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Raptors enter off-season with hope after year filled with trades, injuries, tragedy

This was supposed to be Scottie Barnes’s season.

Toronto made a series of trades through December and January that effectively made Barnes the face of the franchise and he was named to his first-ever NBA all-star game in February. The retooled Raptors started to click with Barnes at the centre of head coach Darko Rajakovic’s schemes, putting together a modest three-game win streak that put them within range of a play-in berth.

But then he had season-ending surgery to repair a broken hand on March 4 and a cascade of injuries to his teammates followed. Canadian swingman RJ Barrett and point guard Immanuel Quickley missed time to grieve the deaths of family members and the NBA launched an investigation into irregular betting patterns surrounding backup centre Jontay Porter.

All that misfortune put Toronto into a 15-game tailspin, the second-longest losing skid in franchise history, and the Raptors finished 12th in the Eastern Conference with a 25-57 record.

“I wasn’t really frustrated, it was a freak accident and God’s got a plan for me,” said Barnes, a scar visible on his hand. “But the last month I’ve been hurt, these last 20 games or so, that has been frustrating, watching us lose and not being able to be out on the floor with the guys and try to help us win.

“But I don’t take it for granted. It’s still a blessing. I view it as just being able to grow as a leader.”

Reasons for optimism

That positive re-framing was a theme on Monday as the Raptors held season-ending news conferences after cleaning out their lockers and having exit interviews with Rajakovic and Toronto’s front-office staff. Barnes said that although his shooting improved — he averaged 19.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.1 assists on 47.5 per cent field-goal shooting over 60 games this season — it was his personal growth that he valued.

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“For me, just being a great teammate, who was there throughout the whole season just being able to cheer, lead, talk, be positive,” said Barnes. “It wasn’t a great season with the record, but we enjoyed each other’s presence and just tried to stay positive for it all.

“We were all communicating, talking and having fun with it all.”

Starting centre Jakob Poeltl was the first domino to fall after Barnes’s injury. The veteran had season-ending surgery to repair a torn ligament in his finger, a day after Barnes’s operation to fix his hand.

Poeltl agreed that in the brief window when all the trades were done and everyone was healthy, the Raptors worked.

“I don’t think those [moments] were outliers,” said Poeltl. “It was more that almost all of the losses were more of the outliers than when we were actually performing.

“That gives you a lot of confidence. That gives me a lot of hope looking forward to next season.”

Canadian infusion

Barrett, from Mississauga, Ont., was traded to Toronto on Dec. 30 along with Quickley from the New York Knicks in exchange for OG Anunoby, in the first trade that started to reshape the team. He missed nine games to mourn the death of his younger brother Nathan Barrett.

The Canadian guard-forward said that although it was a challenging season for him and his Raptors teammates, he believes the adversity will make them stronger next season.

“If you just look at all the trades and everything that happened this year, I think it would be hard for any team to be able to put it together that fast, right?” said Barrett, adding that he had a hard time adjusting to the constant lineup changes ahead of the trade deadline on Feb. 8.

“I think having this summer to work out together, figure things out, and then come training camp, just have a good training camp and we’ll be on the same page and it’s going to be huge.”

Centre Kelly Olynyk of Kamloops, B.C., was added to the team at the deadline along with forward Ochai Agbaji in a deal with the Utah Jazz. Olynyk and Barrett will represent Canada at the Paris Olympics this summer, but he was already looking forward to playing with a fully healthy Raptors team next fall.

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“It was a tough stretch there,” said Olynyk, who started at centre in Poeltl’s absence. “But I think when we had our guys in the lineup we played well together, we were tough, scored the basketball.”

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