Each successive update on COVID-19 brings more dire news. The latest is that the NBA is looking at a mid-to-late June restart, with no fans in attendance as the best-case scenario, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.
This is in response to the latest recommendation from the Center for Disease Control, which advised that gatherings of more than 50 people in the United States over the next two months are to be strictly avoided in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The NBA is looking into arena availabilities in August, but there is a realistic chance the 2019-20 season might be abandoned altogether. That’s a minor concession for the sake of global safety in the time of a pandemic, but there would be significant sacrifices on the part of the Raptors, who were on-pace for one of their most successful seasons in franchise history.
No title defense
The biggest loss would be the chance to defend their title. Even after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency, the Raptors remained one of the most formidable and resilient teams in the NBA. Toronto held the third-best record in the league, the second-best defense, and five of their top-seven rotation players were in the midst of career years when the season was suspended.
What’s even more impressive is how the Raptors fared in the face of adversity. Toronto lost more games due to injuries than any other playoff team, but it showed a unique ability to succeed in spite of the odds. Look no further than their last game of the season: They were without Fred VanVleet and Marc Gasol, lost Norman Powell less than two minutes into the game to an ankle sprain, were playing on the second night of a back-to-back against the fourth-seeded Utah Jazz, and yet still found a way to win.
There have been about a dozen results like that for the Raptors this season. They survived overtime on opening night as Pascal Siakam announced his arrival with 34 points and 18 rebounds after receiving his ring. They beat the Lakers in Staples Center without Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka because Chris Boucher and undrafted rookie Terence Davis stepped up. They beat the Blazers after VanVleet outscored Damian Lillard 30-9. They set a franchise record with 40 assists in a 36-point blowout over the Hornets. They held Joel Embiid scoreless to beat a Sixers team without two starters. They went up 40 points at halftime against the Jazz. They completed a 30-point comeback against the Mavericks with Kyle Lowry leading four third-stringers. They avenged their Christmas Day loss by dominating the Celtics in TD Garden with Pat McCaw flirting with a triple-double. They set a Canadian sporting record with 15-straight wins before the all-star break. When that streak was snapped, they responded by walloping the Pacers by 46 points to set another franchise record, then went 4-1 on a West coast roadtrip.
Simply put, the Raptors played the entire season with the proverbial heart of a champion, and they deserved every chance to see it through. Given that the league was completely wide-open this season, there was a real shot at a repeat. And when you factor in the loss of a Finals MVP in Leonard that challenged most of Michael Jordan’s playoff records, the Raptors would have went down as one of the greatest underdog stories in all of sports had they won it all.
Free agency concerns
If the season were to be called off at some point, the Raptors might also have to say hurried goodbyes to three beloved champions in VanVleet, Ibaka and Gasol. All three are on expiring contracts and there’s no guarantee they would be retained.
The 26-year-old VanVleet seems the most likely to return. Both VanVleet and the Raptors front office have publicly stated their interest in continuing this relationship, and the Rockford, Illinois native is poised to become the team’s point guard of the future when Lowry’s career winds to a close. There is always a question of money, but the Raptors have VanVleet’s full Bird Rights and could exceed the cap to retain him.
Ibaka and Gasol’s situations are more uncertain. Ibaka is averaging a career-high in scoring and rebounding in his 11th season, and is showing no signs of slowing down. He is fully deserving of another lavish contract and has shown a willingness to sacrifice by coming off the bench despite averaging 18 points and nine rebounds as a starter. Whether the Raptors want to surrender their flexibility to retain Ibaka, however, remains an open question given that the front office has made the summer of 2021 a priority.
For Gasol’s part, he missed 26 games with a lingering hamstring issue, and the 35-year-old has seen his per-game numbers drop across the board. Gasol is still an important player given his ability to space the floor, to arrange the offense, and his elite instincts on defense, but it’s fair to wonder how much he has left in the tank. Certainly, if he were to be re-signed, it should be on a discounted short-term deal.
Contracts aside, it would be a difficult way to say goodbye if any needed to be said. All three players are beloved within the fanbase, and they will be forever immortalized as major contributors to the 2019 championship run. There would be no title without Gasol’s defense against the Sixers and the Bucks, there’s no ring without Ibaka’s timely contributions off the bench throughout the playoffs, and there is definitely no banner without VanVleet’s emergence against Milwaukee and his clutch 3s to close out Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Oakland.
If the NBA season were to be called, everything would be thrown out of whack.
For one, is there a team crowned for the year, and how would that be decided? And if there isn’t a winner, does that mean the Raptors remain defending champions? What about awards? Nick Nurse was the favorite for Coach of the Year, and now there’s a possibility that it was in vain. Siakam would have likely qualified for one of three All-NBA teams, and Lowry would have received strong consideration. For Siakam, he would receive certain bonuses in his contract depending on how high he placed in the All-NBA teams. And for Lowry, a second All-NBA award could have strengthened his Hall of Fame candidacy.
Then there’s the question of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo that is set to take place at the end of July through mid-August. First of all, should there even be such a large gathering during a pandemic, or would it also be postponed? Second, how many player would be interested in going to Tokyo, and how would the preparation and tryouts be arranged? The field for men’s basketball isn’t even entirely set, as Nurse was supposed to coach the most talented Canadian team of all-time in an upcoming Olympics qualifier in Victoria, B.C. this summer. In all likelihood, that event will also be called off.
On a more granular level, there’s the question of quality. The NBA has issued a ban on team practices, and most players will be under social isolation for the foreseeable future. This will create a drop-off in fitness, and it will take longer than usual to get players back into speed. That concern is exacerbated by what will likely be a more densely packed schedule when the NBA restarts, and that could all lead to an uptick in injuries.
There will also be a sobering reckoning on the financial side. If the last quarter of the year and the playoffs are dashed, there will be a significant hit to basketball-related revenue on the season. That will translate to a sharp drop in the salary cap for the next season and force all 30 front offices to re-evaluate their strategies. For the Raptors, their plans of attracting a superstar free agent in 2021 will be astronomically more difficult given how the cap changes, and they may be better off securing what they already have.
Finally, there’s the issue of the draft and scouting in general. With global travel limited and with high schools and universities on hiatus, the traditional systems of scouting is practically impossible. That will affect the 2020 NBA Draft, of which the Raptors own their own first-round pick. The Raptors have one of the widest scouting networks in the world, spanning just about every continent of the globe, and it is one of the biggest factors in their success as a franchise.
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