With the Raptors halfway between rebuilding and retooling, the 2019 champs get four chances against the Knicks, a team perhaps firmly ahead in the hierarchy.
While there are multiple Eastern Conference contenders in the Atlantic Division this year, there is only one team that has been able to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy in the last decade: the Toronto Raptors. However, this Raptors team will look a lot different this year as they are getting younger and losing the face of the franchise: Kyle Lowry.
Last year’s COVID-ridden season for the Raptors was basically the polar opposite of the Knicks’ upswing campaign. While the Knicks exceeded their Vegas win total by 18.5 games during the shortened season, the Raptors underperformed by 15.5 wins.
The Raptors only won 27 games last year, but they did manage to eke a win past the Knicks. This was an 83-point dud of a performance for the Knickerbockers in Tampa Bay on New Year’s Eve—their worst offensive outputs of the season.
Back to Toronto
Last year was a shortened mostly fanless season that was strange for every team, but none stranger than the Toronto Raptors of Tampa Bay. The Raptors will head back to the six to play in front of their always rabid home crowd at the Scotiabank Arena.
Between injuries and COVID-19 outbreaks, the Raptors were not able to stay healthy for any extended amount of time. They are hoping to have better luck around this time when they are able to stay in their hometown and facilities.
The 27-win Raptors went home with the fewest victories in the Kyle Lowry era, established in 2012. It also brought the end of the Lowry era as the NBA’s leading charge-taker brought his talents to South Beach as the Raptors seem to at least semi-commit to the youth movement.
The Young Raptors
The Toronto Raptors have one player on their roster that is 30 years of age, Goran Dragic, who may not be on this roster in a few months. He was one of two players they received in return from Miami in their sign-and-trade for the future Hall of Fame point guard. The other player they added to their young core was 2020 first-round pick Precious Achiuwa. Achiuwa joins Gary Trent Jr., who was acquired at the last trade deadline, along with Raptors 2020 first-round pick Malachi Flynn as the young players hopefully improving into gems with Toronto’s elite development system.
Along with their young picks, the Raptors have accumulated over the last few years. They boast three draft picks from the 2021 draft, including fourth overall selection Florida State forward Scottie Barnes.
The Raptors have been known for length and athleticism, especially at the wing positions. They added to that this year in a big way with Barnes and Achiuwa.
Matching Up with the Raptors’ Core
While the Raptors are getting younger, there are three players remaining that played major roles in their 2019 championship run. Those players include once-hopeful Knick guard Fred VanVleet. VanVleet was a likely target for the Knicks’ gap in the point guard position, instead, they bolstered that area by replacing Elfrid Peyton with Kemba Walker and re-signing Derrick Rose. The Knicks will have multiple chances to show the Wichita State alum that he made a mistake by not coming to play at the World’s Most Famous Arena.
The Raptors’ length and defense have been their calling card in the Nick Nurse era. The creativity of Nurse along with the personnel and length of Toronto’s wings and athleticism of their bigs have been a formula for stifling defenses. This will create a good matchup for the Knicks to be able to prove their offensive prowess.
RJ Barrett and Julius Randle will have the tough matchups of being guarded by OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, respectively. Last season, Randle averaged 24.3 points in the three games against Toronto. Barrett rose to the challenge in all three matchups with his hometown team Raptors, averaging 18.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 4.0 assists against the 2019 NBA champions. There will not be a better litmus test for the young wing in his development than how he does against Nurse’s defense.
The Raptors may be in a sort of “purgatory” where they are trying to compete but also need to develop their young players. It remains to be seen if Canada’s only team will be back in the playoff picture, but nobody would be surprised to see them compete. Even with the loss of their greatest player of all time, there is not a better-equipped team in the NBA to do what they are attempting.
It may be better in the long run for Toronto to have another tumultuous year and get another pick to add to their core while giving Scottie Barnes a chance to show why he was the fourth pick of the NBA draft. However, it is a guarantee that the Raptors will play hard and never be an easy out.
When the Knicks play Toronto this year, it will be an intriguing matchup and promises to be a fine representation of whether the Knicks really are a team at the top of the Eastern Conference or not. Whether the Raptors have fallen off or still compete this year, you can guarantee that they will be well-coached and play hard-nosed defense.
However, if things do go well and they are able to stay healthy and continue to get “leaps” from Anunoby, Siakam, or VanVleet, do not be surprised to see the Raptors return to the top of the Eastern Conference just as easily as they are returning to Canada.