No matter what happens in the playoffs, this season has already been an overwhelming success for the Toronto Raptors.

The franchise returned home to Toronto and got to (mostly) play in front of sold-out crowds once again, energizing a city desperate for live basketball. Scottie Barnes, the surprise No. 4 pick in the 2021 draft, turned out to be far ahead of schedule and could not only win the Rookie of the Year award, but one day become an all-time great. Fred VanVleet had his best season as a pro, carrying the Raptors early in the season as one of the best shooters and defenders in the NBA, earning his first All-Star nod. Pascal Siakam, despite missing the first 10 games of the season due to offseason shoulder surgery, was the best Raptor over the second half of the season and put to rest any doubts about his ability to carry an offense at an elite level. And Nick Nurse got the very most out of an imperfect roster through transition play, offensive rebounding, and versatile defensive schemes, winning 48 games and the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, where they will match up with the Philadelphia 76ers in the first-round. 

Very few people expected the Raptors to be in this position, with Vegas pinning their preseason over/under at 36.5 wins and Raptors’ president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri, even saying ahead of the season that “we are not a team of now” and that there will be “growing pains.” After all, the Raptors are the least experienced team in the entire league if you exclude 33-year-old deadline acquisition Thad Young.

But the people who did believe in the Raptors all along happen to be the same ones who lace up their sneakers and don those red, white, and black jerseys 82 times a year: the Raptors themselves. 

“I was expecting to be sitting here,” Nurse told the media after the Raptors clinched the No. 5 seed on Sunday afternoon. “When we started the season and everyone picked us to be 11th, I was like, ‘No way. This is a playoff team. We’re not that bad. We’re a playoff team.’”

“It means a lot. It’s one of those things we gotta just appreciate the journey,” VanVleet added. “I think when you are building something here that I have been a part of for six years—the first four or five you kind of get a little jaded, a little spoiled, with just expecting the winning and excellence it takes to be good every night in this league—that was taken away from us last year. So, sitting at home in April and watching the first round of the playoffs or even the play-in, when we all felt like we were capable enough to be there, stung a little bit and I know that’s something that we spoke about.”

“Everybody here has great energy, positive energy, everybody’s funny, and we’re all around the same age. So it’s cool. It’s a great environment.” – Gary Trent Jr.

The Raptors won just 27 games (out of a shortened 72-game schedule) last season in Tampa Bay, Florida, where they were displaced at the last minute due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And while they were clearly better than their record would indicate considering how hard the team was hit by COVID and how they struggled to close out games, something always felt off about that team: There was the argument between Siakam and Nurse, the ‘your turn, my turn’ style of offense, and just the way they talked about their experience abroad, with VanVleet saying:

“I do worry about guys’ mental health, just as a brother, teammate and friend. Because it’s not an ideal situation… but at the same time it’s the situation that we’re in… We gotta find a way to get through it. It’s different than being in Toronto, obviously, but here we are.”

In hindsight, with the Raptors away from home—in some cases living in hotel rooms, in many cases away from family and friends—and with a deadly virus running rampant around them and jeopardizing the bodies that these high-level athletes rely upon to make a living, it’s no wonder some of the Raptors struggled to do their job at a high level. Everyone who has ever had a job, let alone one as stressful as working in the NBA, knows how hard it can be to perform when you have more pressing issues in your personal life and you feel like crap. 

So, maybe the reason that the Raptors always believed that they were going to bounce back and be a playoff team this year was because they understood better than any outsider ever could just how abnormal last season was. 

“The Tampa experience didn’t even feel real. It felt like we were playing preseason games for the whole year. There was never any connection there with what we were doing and the fans and all that stuff,” Nurse says. “Now we’re back home. You can feel the juice in our city streets up there, in our arena. The people are getting fired up.”

“Everything was so isolated last year. Even the way we sat on the bench, right? You check out of the game and you go sit in the third row of the stands and watch the game from behind a stanchion. You can’t even touch anybody. We’re even scared to fist bump. It was weird. Last year was weird every step of the way and this year has felt a little bit more normal,” VanVleet says.

