The 2019-20 NBA season was always going to be franchise altering for the Toronto Raptors. Coming off the first NBA championship to cross the US border, fans of the Raptors knew that once Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, left for the Los Angeles Clippers, the following season would either be a valiant victory lap, or the beginning of a difficult rebuild.
But when the season began, the reigning champions had other ideas. After a win over the New Orleans Pelicans in early November, the Raptors improved to 6-2, but in the process lost the services of Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. With that, coach Nick Nurse was left to fill those important minutes with the youngsters on his roster, along with players added to the team to ease the loss of Leonard.
And what followed was far from expected. The Raptors would proceed to win five of their next seven games including a road victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, improving to 11-4. Led by the ascending Pascal Siakam, Toronto was one of four teams to own a perfect home record, and had fans and media pundits alike believing that once Lowry and Ibaka returned, they could truly assert themselves in the East and should be taken seriously as contenders.
When the Raptors hosted the Jazz to start the month of December, Ibaka was welcomed back to the lineup in a game that saw Toronto thoroughly dominate the preseason Western Conference favourite. The same couldn’t be said about Lowry’s return a game later, as the Raptors would drop their first home contest of the season to the Miami Heat, in which the Villanova product showed obvious signs of rust after his 11-game absence.
Toronto would drop its next two games for its first three-game losing stretch of the season. Although a 15-7 record should still be respected, considering the adversity the team had to overcome for a majority of the first quarter of the campaign, media personalities that praised the Raptors earlier were quick to pounce, no longer acknowledging that the defending champions were among the elite of the NBA.
Many pointed to the fact that despite the all-star play of Siakam, the Raptors still lacked a true superstar to separate themselves. And after a narrow victory over the Bulls, that unfortunately saw them lose Fred VanVleet to injury, Toronto prepared to host the superstar that led them to the promised land a season before.
Leonard would make his much-anticipated return to Scotiabank Arena to receive his championship ring, and in the process, humbly accept the outpouring appreciation that Toronto fans continue to show for the two-time champ. They were then subjected to watching a man they once rained MVP chants for lead his Clippers to a commanding win over his former team.
The Raptors would proceed to win their next three games, albeit against teams without championship aspirations this season, which begs the question, ‘What are we to make of this edition of the Raptors?’ Toronto sits fourth in the East and only a win off its pace from last year.
However, the team is set to embark on its toughest challenge of the season. Siakam, Norman Powell and Marc Gasol will all miss extended time due to injuries suffered in a win over Detroit. Would Lowry be able to keep things afloat until those important cogs return? Or will this latest slew of injuries overwhelm the team, placing the five-time all-star along with veterans Gasol, and Ibaka on the trade block to help usher in the new era in Toronto?
Lowry has given fans reason to believe in the former scenario with his play in the last two games. When the Raptors took on the Washington Wizards, they found themselves in complete control of the contest, until Bradley Beal made things interesting late. But Lowry steadied the ship with a timely three-pointer that helped seal the victory.
Toronto’s next game against the Dallas Mavericks was an entirely different roller coaster. Down 30 points in the third quarter, the Raptors were tasked with completing a comeback the NBA hasn’t seen in over a decade. And yet a swarming defence and 20 points in the final quarter from Lowry allowed Toronto to storm all the way back and complete its greatest comeback in franchise history.
After taking down the Mavericks, the road ahead doesn’t get any easier. Their next three games are against current playoff teams, including a home-and-away with the Boston Celtics.
Navigating the upcoming schedule and the devastating injuries to the lineup very well could determine the outlook for this season’s Raptors.