Toronto, Canada. June 13th, 2019. The Toronto Raptors have just won the first NBA championship in their 25-year-history against the Golden State Warriors.
Thousands of die-hard Raptor fans gather at the electric Maple Leaf Square outside the Scotiabank Arena, affectionately known as ‘Jurassic Park’. The team was driven to victory by star player Kawhi Leonard, and first year coach Nick Nurse, achieving a top 10 rating in both offence and defence.
Nobody could have predicted that just two years later, the Raptors would not only be at the other end of the standings, but also playing their home games on the opposite end of North America.
As the NBA’s only Canadian team, the Raptors have felt the effects of the pandemic perhaps more than any other team, as travelling back and forth from Canada to the United States during lockdown was not feasible. Due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions set by the NBA, the Raptors have had to play their home games in Tampa, Florida, roughly 1,400 miles away from Toronto.
While trading the cold Canadian winter for the sunnier climates of Florida has its advantages, on the court it has been a different story. Not only did the Raptors miss the native Toronto fanbase, famed for their vocal support and rowdy atmosphere, but from December to March there were no fans at all in the arena. When fans have been allowed to attend, the tickets have been limited, with allocated seating of roughly 3,800.
“We just miss the fans in general. Our fans in Toronto are the best fans in the NBA,” said veteran point guard Kyle Lowry. The 72-game NBA schedule is gruelling in itself, but this becomes more difficult when you have to find motivation within your squad constantly.
Last season, the Raptors finished second in the Eastern Conference. In the current standings, they’ve slumped to 12th in the East with a 27-41 record, meaning they risk missing out on the NBA playoffs this year. The lack of fans is far from the only challenge the Raptors have faced. Following their 2019 win, the team lost Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard who was lured away by the bright lights of Los Angeles to join the Clippers that summer.
As one of the best all-round players of his generation, his impact is virtually impossible to replace. Current star player Pascal Siakam, who was rewarded with a $130 million contract, has failed to progress as quickly as the team hoped. It’s a thinner squad, with less experience and a lack of star power in the era of so-called ‘super teams’ such as the LA Lakers or Brooklyn Nets, both hotly tipped to win the title this year.
But, it’s not all doom and gloom within the Raptors franchise as a whole. Patrick Mutombo is the coach for the Raptors 905, the development squad for the main Raptors team, playing in the NBA’s G League.
I spoke with him briefly in March to discuss how the pandemic has impacted his 905 team. I asked Patrick what was the hardest challenge he’s had to deal with from a coaching perspective. He responded: “The uncertainties and perpetual adjustments. We manage though.” Managing might be an understatement from Mutombo.
After all, his team were named the NBA G league franchise of the year for the 19/20 season. The success swiftly carried through to this year, where they sit at the top of the standings with a 12-3 record. Despite the struggles the main Raptors squad have faced on and off the court this season, Raptors 905 have showed no signs of stopping.
The Raptors senior squad will hope that a return to Canada will coincide with a return of their fortunes, although when this will be decided is currently unclear. There are hopeful signs beginning to appear, not least the NBA’s successful rollout of the coronavirus vaccine.
“More than 70% of our players have received at least one shot” stated NBA commissioner Adam Silver. This, coupled with the fact of the ever increasing vaccination rate of Canada and the USA as a whole, will mean that it won’t be long until players and fans alike can return to arenas.
Featured image credit: Fareen Karim, Blogto