“I think having some time to build some culture and some chemistry on and off the court, I think it helps and it pays dividends when things are tough.” 

Gary Trent Jr. #33 and Malachi Flynn #22 of the Toronto Raptors smile before playing the Portland Trail Blazers
Image via Getty/Mark Blinch

That chemistry-building started back in the summer, when virtually every member of the Raptors organization met at Summer League to cheer on the likes of Barnes, Precious Achiuwa, Malachi Flynn, and Dalano Banton. It carried through in summertime workouts in Los Angeles, where several Raptors played pickup games and trained together. And it finally culminated in a relatively normal training camp and preseason in Toronto, where the Raptors had the opportunity to get to know each other on and off the court. 

You don’t need to be around the Raptors every day to see that this is a group that gets along exceptionally well. There is a clear hierarchy and a leadership group in place that sets a tone and acts as mentors for the younger players by leading by example. And there is a whole lot of youthful energy spearheaded by the 20-year-old rookie Barnes. 

Watch the way that the Raptors celebrate each others’ successes on the court and from the bench, or the way they joke around with each other during shootarounds and after practices. It’s clear that this year’s team is better equipped to handle the rigours of an NBA season than last year’s team was and that the vibes, as the kids say, are immaculate. 

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“I would say [this group is] up there [among the different groups I’ve coached],” Nurse tells me. “I think they do like each other and there’s not much angst or issues or anything going on. We go out and play and when we don’t [win] or have one where we don’t play so well, we try to get back to work and go get the next one. We’ve done a good job of bouncing back, right? The ups and downs, ride the waves of the season. So, pretty enjoyable.”

“It’s up there, it’s definitely up there. I think as time goes on, it’ll continue to grow. But as far as a new group being together for the first time, I think we got to be up pretty high… whether that’s just all the guys being around the same age that are new and having that experience together, and then other guys who have been here like myself, Pascal, and OG Anunoby being able to mix those guys in,” VanVleet says. 

“Again, we’re just taking the blueprint that we learned as young guys where me and Pascal are pretty tight, and we try to be unselfish and it trickles down. And we just focus on winning, and as long as you put winning first, everybody will be happy, and everybody can contribute and raise their value. And that’s kind of what we like to hang our hat on.”

Of course, you don’t need to be best friends to have success in the NBA. There are plenty of examples of teams who had off-court drama and didn’t get along but who were skilled and mature enough to put it aside in the name of winning basketball games. But this Raptors group has a unique mix of characters that seem to get along exceptionally well. And as much as that’s not required to have success, it certainly can’t hurt. 

“We’re just having fun, I think that’s one of the biggest things. We’re all having fun, but we’re all taking it super seriously because we all want to win basketball games and we all want to potentially get this franchise back to a championship.” – Thaddeus Young

“Everybody here has great energy, positive energy, everybody’s funny, and we’re all around the same age. So it’s cool. It’s a great environment,” Gary Trent Jr. tells me. “I feel like most definitely [it can help on the court]. Any circumstance you’re in, if everybody’s gelling together, everybody’s being positive, everybody’s helping one another, that’s the recipe for something that is good. I can’t see anything negative coming out of that.”

“This group is just really, really good,” Young, who was brought in to provide veteran leadership in the midst of his 15th NBA season, adds. “We have a good mixture of vets, guys who are kind of just getting into the prime of their careers, and guys who are just coming into the league. We have a really good mixture of guys as well as a really good mixture of guys on the coaching staff as well so everybody can kind of relate to each other.

“We’re just having fun, I think that’s one of the biggest things. We’re all having fun, but we’re all taking it super seriously because we all want to win basketball games and we all want to potentially get this franchise back to a championship.”

The balance that Young describes is an extremely difficult one to strike. After all, when you think about young teams having a lot of fun and always joking around with each other, you usually think of teams like the perpetually tanking Oklahoma City Thunder. You don’t think about playoff teams, let alone championship contenders. 

But the Raptors have believed in the importance of intangibles since at least 2013 when Ujiri took over reins of the team. They understand that mental wellness and camaraderie and leadership all go hand in hand in order to build a culture of winning. And they have the anecdotal experience and statistical evidence to prove it this season.

