors’ offence after a rocky start.
Notching a victory over the Sacramento Kings and two one-point losses against the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trailblazers is a positive sign for the team, but they can’t settle for moral victories for much longer. If they wait too long the shortened 72-game season will be lost, and the unthinkable act of trading Kyle Lowry, the greatest Raptor of all time, may be on the table.
Wherever the Raptors go from here, it’s going to be a bumpy ride for the team and fans. If they can’t develop chemistry quickly, it will be a season to forget for all parties.
The championship high from 2019 has finally run out.