It's almost impossible to look at the Toronto Raptors 2020-21 roster and not foresee some kind of step back this season. Teams don't lose almost their entire frontcourt and continue at the winningest pace in franchise history.
And yet, year after year, what the Raptors supposedly lack in talent, they make up for in culture. It's why they've repeatedly been able to overperform Vegas' projected win totals and this year should be no different.
"I don't see much of a drop off despite what's going on, being said in the media," Raptors guard Norman Powell said Wednesday during a Zoom media availability from Tampa. "Losing Marc and Serge are big pieces to why we won the championship, two seasons ago and it's gonna be tough to fill those roles, but I'm talking to the couple of guys that we've just signed and they seem really adamant and hungry to be a part of this culture be a part of this organization."
That word, "culture," is always so tough to figure out. It's like an X-Factor that somehow brings teams together, allowing them to outperform expectations even while facing unusual situations.
"Everybody's talking about how we've been big on winning and how we’ve been building that culture, especially since I've been here," Powell said of the team's newest signings. "They learn what it takes to be a winner and to learn what they have to do to fit in and be a part of this culture so I'm excited for this year."
Replacing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka is not going to be an easy task, even with Baynes and Len coming in. For all of Gasol's faults in the playoffs, he remained an outstanding defensive player with offensive intangibles hard to quantify in a box score.
But the time to remember them and their contributions to Toronto's championship run is quickly passing and now, as Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, it's time to beginning getting the new bigs up to speed on playing in Toronto's system.
"I would imagine there's going to be a little bit of extra practice time kind of woven into our regular practice time," Nurse said. "Getting guys up to speed, just the nuances of the coverages and terminology, the gameplans, all of those things."
There won't be much time with just three pre-season games and a truncated offseason.
Fortunately for Nurse and the Raptors, the team's core is largely back after re-signed Fred VanVleet to a multi-year extension and it's growing as some of Toronto's bench players become ingrained into Nurse's system.
"You can include, you know parts of Pat, if we can get him on the floor a little more, Pat McCaw that is," Nurse said. "Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, Chris Boucher, are guys that are, they’re not the guts of the core, but they’re part of the larger, who we are."