Toronto Raptors early Decemeber struggles are nothing to worry about

After Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka returned to the Toronto Raptors rotation, the team fell right into a slump. Despite those struggles, there’s nothing to be concerned about.

It’s not often that Toronto Raptors fans have much to complain about. This 2019-2020 NBA season will likely result in their 7th consecutive playoffs appearance, the third-longest active playoff streak in NBA. They have the most recent NBA Championship in their trophy-case. Under Masai Ujiri, they’ve been one of the most consistent franchises in the league.

Even after losing their beloved superstar, the defending NBA Champions cruised to a 7-2 record to start the season, before Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka got injured. However, even those injuries didn’t seem to deter the team, as Pascal Siakam put himself amidst the core of the Most Valuable Player debate and had the media galvanized over how he could become the first player in NBA history to win back-to-back Most Improved Player awards. Fred VanVleet was putting up All-Star numbers, proving that he belongs to be in Chicago with the rest of the league’s elite, and the 22-year-old OG Anunoby was beginning to hit his stride again, after an up-and-down season last year.

The emergence of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, and Terence Davis paid major dividends, as the Raptors embraced a true underdog mentality, defeating several top Western Conference opponents.

After 19 games, the Raptors were at the top of the league in several statistical categories; 3-point percentage, free throw percentage, and fastbreak points.  Although they ranked near the bottom of the league in both offensive and defensive rebounding, there was hope that these issues could be fixed upon the returns of a more sturdy backup centre in Ibaka, and one of the best rebounding point guards league, Lowry.

When Lowry and Ibaka rejoined the team, the Raptors were expected to show the prowess of true contenders immediately. Rather, the results were quite the opposite. The offensive flow that Siakam and VanVleet had established was disrupted when VanVleet was forced to spend more time off-ball. The MVP candidate of the team whom the Raptors relied on to score 28 points every night got lost in the new style and was far less aggressive. The team’s sharpshooting from 3-point range dissipated in ugly fashion, which led to an abysmal 25.6-percent clip from beyond the arc over the next five games, as compared to their blistering 40.2-percent 3-point-shooting prior to that.

The combinations of an out-of-rhythm offense and the team’s inability to contain Jimmy Butler led to the Raptors’ first loss at home of the season. In the following two home contests, the Raptors slide continued, dropping games to the Rockets, and then the Los Angeles Clippers, quickly taking the North from a perfect 9-0 home record to a less impressive 9-3.

The team would go on to lose four out of their next five games after Lowry and Ibaka returned to the lineup. They also lost Fred VanVleet to a knee injury during that stretch. The Raptors were battling fierce competition, which can certainly be pointed to as another culprit of their underwhelming play, rather than putting all of the blame on Lowry and Ibaka. The five teams that the Raptors played immediately following Lowry’s and Ibaka’s returns had a combined winning percentage of 61.9-percent.

To make the playoffs, it’s well-known that you have to be able to beat the teams whom you’re ‘supposed to’ beat. However, to go deep in the playoffs, you have to consistently beat winning teams too. Thus far, the Raptors haven’t shown that they are capable of doing the latter. Against teams with a losing record, the Raptors are an extraordinary 15-0, however against teams with a winning record, they’ve struggled, going just 4-8.

Stats don’t lie, and over those first five games, after Lowry and Ibaka recovered, it’s no doubt that the numbers don’t look good. The hitch is that teams need to know how to play alongside one another to be successful. A chef can’t make a Michelin meal with cooks whom he’s never met before, and similarly, an NBA team won’t win basketball games if the players aren’t accustomed to playing with each other.

Typically, teams try to bring players back from injuries against weaker competition, in order to give the players a chance to mesh and rebuild their cohesion with the guys around them. The Raptors had no opportunity of the sort. They threw Lowry and Ibaka into the fire against the Heat, Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, and Clippers, all within the span of 8 days.

Sports teams aren’t always equal to the sum of their parts – they can be more, or they can be less. Historically, the Raptors have been more, but when players are in and out of the lineup, they have to learn to adjust to each others’ playing style, and that takes time. Assuredly, this, along with the tough scheduling was the cause of such poor Raptors basketball. But it would be foolish to think that this team is worse off with Lowry and Ibaka, or that the Raptors aren’t still a top team in the Eastern Conference.

At the beginning of the season when the Raptors had a fully healthy roster, they started out 7-2, and there didn’t seem to be any weak points within the rotation. Once Marc Gasol, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, and Matt Thomas all return from injury, Nick Nurse will have a fully healthy roster to build his rotations even deeper than they were to start the season. Ultimately, that should yield the top guys more opportunity for rest, which should result in the best post-Kawhi Leonard Raptors basketball we’ve seen thus far.

What’s different from the first nine games, is that now he will have a junkyard dog in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to rely on, an explosive athlete in Terence Davis to give the team a jolt, and even Chris Boucher to come in and provide some rim protection. Don’t be alarmed if there’s once again some sloppy play at first – that’s what should be expected when guys return from injury.

As the Toronto Raptors have shown us over the past three games, there’s nothing at all to worry about. The losing skid was hardly a drift at all. Just like death, and taxes, it’s essentially one of life’s guarantees that this version of the Toronto Raptors will be A-OK.