NEW YORK • The Toronto Raptors are heading south for the winter – at least for the start of it.
The 2019 National Basketball Association (NBA) champions announced on Friday they will begin the new season based in Tampa, Florida, amid concerns about the coronavirus pandemic’s impact in Canada.
In a statement, Masai Ujiri, the Raptors’ president of basketball operations, left open the possibility that the team could return to Toronto at some point this season.
The Raptors are the only NBA team based outside the United States, and Canada has imposed strict measures about travel between the two countries as cases continue to skyrocket in the US.
“So we’ll be away from our home and our fans for now,” Ujiri said. “They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I’m not sure that’s possible for us – we love Toronto and Canada, and we know we have the best fans in the NBA.
“For now, I’ll ask you to cheer for us from afar, and we’ll look forward to the day we are all together again.”
The Raptors had been working with Canadian government officials for weeks to try to find a way to play games in Toronto this season and Ujiri even wrote an op-ed for the Toronto Star last week to make a public plea for his case, but a compromise could not be struck.
The NBA season begins on Dec 22, with players arriving for training camps on Dec 1.
Free agency meanwhile, is under way, with NBA champions Los Angeles Lakers quickly moving on from the reported loss of backup big man Dwight Howard by agreeing to a two-year, US$19 million (S$25.5 million) contract with Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell, according to ESPN.
Howard’s agent, Charles Briscoe, confirmed that the centre had accepted a one-year contract worth US$2.6 million with the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday.
While Howard made just two starts last season, he was a key player off the bench for the Lakers, averaging 7.5 points and 7.3 rebounds in 69 games. Harrell will be a more than able replacement, posting career highs of 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds in 63 regular-season games last term for LA Clippers.
The deals officially go through today.