Tampa wasn't the problem for the Toronto Raptors this season.
It's easy to look back on the worst Raptors season in almost a decade and blame it on their displacement. They were the only team in the NBA that was forced to move away from home and play essentially all their games on the road. It certainly was awkward, especially as the "home" fans booed the Raptors from time to time. There's no question those first few weeks in Tampa took some getting used to as Raptors players all looked for homes. Pascal Siakam joked about how long it took him to find a home back in early February. But by and large, Tampa wasn't the issue, COVID was.
You can split Toronto's 2020-21 season into four pretty easily identifiable parts. Part 1 was that 2-8 stretch to start the season when players were still getting accustomed to Nick Nurse's complex defensive scheme and, to some extent, getting used to Tampa. After that Toronto mostly figured things out in Part 2. Between January 14 to February 24 the Raptors went 14-9 and looked like a team that could hang with anyone in the NBA. Later on in the year when Nurse talked about reasons for optimism he always touched about this 23-game stretch as the kind of basketball he knew his Raptors could play.
Then in Part 3 COVID hit the Raptors. Between February 26, when Siakam and almost the entire coaching staff was ruled out with COVID-19 issue, and that devastating loss to the Houston Rockets on March 22, the Raptors went 1-9. After that, the "rest" started for players like Kyle Lowry and Toronto began easing off the gas pedal and turning its attention toward the future. In Part 4, from that upset of the Denver Nuggets on March 24 through the end of the season, the Raptors went 10-19, finishing the season with the seventh-worst record in the NBA.
In a word, the season was defined by inconsistency, Fred VanVleet said.
"That's in schedule, that's in the world, that's in play, that's in health, everything, emotions, everything," he said. "There was no continuity whatsoever from start to finish. Humans are simple creatures. We need a schedule, we need to follow certain routines, and it was just up and down, and trying to catch up, we were playing catch up from the start of the season."
But the Raptors did catch up. Just before COVID hit the organization Toronto was sitting in the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference with a 16-17 record. Even in Tampa, even with all those early-season issues, the Raptors looked like the Raptors.
As Nurse said, other than the simple fact that Tampa wasn't home and things felt a little different, there weren't really any issues with their relocation.
"I would not put any cons on the experience here [in Tampa] other than, like I keep saying, the testing protocols, COVID, put us in a different rhythm than we were used to, practice-wise," Nurse said. "We had everything we needed. Great facilities. Offices. Weight rooms. Training rooms. Film rooms. Beautiful arena. Obviously, everybody loved the weather. We weren't used to weather like that. Everybody loved that."
The big difference for the Raptors this season wasn't so much the relocation to Tampa, it was the battles with COVID-19 and the league's COVID-19 protocols. Few teams in the NBA lost as many crucial players to COVID as the Raptors did and no team was asked to bounce back the same way as Toronto was. Earlier in the season when Memphis and Washington had their bouts with COVID the NBA gave them plenty of time to regroup and get healthy. For Toronto, it was a quick turnaround once the outbreak was contained.
While the protocols certainly were frustrating, as Nurse said, that was something the entire league had to deal with. Things only began to ease once the vaccine rollout in the United States began ramping up and the NBA announced an easing of COVID restrictions. Nurse said that helped things a little bit, but other than DeAndre' Bembry it was never clear how many Raptors players chose to get the vaccine.
Next season the Raptors certainly want to return home. As Nurse said, they'd be "very, very, very disappointed" if they couldn't return to Toronto next season. But this season was more about the pandemic than anything else. Toronto had a chance to do something special this year, but once COVID hit the organization directly the season went off the rails and the Raptors never recovered.