How do you solve a problem like the Raptors? A 5-point plan for improving Toronto's playoff odds
Two years ago, they were the "Kings of the North". Kawhi Leonard hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy high above his head and Torontonians numbering in the hundreds of thousands lined the streets of that fair Canadian city to toast the Raptors' first championship.
Then COVID-19 forced the team to play out of Tampa Bay the entire 2020 season. The Raptors lost some key pieces and things went askew. Now, coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night, the Raps are looking less like kings and more like pawns on a chessboard.
Still, all is not lost. The team is sitting on an 11-14 record less than a third of the way into the 2021-22 season, they’re only three games back of a play-in spot. Here are five ways the Dinos can once again reach kingly heights this year.
1. The notorious (missing) BIG
When the Raps won the title, they did so with a complimentary set of big men in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. However, shortly after the 2019 championship season, both left for different pastures and the Raptors brain trust has been unable to properly fill that "big" void ever since. However, with trade season upon the NBA, rumors that teams like the Pacers and Trail Blazers could be shedding parts is potential good news for Toronto. If players like Pacers’ Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, or Portland’s Jusuf Nurkić hit the market, Toronto's fortunes could change overnight.
The Raptors are down to zero healthy centers. If only there were a couple impact bigs on the market…— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) December 9, 2021
Domantas Sabonis or Myles Turner would check a lot of boxes. Question is, are the Raps ready to expedite the growth process, and at what cost? https://t.co/ahwUBEuov9 pic.twitter.com/wnPv3Y5iVd
2. Score more
It’s been a trouble area for Toronto all season. Whether open or contested, making buckets has been a struggle for the team this year. Currently, the Raptors are averaging just 104.9 points per game, which is third from last in the Eastern Conference. That won’t cut it if they hope to secure a playoff spot in the East. The good news is that their team defense is coming back online, and they’re holding opponents to an average of 105.4 points. A small tweak here and there, and the Raptors should be able to score more than they’re letting in.
3. Rookies gonna rook... but for how long?
When the Raptors picked Scottie Barnes at the No. 4 spot in this year’s draft, many said they messed up passing on Jalen Suggs. But you know what? Nuh uh. Since hitting the floor for the Raps, their top pick has done nothing but produce and continues to gel with the team's leadership/star corps of Pascal Siakam, Fred Van Vleet and OG Anunoby.
Scottie Barnes is now shooting 42.1% from 3 over his last 5 contests on 3.8 attempts per game. Pretty remarkable how far he's come as a shooter over the last few years. Scary for opponents if he's able to turn one of his only true pre-draft question marks into a real strength. pic.twitter.com/NxIa2te8O8— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) December 2, 2021
Still, he’s just a rookie and the team is struggling with teasing consistency from Barnes as well as other youngsters on the squad, including Precious Achiuwa, Dalano Banton and Gary Trent Jr. If the kids can find a way to get down to business game-in and game-out, the Raps' record will definitely trend in the right direction.
4. Get on the same page
A rotating cast of characters over the past year has taken its toll on team cohesion. Guys are still trying to figure out each other’s habits and on-court decision-making trends. Add to that the Raptors' planned starting five of OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Scottie Barnes, and Khem Birch has barely played together due to injuries and you have a team that often gets discombobulated in-game. But as they say, "practice makes perfect." As Toronto’s players keep trotting out there, they’ll soon get to know one another well enough, no matter the line-up configuration. That should start paying dividends in wins.
5. Get healthy!
This one’s a no-brainer. It’s also something head coach Nick Nurse has zero control over. Injuries have absolutely ravaged the Raptors this season. Dings to OG Anunoby (hip), Khem Birch (knee), Precious Achiuwa (shoulder), Goran Dragic (personal reasons) and Justin Champagnie (knee) have caused problems for Nick Nurse all year.
The head coach has been duct taping together a starting five and a serviceable bench for as long as he can remember this year. Still, if the Raptors can get healthy for the second half of the season, there’s no reason not to believe a full roster and proper bench mob can’t right the ship up North.