TAMPA — The Toronto Raptors officially will begin calling Tampa Bay their temporary home on Tuesday, when training camps open around the NBA.
Individual workouts get underway Tuesday at Saint Leo University in Pasco County, with full practices to follow no sooner than Friday. But teams might not be able to truly begin practices until a few days after that, because they first have to complete mandatory-entry COVID-19 testing.
This marks the first time Tampa will host an NBA team on a regular basis — the Raptors will play here until at least mid-March due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions in Canada — and the area isn’t a traditional NBA hub.
So, here’s what you need to know about Tampa’s new temporary NBA team.
They are consistently one of the league’s top teams
Toronto has made the playoffs in each of the past seven seasons, winning the franchise’s first NBA title in 2018-19. But that just scrapes the surface of how good they’ve been. The Raptors won six Atlantic Division titles during that span, and their 374 wins trail only Golden State’s 388..
The Raptors’ run of success correlates with the return of current team president Masai Ujiri, who cut his front-office teeth in Toronto’s global scouting department. Ujiri became the Raptors’ general manager before the 2013-14 season, then president of basketball operations in 2016.
The franchise has remained consistently competitive despite making several high-profile changes to its roster in recent years, none bigger than dealing longest-tenured player Demar DeRozan to the Spurs before the 2018-19 season for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Leonard led the Raptors to the NBA title in his only season in Toronto, scoring the third-most points in NBA playoff history during the team’s championship run.
They remain a team in transition
Only three of the top seven players — in terms of minutes played — remain from the Raptors’ title team. This offseason, the team re-signed guard Fred VanVleet to a four-year, $85 million contract, the largest given to an undrafted player in NBA history. But they lost their top two centers in free agency, as Serge Ibaka signed a two-year, $18.9 million contract with the Clippers and Marc Gasol went to the Lakers on a two-year, $5.2 million deal.
Retaining VanVleet makes him the franchise’s face of the future, especially with longest-tenured player Kyle Lowry becoming a free agent after this season. But with the departures of Ibaka and Gasol in the middle, the Raptors lost two of their top three rebounders and shot blockers.
They hope to at least partially fill the gap with the signing of free agent Aron Baynes, who averaged 11.5 points nearly 5.6 rebounds in just 22 minutes per game last season with the Suns. He’ll get more time this season.
Last offseason, the Raptors made a huge investment in power forward Pascal Siakam — who became the team’s leading scorer (22.9 points per game) — with a four-year, $130 million extension that goes into effect this season.
They are a team defined by defense
The NBA isn’t a league defined by its defensive play, but the Raptors buck that trend. Last season, they allowed 106.5 points per game, fewest of any team. Even after losing one of the league’s top defensive players in Leonard, they were arguably the league’s top defensive team.
The Raptors rely on constant ball pressure and defending the rim, the latter of which could become more difficult with the loss of their two big men. But they still have two of the league’s most frustrating guards to play against in VanVleet and Lowry.
VanVleet is particularly pesky, turning his ability to pinch ballhandlers into a league-leading 1.9 steals per game.
Head coach Nick Nurse likes to keep opponents guessing, and he will employ a number of different defensive looks to make them uncomfortable. Think of a basketball version of Todd Bowles’ Bucs defense.
This season could serve as an audition
The decisions to re-sign VanVleet while allowing Ibaka and Gasol to walk were made with an eye to the future, specifically next season’s free-agent class.
Both VanVleet and Ibaka were coming off their best seasons, so the Raptors were unlikely to keep both. They chose to invest their long-term future in VanVleet. The decision also opened the door to the possibility of adding a high-profile big man next offseason.
The Raptors are one of the teams coveting reigning back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who could become a restricted free agent next season if the Bucks are unable to lock him up to a supermax deal this month.
Despite giving both Siakam and VanVleet lucrative deals, the Raptors are set up to spend big on Antetokounmpo next offseason. But if Giannis is going to leave the comfort of Milwaukee, which had the best record in the league last season, he must be certain he’s leaving for greener pastures. And for the Raptors, that means showing him they can remain a consistent title contender with his help.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.