For example, Achiuwa and Boucher have developed into two of the Raptors’ most important role players and the sixth and seventh men off the bench, but it wasn’t always clear they would pan out. Both forwards struggled out of the gate, with Achiuwa looking lost offensively and Boucher struggling to fit into a reduced role after being a primary option last season, seeing their minutes go up and down and even falling out of the rotation at times. But both players found their footing and are playing the best basketball of their lives right now, admitting that might not have been the case if it wasn’t for the stable and encouraging team environment around them. 

OG Anunoby #3 and Fred VanVleet #23 of the Toronto Raptors smile in a break against the Utah Jazz
Image via Getty/Mark Blinch

“We have a really good team, great guys individually, collectively as well. Guys are always being positive, talking to you. A lot of guys came up to me, texted me, just telling me to keep my head up, just to keep going because they see me working, that they see what I can do and just keep going at it,” Achiuwa says about his early-season struggles. “I believe it was the same for Chris Boucher: we encouraged him, stuck together, and right now I believe he’s playing amazing as well.”

“I think nobody takes anything too seriously. I think you can joke about a lot of things, everything, and we’re all laughing and we know when to approach somebody and when to leave them alone,” Boucher says about what makes the group camaraderie work, crediting the time they had together since before Summer League to build chemistry. 

“I realized I was proof when I had a moment when I wasn’t playing my greatest basketball and nobody on this team made me feel like it. Obviously, I knew people were talking about it outside of the team, but the team knew what I was capable of doing and they kept my head up. I think that’s gonna help us because games where everything goes wrong, it seems like nothing’s gonna break for us—I know we’re gonna stick together and that’s the best thing about this team.”

Individual success stories are nice, and it’s important that the Raptors have eight or nine players who are thriving in their roles as they approach the playoffs. But team success is significantly more important, and there are a few statistical indicators that suggest that the Raptors’ improved chemistry have helped them win games this season as well. 

For example, the Raptors never lost more than three games in a row this season despite only having VanVleet, Siakam, and Anunoby together for 30 total games due to injuries and COVID absences, finding different ways to bounce-back after short losing streaks. And they have had five different winning streaks of five games or more, including an eight-game winning streak. 

“The biggest thing chemistry does is it extends your winning streaks and it helps you get out of the funks, right? Because when you have problems and you can address them, you can communicate better, there’s just less B.S. going on, fewer hidden agendas,” VanVleet tells me. 

“Everybody has an agenda and everybody has their own personal goals, but when you have good chemistry, you can kinda be on the same page of where things are, and guys can fall back even. It’s not easy all the time: everybody wants to be great in their own right. But I think, like I said, we all agreed on putting winning as the biggest picture and the number one goal, and everything else falls under that.”

“They’ve done a good job,” Nurse says of the stretch-run of the season, where the Raptors closed the season on a 14-4 run despite Anunoby playing in only six of those games and VanVleet hobbling around on an injured knee for most of them. “They’re not a very emotional team. They don’t get way up or way down, which is good. I think it shows a lot about our leadership with some of our guys that have been around here a little bit… I think the work ethic of our guys that have been here a little while sets the tone for that.”

At the top of the list of leaders who set the tone, put the work in, and hold guys accountable is VanVleet and Siakam, two players who came up the Raptors’ system and who have been in the shoes of the young guys coming off the bench. Instead of dominating the ball or taking all the credit, those two have helped foster an environment where the team takes precedence over the individual; where they’re the only team in basketball to have five different 15-point per game scorers in each of the last three seasons. 

And that quality of togetherness, though we can never put an exact number on its worth, is exactly what makes the Raptors so dangerous come time for the playoffs. 

“We’ve had a number of things in terms of adversity come at us and we’ve been able to handle it. I think this entire roster of players needs credit for that. I think the coaching staff needs credit for that,” VanVleet says. “And you know, the playoffs are like a completely different season.

“If we’re rolling, I think we have the potential to do some damage: some real, real, real damage in the playoffs if we got it going.”