“I don’t think Toronto’s gonna make it” said NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal during an episode of NBA on TNT regarding the Raptors chances at making the playoffs in the 2019-2020 season. The Raptors were poised to prove him wrong.
But then the season was postponed indefinitely.
After going on a historic championship run and bringing home a ring, Leonard left the Raptors and joined the LA Clippers this past summer to team up with Paul Goerge. Predictions going into the season had the Raptors finishing as the 4th to 7th seed in the Eastern conference and some even had them missing the playoffs entirely. The Raptors were surprising everyone and had held the second or third seed for all of the 2019-2020 season and were only trailing the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern conference when the season came to an abrupt end on March 11, 2020
At the beginning of the season, the Raptors looked like a completely different team than last year. Each player had stepped up tremendously to fill the void that Leonard left with his departure to LA. Last season, the Raptors finished with a 58-24 record, which was tied with the Golden State Warriors for 2nd place in the NBA.
The Raptors played steadily throughout the 2018-2019 season and finished with the second best record in the NBA. They had a very successful playoff run, beating the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and finally the Golden State Warriors to win the NBA championship.
This past off-season, Leonard left as a free agent and joined the Los Angeles Clippers, where he teamed up with superstar Paul George. The Clippers were one of, if not the, favourites to win the championship, since they added arguably two top ten players in the NBA to a previous playoff team.
During the 2019-2020 regular season, the Raptors never fell lower than a top 5 team in the NBA. After winning the most improved player award in 2018-2019, Pascal Siakam stepped up and took over as the primary scorer. Veteran point guard Kyle Lowry was once again the leader on both ends of the floor that he always has been for the Raptors.
Fred Van Vleet, a backup point guard who averaged 11 points per game last season, has become a solid starter, finishing the shortened season averaging almost 18 points and 6.5 assists per game. Norman Powell also improved in every major statistical category and has become a much more consistent shooter, while Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby have stepped up a lot as well to fill the new roles needed from them this year.
The Raptors seemed as if they were playing for something more than they were the previous season. They looked like a team trying to prove that Leonard wasn’t the sole reason they won the championship last season, like many people still believe. The Raptors were not only great offensively, but even better defensively. They were ranked as the 11th best offensive team and 2nd best defensive team in the NBA when the season was postponed.
In spite of the team’s regular season success, the concern for many people was that this Raptors team would not be able to perform in the playoffs without a clear superstar. Although the Raptors did not have a superstar caliber player like they did in 2018-2019, they have several players with a lot of experience who can all step up on any given night.
When the NBA announced that the season was being postponed indefinitely with only 18 games left in the season, the Raptors were looking like they were going to hold the 2nd seed in the Eastern conference. The Raptors were likely to play the 7th seed Brooklyn Nets or the 8th seed Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs.
“We are not in a position to make any decisions, and it’s unclear when we will be,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver when asked about the possibility of the season resuming. He later added “It’s about the data and not the date” and that they are waiting for the number cases to drop and health officials to give them the green light to resume play.
Even though the Raptors had been a huge surprise and had held third place in the NBA for the majority of the season, many fans and NBA analysts still refused to see them as a solid championship contender. The LA Lakers, LA Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks were viewed as the clear 3 favourites, while the Raptors were often overlooked in that discussion and put in the “unlikely contenders” category.
“Honestly, to be fair, it’s not where our minds are at right now” said Raptors president Masai Ujiri in response to questions about whether the NBA season will be resuming. Although the Raptors hopes of defending their title might be off the table for this year, do not be surprised if they come back with the same energy next year to surprise everyone once again.
Cover Image: KA sports photos