It’s hard to make sense of the Toronto Raptors 2021-2022 season. Their expectations heading into the campaign were their lowest in years, with many predicting an uphill battle just to make the play-in tournament. They don’t have a single player above 6’9 and are ranked 30th in the NBA in defensive rebounding. They have one of the franchises worst bench units in recent memory and rank dead last in reserve scoring. Through 76 games, they’ve only had a healthy starting lineup in 20, with significant time missed from OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam in particular. Things shouldn’t be as promising as they are for this young, inexperienced Raptors team.
Yet here they are. Against almost every season preview think-piece, the Raptors are surging towards the playoffs with a red-hot run of form and a fully healthy squad. They hold their own destiny in terms of securing an automatic playoff seed, and are the consensus “avoid this team” outfit in the Eastern Conference.
Nobody wants to play the Raptors come the postseason. Sure, the vaccination rules play a part in it (Kyrie Irving is one of the many notable players that would be unable to play in Toronto), but the team on the court has a lot to do with it as well. 44-32 on the year and 8-2 in their last 10 games, the Raps are in the best form of anyone in the conference.
When the Raptors have had their first-string starting lineup available this season, they’re 14-6. Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, and Siakam are a lineup unlike any other in the NBA, and they are primed to cause trouble moving forward. They’ve built an identity around long wing-spanned, tough defending, scrappy, versatile players, and it seems to be working. Toronto forces the second most steals in the NBA, are second in offensive rebounding and have the ninth best defensive rating. They may not have the most depth or superstar talent, but the Raptors will not be outworked.
Though the big-time superstar name might be absent, the Raps are not devoid of elite playmakers. There’s a strong argument that Siakam deserves to make an all-NBA team this year for his remarkable play in the second half of the season, VanVleet is an all-star and one of the best guards in the Eastern Conference, and Barnes should absolutely be a frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year award. This team has exciting players, and while they may not have the dominant #1 option that can carry them to a title, they are way ahead of schedule.
All of the success this season has been gravy for Raptor fans, who were likely expecting a play-in tournament appearance at best back in October. The heavy minutes on the starters and lack of effective bench options may raise a few eyebrows, but they seem to be holding out just fine. The addition of Thaddeus Young has been crucial, bringing not just experience but valuable reserve minutes as well, while Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa have been good enough to keep the team afloat while the main pieces get a rest.
The Raptors sit in sixth in the Eastern Conference with 6 games to play, tied with the struggling Chicago Bulls for 5th, and 2.5 games ahead of the reeling Cavaliers in 7th. With time left in the regular season quickly expiring, the Raptors are in complete control of their destiny with two weeks to go before the playoffs, and have a friendly-enough remaining schedule to make you think they can hang on to one of those top-6 automatic spots.
Now once they get there, the Raptors would likely have to face the Celtics, Bucks or 76ers in the first round, where they would be considered heavy underdogs. Still though, the Raps are an opponent that those aforementioned teams will want to avoid, as they’ll likely have to endure a tougher first round with Toronto than any of the surrounding competition.
Expectations need to remain in check, but the plain reality is that the Toronto Raptors are a good basketball team. They’re young, fun to watch, and are still far from the eventual finished project Masai Ujiri and company have in mind. This team is moving ahead of expectations, and are a Raptors fans happiest dream considering the turbulent times they’ve experienced since the start of the pandemic. Things went almost directly downhill after the bubble: losing key pieces, having an awful season in Florida, moving on from Kyle Lowry, etc. Fast forward to now, they’re playing exciting basketball and entering the American mainstream media conversation for the first time since Kawhi Leonard wore Raptors red.
It’s hard to make sense of the Toronto Raptors 2021-2022 season. There’re no expectations but there’s also no pressure, and the team has been allowed to make mistakes and learn at their own rate, improving consistently in front of our very eyes.
It’s almost time for playoff basketball, and in one form or another, the Raptors will be back in the mix. For now, maybe that’s the only thing that needs to be made sense of.
Next up: 7pm Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic at the Amway Center