From Highs to Lows: What Went Wrong for Canada’s Only NBA Team?

In mid-March, the Toronto Raptors sit 12th in the NBA’s Eastern Conference with 23 wins to 45 losses, a losing streak of seven games, and only one of its last 10 matches ending in victory.

It’s a poor state of affairs, especially for a team that, just a few years ago, was riding high on a historic NBA Championship title – the first for a team north of the border. This win was so momentous that some even described it as a “victory for Canada” as it helped to fuel a basketball boom in the country. That boom, however, has failed to materialize into anything more than a one-hit wonder.

toronto Raptors
Photo by Joshua Chua on Unsplash

The Raptors’ current form is expressed starkly by the team’s current outright NBA betting odds which put them in joint second-to-last place with 1000/1; only the Detroit Pistons currently fare worse at 2000/1. In contrast, teams that were enjoying decent futures odds at the time Toronto won the NBA Championship, including the Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Phoenix Suns, are all still contenders for basketball’s biggest prize.

To analyze the situation in Toronto, it’s important to understand what led to its success in 2019 and what’s changed since then.

The Factors of Success

Winning a major piece of silverware like the NBA Championship is both an art and a science that requires a combination of things to come together. This includes a well-rounded team with talent in every position, depth to act as a backup for those positions, a full roster with few players with injuries, a strong coach, confidence, and momentum.

Having a fit team that follows a strict diet of healthy foods and exercise is also vital.

That’s still not enough, however. You can have the perfect team and still lose as your opponents may be just as strong as you. In 2019, many of the Raptors’ biggest title rivals fell or faltered in one or another.

Golden State was suffering with injuries, while Milwaukee and Boston both failed to live up to expectations, paving the way for the Raptors to cruise to victory.

There was also a bit of luck involved, there always is. Toronto got itself into position to win and the winds of victory blew in their direction in the finals.

The Decline

Things didn’t go downhill immediately for the Raptors. In the 2019-20 regular season, the team finished second in the conference, but didn’t make it past the second round in the playoffs. Since then, Toronto has yo-yoed around in the bottom half of the league, looking distinctly average.

Things declined further in 2023-24, resulting in the team’s current run of form.

Shortly after the team’s NBA Championship win, other teams came sniffing around its top players. Losing Kawhi Leonard was a bit hit to its roster, as was the departure of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol.

The competition has also improved, with the teams that fell to the wayside as the Raptors charged through in 2019 all stepping back up.

Since 2020, both the Bucks and the Warriors have won NBA Championships, while the Celtics have made it into the finals. There’s also been strong competition from the Lakers, Suns, Heat, and Nuggets to contend with.

Last year, the Raptors also lost Nick Nurse, the team’s head coach since 2018 and a constant presence in Toronto since 2013. Many fans see this as an opportunity to start fresh following a bad run of form, but it is also a big loss for the team.

Nurse has been in Philadelphia since, where the 76ers look set to make it into the playoffs, something the Raptors won’t manage.

Time for Rebuild

In basketball, just like all professional sports, teams run in cycles. With few exceptions, a franchise will enjoy a period of success before a disruption to the status quo (ex. a key player leaving) leads to a wobble.

The wobble turns into a decline, sliding the team down the league, often reaching the bottom. Fans and sponsors are left dissatisfied with this performance and push for change.

This leads to personnel changes, both on the court and off, and a new project of re-building begins before, hopefully, fresh victories can be seized.

Right now, the Raptors are somewhere between approaching the bottom and beginning their re-build. They can win the NBA Championship again, but it won’t be for a while.