Building to win: With season in the rearview, focus shifts forward

by Holly MacKenzie

In a normal year, the end of an NBA team’s season requires reflection. In the second season the Toronto Raptors spent away from Toronto --playing first in Orlando in the NBA Bubble and then in Tampa for the 2020-21 season --, the evaluation process is being done on a season that was anything but normal.

From the 72-game schedule, to the lack of fans able to be present in the arena, to the team dealing with health and safety protocols, it would be impossible to treat this season as any other. And yet, for Team President Masai Ujiri, General Manager Bobby Webster and head coach Nick Nurse, that is what they will do as they move forward to build and develop the team.

“It’s a tough year to evaluate,” Ujiri said at his season-ending availability. “This was a tough situation because no one has been through this before. Our case was even worse than the other 29 teams. We’re not looking for excuses here. We know the work we need to do to get forward and how we need to get back on our feet. It’s a great challenge for us going forward. It has been very difficult to evaluate [this season]. What was that 1-13 month [the team had in March]? I wish I could tell you exactly what that was after we had climbed to fourth in the east. Well, we had an outbreak. And then after that, how do you evaluate your team?”

Though the reflection will be a bit different this time around, the goal is the same.

“This is a copycat league and we are not trying to be copycats,” Ujiri said. “You try things and you go into it. You might fail, you might succeed, but you keep trying. The goal is to win. We play this sport to win. To compete and to win. Our organization is going to do everything to put us in position to win.”

For the players, the immediate priority is to get some rest before getting back into training for next season.

“It’s been a crazy year,” 15-year NBA veteran Kyle Lowry said. “It’s been one of the most difficult NBA seasons that I’ve ever had.”

The Raptors finished this season with a 27-45 record, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013. After a slow start to the season, the team climbed up the standings to fourth place in the Eastern Conference, and then was directly hit with the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. In the aftermath of coaches and players returning to the lineup from health and safety protocols, a 1-13 record in the month of March ultimately dug too deep a hole to come out of by season’s end.

Despite the disappointing conclusion to the season, players never stopped fighting. 

“It was a great challenge, this entire year,” Fred VanVleet said. “Hopefully this is the start of an uphill climb from here forward. Adversity brings you closer to the people that you’re in it with. This year I definitely grew with a lot of the guys and the team. I think going forward this will be a good moment to look back on.”

No one wants to talk about positives when the season ended quicker than desired, but this season had its moments to remember. Lowry remembered all of them.

“The highlights of this year, I’mma be honest with you, we had 10 guys score 30 points, some young guys, some older guys,” Lowry said. Freddie [VanVleet] having his career-high 54 points, setting a new franchise record. The things all of my teammates do, the accomplishments my teammates do [are my highlights]. Jalen Harris having a career night, Malachi [Flynn’s] career night, Yuta [Watanabe] getting a contract, us signing Freddie Gillespie, us getting Khem Birch on a buyout and him having a fantastic year. Pascal [Siakam] taking a beating in the media and then coming back and playing his butt off. OG [Anunoby]’s growth. The growth of OG and understanding what he’s going to be.

“Freddie, I talk about him at length, 54 points, becoming a leader, the second-leading scorer [on the team], should have been an All-Star,” Lowry continued. “Stanley Johnson, a guy that was a high pick, super high, highly talented, hit a low, was down low and then to finish the season the way he did. Being able to see the growth of everybody on our team. Gary [Trent Jr.] coming over and having his career night. Rodney Hood, all of the things my teammates have done is always a highlight of my personal season. What I do personally doesn’t matter to me. It’s what those guys learn and gain and what they do throughout the season is highlights for me.”

When Nurse was asked if there was joy to be found in this season he focused on the growth that took place amid the obstacles the season provided.

“There was a lot of angst in there with some frustration as well, but I also believe we did get to a point where we got pretty focused and locked-in, in teaching mode and learning mode and it was enjoyable,” Nurse said. “Even down to six guys, seven guys [playing], there was still a feel of togetherness and everybody trying to execute and everybody trying to play well and connection, sense of humour, and enjoyment in that. That was a good feeling, even though losses never feel good.”

That fight was perhaps the most important revelation to come out of this year. As Nurse and the front office shift focus to the upcoming draft and then onto free agency, the roadmap is simple. Despite the disappointment of this season amid a tumultuous time, there is one singular goal moving forward.

This is all about winning a championship again,” Ujiri said. “Everyone has forgotten what happened two years ago. Yes we won, nobody cares anymore. We want to win another one. That’s what you want to do. You want to prepare yourself to win another one. Not play in the play-in game, not play in the playoffs. You want to win a championship. Everybody is like why wont you get in the play-in? Play-in for what? We want to win a championship here. 

“What is the next lift? Ujiri continued. “What is the next five years, what is the next 10 years? What are we doing to put ourselves in conversation with all of the great winners? That’s what we want to do.

VanVleet is also ready to shift his focus to the offseason. Though he doesn’t want to spend too much time thinking about the year that was, he remains proud of a team that was still standing strong at season’s end.

“I'm proud that the guys stuck together,” he said. “I think everybody made it out pretty much unscathed. We took a few bumps and bruises along the way but we'll be alright.”

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