Raptors turning season around by rediscovering blue-collar identity

It would have been easy for the Raptors to throw in the towel on a disappointing season. Instead, they literally went to work.

On Feb. 8, one day before the NBA trade deadline, the Toronto Raptors hosted the San Antonio Spurs. The Raptors were 25-30 and 11th in the Eastern Conference. They were projected to be sellers at the deadline and maybe even tankers the rest of the season considering they had the seventh-best odds at the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft.

It would have been easy to give up, both for the front office and the players. It had been a difficult season both on and off the court, with just about anything going wrong that could go wrong.

In fact, it felt like the Raptors were finding new ways to lose close games every night, blowing big leads to the Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz in short succession, with the frustration clearly weighing on everybody. Head coach Nick Nurse called out his team for a lack of effort and focus, while president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri said his team played too “selfish” at times.

But instead of taking their foot off the pedal, the Raptors pushed it down full throttle, attempting to make one final push down the highway of parity that the NBA season had become. Instead of selling at the deadline, the Raptors acquired Jakob Poeltl, betting on themselves and their ability to turn their season around.

Instead of doing less work and giving his visibly tired team a break, Nurse doubled down on practices and film sessions, attempting to rediscover the Raptors' old identity of being the hard-working, blue-collar team that the organization has come to be defined by over the years.

In other words, the Raptors literally went to work.

Since the start of the new year, the Raptors have practiced almost every single off-day in between games, which amounts to 13 home practices in addition to 26 games in the last two months, not to mention away practices and morning shootarounds as well. Earlier in the season, the Raptors would usually practice only following a loss, while many NBA teams tend to stop practicing regularly around American Thanksgiving in late November.

When the Raptors went on their 12-day, seven-game West Coast trip in late January, Nurse said they were going to take a "business-like approach" to the trip. They have kept that same mindset going forward.

That has made for a mentally and physically exhausting lifestyle for the Raptors over the past two months. But that's what you sign up for when you become a Toronto Raptor: to play for a hard-nosed, gritty team that is a good bet to out-work its opponent. That was the identity of the team for years under Kyle Lowry’s leadership, it was the identity of the team last year under Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam’s leadership, and it is the identity they are rediscovering now by getting into the gym and working harder than they ever have.

“That’s different, for sure, from my experiences so far [in the league],” Poeltl said about the team’s workload. “Ever since I’m back we’ve had full practices every single off-day, so there really hasn’t been a true off-day yet…

“We’ve just been working. Obviously, it’s exhausting. But I think it’s key especially for me early on just to get reps in and learn all the stuff. I actually see it as a positive… at least for now.”

That increased workload seems to be paying off recently, with the Raptors coming off a four-game winning streak and having won seven of their last nine games, jumping up to ninth in the Eastern Conference standings and just five games back of the fifth seed. And while the Raptors have not fixed all of their problems, things are undoubtedly trending in the right direction as they work to slowly patch holes along the way.

“When there's issues, you’ve got to try to plug the hole,” Nurse said of his reasoning for the increased workload. “If it's transition, if it's defensive rebounding, if it's guarding the ball, if it's rim protection.

“We've done a lot of studying on some of this stuff too and there’s certain guys that need to be more verbal and need to sprint harder or whatever it is to get better at that. So we'll continue to do that because I think if you looked at the half court defensive sets, most were pretty good, we made a few mistakes, but nothing like we were making three months ago.”

To Nurse’s point, the Raptors' defence ranks 10th in the league over its past 10 games, with its transition defence and defensive rebounding improving dramatically over that span. Sure, some of that has to do with Poeltl, but he has only played six games and averaged 27 minutes, with the numbers trending in that direction before him.

The Raptors have their sights set on a playoff spot. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)
The Raptors have their sights set on a playoff spot. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The team has been in the gym day in, day out, which means they have been together constantly. That could go one of two ways, but it seems like the Raptors are bonding over the shared experience of going through such a tough, gruelling season together for the first time in many of their careers.

“I love being around guys who just love to work no matter what,” Jeff Dowtin Jr. said after admitting that the Raptors practice more than the other organizations he has been around. “It's great being around a lot of guys that are the same way as me. Or even more competitive just in the fact of ‘this guy is in the gym, I'm gonna be in the gym too.’ Just keep continuing to get that extra work in. A lot of us are pretty much all the same. We just wanna work and just wanna get better.”

Regardless of how you might feel about the trade deadline or the direction of the franchise — because there are still major holes on the team even with the Poeltl acquisition and improved effort and focus levels — you have to respect the Raptors for continuing to fight during a season in which less resilient teams might have given up.

That resilience says a lot about the types of players the Raptors have in their locker room, which is filled mostly with late picks who grinded their way up the league hierarchy through hard work. It speaks to their leadership group, including Siakam, who is the posterboy of hard work in the NBA, coming into the league as a “motor” big who became a two-time All-NBA player who sets an example for his teammates to follow by showing up to practice hours early and working as hard as any player in the league.

“I think that’s who we are. We’ve got to continue to fight. We have no choice,” Siakam said about the team’s resilience. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities. Some didn’t bounce our way. And we’ve just got to keep going. Like I always say, ‘80 percent don’t care, 20 percent are glad it’s you [who is struggling].’

“... I think that’s, for me, kinda like my motto in wanting to continue to fight through everything. You go through adversity and you go through tough times and you have to break through it. I think that’s the only way, putting the work in every single day, understanding that it’s gonna be hard, really hard in our position. But if someone can do it it’s gonna be us. I bet on us on that.”

The Raptors' decision to put their foot on the pedal and work through their issues instead of changing the direction of the team also says a lot about the front office and coaching staff. Many NBA teams quickly get impatient and seek external help in the form of a blockbuster deal and blow it up as soon as things don’t go their way. After all, the Raptors were a team on the rise just last year, but calls from fans and analysts to blow it up and reset the culture around Barnes and the young players came quickly.

Instead, the Raptors decided to look inwards and to work even harder to plug their holes, which speaks to the culture of the franchise and the blue-collar identity it has fostered.