Basketball summer came to Toronto Wednesday night, arriving in the form of a disappointing loss to the Bulls in the 9-10 play-in game.
Disappointing, but, based on the Raptors’ season and the uneasy questions it begat, not surprising in the least.
“I think everybody in the league knows that Toronto is going to be heading to a breakup,” one opposing executive told Heavy Sports.
Key veteran and second-leading scorer Fred VanVleet may be the first to uncouple — if coach Nick Nurse, who has said he plans to evaluate his own situation — doesn’t beat him to it. VanVleet has a year left on his contract at $22.8 million, but he has the option to sever.
“I haven’t really spoken too much about it. I spoke earlier on it just because they started putting stuff out,” he said. “We’ll see. We’ll see what happens.”
Slow Going for Raptors Rebuild
What’s clear is that VanVleet isn’t happy with what’s been happening as the Raptors try to rebuild the magic that got them the 2019 NBA championship. The thing is, the roster contains a high amount of individual talent that should have prevented it from a mere .500 record and the aforementioned early au revoir.
“I mean, for sure, but it also just drives home the fact that I’ve made a living on beating talented teams and talented players,” VanVleet told Heavy Sports a few days before the final loss. “Talent by itself is just not good enough. You know, you’ve still got to do everything right every single day. You’ve got to be able to play as a team. You have to be able to execute and close out games.
“Like, there’s so many other things that go into it. We could have no talent, so let’s start there. We could be in a situation where we don’t have talent. But like I said, we’ve just got to continue to find ways to be better as a group and do something with the talent that we have.”
Asked if his teammates fully grasp what they have and what they could be accomplishing, VanVleet said, “I’ve been screaming it for two years, you know what I mean? I think that at a certain point you can’t make anybody grow up. It’s going to happen at their own pace and their own speed, and that’s the frustrating part about maturity and just the development stage is that you can harp on it all you want to.
“The only real teacher is experience, so sometimes you’ve got to learn lessons the hard way. I think that a lot of these guys will be in great situations going forward. But even myself, there are a lot of things I had to go through as a young player to become the player that I am. That’s true for everybody. You’ve got to go through it to get through it.”
How many will get through to next season as Raptors is an open matter. VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. can opt out of their contracts. Jakob Poeltl, who was re-acquired in a February trade, will be a free agent.
“Obviously we’ve got a couple of free agents. That’s the biggest thing, a couple of key free agents,” said Nurse. “I don’t think that’s too uncommon for most teams to have those decisions to go through. I don’t keep my finger on every team’s roster and know how many teams have free agents or whatever. But it’s always a big concern, and the dominoes start there, right?”
NBA Sources: Major Changes Ahead for Raptors
While those three players have decisions to make, so does Toronto management. The feeling among other clubs is that there will be significant change — perhaps quite a bit of it.
“They’re going to get rid of some of their assets and just go in another direction,” said a league source. “Who it is, I don’t know. But I know that (OG) Anunoby’s name comes up all the time. Interestingly enough, (Pascal) Siakam’s name is not as well regarded as you would have thought. The guy gets buckets. He can score. But it do think he and Gary Trent carry the same label. They can score, but I’m not sure they help you win.
“VanVleet’s a player, and so is Scottie Barnes. Poeltl is a competent center. He’s nothing special, but he’s certainly competent and provides a pretty good defensive presence. Siakam is one of the better scorers in the league. And all Gary Trent does is make buckets. Yet they can’t bust a grape.
“I like their talent level. We’d love to have some of that. But together, what they have doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. I think Nurse has been around, and he realizes when the bloom is off the rose.”
To be fair, the petals began to fall when Kawhi Leonard led the Raptors to the 2019 title and skipped town.
“First, you’ve just got to be a student of the game and understand that the situation that we’re in is not unheard of,” VanVleet said. “It’s not uncommon that some teams that go and compete for a championship kind of put all their chips in for the ‘chip, so to speak. You’ve got to try to put it back together after the fact, and I think that some of what we’re going through now is you’re seeing some of the residue from going all-in and trying to put it back together. But we do have talent and promise and opportunity.
“We’ve got something, so we’ve just got to continue to fine tune it and sharpen it up. I think just more than anything, this season has shown us kind of like where we are at this moment.”
At that moment, the Raptors still had a shooter’s chance. Now they have hoop summer.