Making Sense of the Raptors Slow Start

Wake up in a bed that isn’t yours, go to work in a different office, and play for fans that largely aren’t there for you. This is the current reality for the Toronto Raptors, and it could be contributing to their slow start to the season. 

Like any other team in the league, the Raptors are a group of elite athletes who never want to make excuses for poor play. However, it feels naïve to dismiss these external elements, and how they might impact what is happening to the team on the court. 

Chief among their issues on the court has been the starting center position. Aron Baynes and Alex Len’s minutes in the last 6 games have made the center position a complete vacuum. It doesn’t take a discerning eye to see the two are learning a new system on the fly. They’ve suffered from getting no real offseason, and its made them unplayable as of late. The two have combined for two points, one assist, and a plus/minus of -30 over this recent 6 game stretch. Chris Boucher‘s emergence has kept their minutes at a minimum. Despite that, the team cannot expect to hold a lead when they’re leaking with Boucher off the floor. 

Starting Boucher will not fix everything, there are other issues that need addressing within the team. Pascal Siakam’s play is low hanging fruit in terms of criticizing this team right now. His struggles have already been discussed ad nauseam since the bubble. What feels more concerning is the team’s lack of bench production, which would only be magnified if Boucher has to move to the starting five.

Last season Norman Powell was in the conversation for sixth man of the year, and this season his offensive production has taken a nosedive. His FG% has dropped over 13% from last year, and while averaging almost 6 points less than last year. Matt Thomas looked poised to step into a bigger role this year, and after the first two games he’s disappeared. Nick Nurse has not offered much on his situation, other than he hasn’t been up to standard. Evidenced by Thomas only appearing 4 times for the team this year. The team was counting on his marksmanship going into the season, and it has been missed. With inconsistency plaguing this season, the Raptors have struggled to find their identity on the floor. 

Toronto is the only team this year that when they have to go to their home floor, nothing is familiar. The idea of a home court advantage is to create the most favorable environment for your team’s success. It’s unlikely that will never be the case for them in Tampa.

Psychologically, being on your home floor offers a created value. Players statistically perform better at home because they think being at home is an advantage, and have explicitly stated that having their fans behind them makes them feel better. Elite athletes know how to harness the energy of a crowd to buoy their performance. It’s also worth considering the correlation between being in a familiar environment and your ability to recall information. 

Imagine having to go do your job in a different office all of a sudden. Where’s the printer? What’s the Wi-Fi password? You’d have to re-learn the basics a couple of times before you achieve any basic level of comfort.

While you’re largely expected to perform as if nothing has changed. This is especially true for basketball because so much of it is muscle memory. Good basketball flows, the players seem to know where to be without even thinking. It’s much easier to have that flow broken when you’re in unfamiliar territory.

Details such as sight lines become less impactful with each repetition. Even if it amounts to a few percentage points, those can make the difference when you’re at this elite level. Stats from show the Raptors performed better in Toronto across the board. During their championship 2018-19 season their effective field goal percentage, points per, and offensive rebound rate all took a hit on the road compared to home. It’s possible those few percentage points are the difference between winning and losing for the Raptors right now. 

Sadly for them though, there isn’t much they can do. It’s highly unlikely they will be able to play any of the season back home. The ability to play from Toronto was a decision that was never in the hands of the players. They’ve been forced to adapt in an extra way the rest of the league does not. We should remember these players don’t exist strictly to play basketball, it would be impossible not to feel some of the weight of the situation.

Decisions like moving loved ones, or taking kids out of school are bigger than what happens on the court. Raptors fans need to be patient, especially while the season is young. Even as the Raptors try to shake the slow start, the advantage of playing in Scotiabank will never be there, and it might be the difference between a top 5 seed or the play-in. 

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