Skyler Griffith ’21
The COVID-19 pandemic is notorious for altering plans, and the NBA has endured scheduling changes both last season and this season because of the virus. The 2019-2020 playoffs wrapped up in October, which is unusually late in the year. To account for offseason time lost because of this delay, the 2020-2021 season didn’t kick off until December 22.
Raptors fans across Canada also witnessed another painful change: beloved centers Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, who were both a part of the 2019 championship team, parted ways with the organization. In their place, the Raptors signed Aron Baynes, a former Phoenix Sun, and Alex Len, who had last played with the Sacramento Kings. Although the two new signees would unlikely fill Gasol and Ibaka’s voids completely, fans remained optimistic that the Raptors would make their eighth consecutive playoff appearance with ease.
However, a mere three weeks into the season, the Raptors were 3-8 and claimed the 13th seed in the Eastern Conference. Alex Len had been particularly disappointing, averaging 2.3 points and 1.6 rebounds. He was waived by the Raptors after playing only seven games with them. This was a slow start for a team that had won the NBA Finals just 18 months prior.
Since then, the Raptors have turned their season around completely and continue to climb up the Eastern Conference standings. They have jumped from the 13th seed to the 6th seed, meaning they have a secure playoff spot for the meantime. They have a current record of 14-15, and their win percentage should crack the .500 mark in no time. This recent success can be attributed to two surprisingly impactful players: Chris Boucher and Fred VanVleet.
Boucher, a big man who spent the majority of his childhood in Montreal, has taken advantage of a bigger role in the absence of Gasol and Ibaka. He went from playing 13.2 minutes/game last year to earning 23.3 minutes/game so far this season. Additionally, Boucher has made a shocking jump in all statistical categories; most notably a 6% increase in his field goal percentage, a 10% increase in his three-point field goal percentage, and he is also averaging 13.4 points/game compared to his measly 6.6 last year.
Even more remarkably, Fred VanVleet, a guard who excelled in the Raptors’ historic championship playoff run, scored 54 in a game against the Orlando Magic this February. In doing so, he broke the record for the most points in a game by an undrafted player in the league’s history, as well as the single-game Raptors’ franchise record. However, “Steady Freddy’s” consistent play has been overshadowed by these accolades. VanVleet is currently averaging 20.3 points per game and 6.7 assists, outdoing 6x all-star Kyle Lowry in both categories.
Despite the ups and downs bestowed upon the Raptors this year, the team has shown consistent resiliency and perseverance. If rising stars VanVleet and Boucher continue to shine, Canadians will remain proud to call the Raptors their team as they embark on yet another playoff run.
Photo credits: Nba.com (team shot), https://www.goremutual.ca/chris-boucher-overcoming-adversity-to-become-a-champion/ (Chris Boucher)