The Toronto Raptors were in a bad spot.
They were quickly fading from the playoff race. Pascal Siakam looked like a shell of the budding All-Star that helped them win a title. Their veteran pacesetter in Kyle Lowry was gone too. This was not the same Raptors team, or so everyone thought.
In the darkest days of this past season, the Raptors were facing a lot of questions just three seasons after winning a championship. Could they really put all the pieces back together that helped them win a title in a new way?
It all seemed to be on the precipice. There were people calling for the team to give up on Siakam completely. He looked like a shell of himself, unable to hit a three or keep himself on the floor. It felt like the Raptors could have easily hit the reset button.
That is not what ended up happening this season for the Raptors.
Toronto got healthy — especially getting OG Anunoby back from injury. Siakam found his groove again and had a strong finish to the season. Fred VanVleet, the ultimate success of the Raptors’ development season, kept stability with an All-Star season. Scottie Barnes had a breakout rookie year, helping bridges to the team’s future.
There were plenty of people counting out the Toronto Raptors this season. But because of a hardened identity, the Raptors stayed level and found their burst to make the playoffs.
The Toronto Raptors rallied to finish sixth in the Eastern Conference, bouncing the Cleveland Cavaliers from the Playoffs in the process. They went 14-4 in their final 18 games to earn their spot.
In the process, the Raptors again showed the championship grit that feels embedded in the franchise, even if it lacks the star power it had when the team won the power.
There is a lot of institutional knowledge and composure in that Raptors organization. When there were rocky waters as they tried to figure out how to stay in playoff contention — the Raptors did not climb above .500 until early January — and be more. There were people who thought they were spinning their wheels.
Siakam still put up fantastic scoring numbers but was missing that spark to lead the team. But he still had a fantastic season and turned his game up to another level in that impressive run to end the season — averaging 26.6 points per game, grabbing 8.9 rebounds per game and dishing out 6.1 assists per game while shooting 35.9-percent from beyond the arc in the Raptors’ final 18 games of the regular season.
VanVleet was solid all season, averaging 20.3 points per game and shooting 37.7-percent from deep on 9.9 3-point attempts per game.
Anunoby’s return from injury is what really changed the Raptors’ fortunes. He averaged 17.1 points per game and shot 36.3-percent from beyond the arc in 48 games. And he still missed large swaths of time throughout the season.
The Raptors’ profile ended up being exactly what everyone expects yearly from the Raptors too. Toronto finished ninth in defensive rating (109.9 points allowed per 100 possessions), 15th in offensive rating (115.1 points per 100 possessions, despite all the injuries) and third in fast-break points per game (15.8 points per game).
Toronto, no matter who was in or how the team was doing, was still a swarming defense that forced turnovers and made teams pay for every mistake. They could spread teams out with a barrage of 3-pointers. They could go big and close off the paint.
This is Toronto Raptors basketball in a nutshell. And no matter what happened to the team throughout the course of the season, the team stayed the same.
Everyone knows exactly what they are getting when they face the Raptors. They may not have their full complement and they may still be looking for a galvanizing star to vault them back to title contention, but the Raptors have a complete mastery of their identity and who they are. And they play that style.
It is important to note that culture and success are not all measured in titles.
Yes, every team is striving to win a title. But some teams find success in the consistency of the everyday.
Teams like the Grit and Grind Memphis Grizzlies or the John Stockton and Karl Malone Utah Jazz were stalwarts of the league for long periods of time. They may not have reached the ultimate pinnacle, but they were vital to the NBA’s story and a tough out every night. There was a lot of reward in those extended runs.
Toronto will likely be thinking and trying to find ways to continue improving and climbing the NBA standings. No team should be satisfied with a 6-seed [eds. note: The Raptors finished fifth in the East] and a first-round exit.
But the Raptors also know they may not be a great free-agent market. So like the Portland Trail Blazers, perpetual playoff berths with a clearly defined culture and identity may be where they reach.
In a lot of ways teams like those — and especially the San Antonio Spurs, the great model for culture and identity — are what the Orlando Magic have been aspiring to be for a decade. Their idea when they went to rebuild was to become a team like the Raptors who established a strong small-market culture that kept them relevant, if not in outright title contention.
That first rebuild attempt failed. It made sense then that Orlando hired a Toronto executive to oversee this second try. Jeff Weltman worked with Masai Ujiri for several years, including with another successful small-market team in the Denver Nuggets.
Orlando hoped Weltman would bring the culture-building knowledge from Toronto to Central Florida.
That part is still in the process. There was at least some proof of concept in 2019 (when the Magic lost to the eventual-champion Raptors in the playoffs) and 2020. Jeff Weltman took what was left them, brought in a culture-defining coach in Steve Clifford and got the team to the playoffs.
In restarting the franchise again, he hired a coach steeped in culture and vibes in Jamahl Mosley. If there is one thing everyone is excited about with Mosley, it is how his young roster responded to and stayed tied together with what their young coach was preaching.
The Magic are trying to build the culture and identity that the Raptors have built.
The kind that a bad season is rallying to get the 6-seed in the playoffs [eds. note: The Raptors finished fifth in the East]. That is where the Magic want to get.
Orlando is still building the pillars of this culture and identity. The team’s coach is certainly a big part of it — just as Dwane Casey was for Toronto when the team hired him. The first pick will be key too as every team needs a player to galvanize around. So too will be a lot of these young players. Their development is a big part of the culture.
Toronto showed once again how good of a franchise that is. There are problems to fix, for sure. But the Raptors’ culture and identity helped them set an incredibly high floor.