The Title Defense Begins.
Despite my best efforts, there were a lot of “if OG (Anunoby) takes a Siakam-like leap” questions online and on media day. Siakam offered the proper perspective on such an idea.
“I think it’s not fair to him. I think we have to let OG continue to grow and do what he’s gotta do,” Siakam said. “OG works extremely hard, and I think I’ve seen him work a lot, you know, coming to the gym and seeing him early, work on his game. We’ve just gotta let him be himself and continue to grow. I’m sure he’s ecstatic about the season after last season, with everything that he went through last season. It was definitely a tough year for him just mentally, also. I think he’s excited about the season, man, and I’m excited for him and can’t wait to see him out there on the court.”
There is ample room for Anunoby excitement without using Siakam’s remarkable ascent as a benchmark. If Anunoby simply builds off of his rookie season from two years back, the Raptors will have a quality rotation player to add back into the mix. He could take larger strides, too; he said he was back at something close to normal by mid-July, and teammates and staff were raving about the work he’s put in.
“Another guy that looks great that you’ll be able to see that tomorrow is OG,” Nick Nurse said. “He’s a guy who’s gonna have a good year. He’s really in good shape. His body looks great, he’s healthy. His mindset seems to be really free and clear and happy. He’s out there playing with a little more of a smile on his face in the pick-up games I saw in the last few weeks, and he’s gonna have a great year.”
Anunoby was oozing confidence by his monosyllabic standards. Asked what he thought of Nurse’s comments, Anunoby said, “I think it’s true,” before also predicting a championship repeat. That level of confidence is important. Anunoby isn’t assured of anything, but he’ll be given ample opportunity to win and lock down the second starting-forward role alongside Siakam, as the Raptors remain heavily invested and need to find out exactly what kind of piece he is before plotting out their cap-flush summers. It’s going to be an exciting couple of weeks on the Anunoby watch.
What’s truly remarkable about the Raptors’ title is Ujiri did not have to burn down the house to obtain it. If you accept it will always be difficult for the team to attract free agents — and even if you don’t, you must concede it has not eased in any high-leverage way since Ujiri took over the team in 2013 — there were only ever two paths to the Raptors winning a title: through exceptional drafting and player development or exceptional deal-making. Obviously, it took a bit of both for last year to happen, but the biggest transaction fell in the latter category in the form of the trade that landed Leonard and Green from San Antonio.
As Ujiri mentioned, the focus now shifts back toward the unglamourous aspect of internal growth. Sure, the Raptors are going to do what they can to keep their options in free agency wide open in 2020 and especially 2021, but putting all of their resources toward that path is dangerous even for more storied, supposedly attractive franchises — hello there, Knicks! There will be continued talk of Ujiri’s relationship with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it is not a sure thing he will even get to unrestricted free agency in two years, let alone choose Toronto over a league’s worth of suitors. Ujiri is too smart to put the Raptors in a Freak-in-or-Freak-out scenario.
That brings us to this season, which will serve as a transition from the slow build to a title to whatever comes next. There is a very clear divide on the roster between young players who could be a part of the next great team and the three veteran pieces still around from last year whose careers are closer to the end than the start: Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. And while the most important thing for the Raptors’ outlook is the growth of those younger players, such as Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, what Ujiri does with the three older guys, and particularly Lowry, is the more interesting existential question. The answer will determine who precisely Ujiri wants the Raptors to be as soon as next year.
Barring injuries or steep declines, all three players are good enough to bring some positive assets back in return as the season plays out. There will be no franchise-resetting trade out there for Ujiri as Sam Presti found for the Thunder with Paul George, but Ujiri will have an option to turn the page on the roster in a manner similar to what we thought he might have done as soon as he took over. In reality, the roster is good but not great and content to stand in two places at once for the moment.
Progress isn’t linear, though, and Anunoby’s year while the Raptors won the championship was easily forgettable on the court. His best performances came in meaningless encounters against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards and he struggled to find his niche behind Kawhi Leonard at three and Pascal Siakam eating most of the minutes at the four. Off court, he had to cope with the misery of losing his father as well as injuries whenever it seemed like he was putting together a decent stretch of games.
“OG had a very unlucky year last year,” Masai Ujiri said at Media Day. “He’s had a very good summer and preseason in terms of just training before today. We’re excited about that.
“Both of those guys (OG and Patrick McCaw) had unfortunate deaths in their families and untimely injuries right when they were on the cusp of getting in to contributing to this team. There’s a refresh on their minds and I think they’ll be in a good place.”
The refreshed feeling is important, a chance to wipe the slate clean and start anew. It feels strange to say that the year the Raptors won a championship, for all intents and purposes, is one that should be red shirted for Anunoby, but it certainly feels like the case here. His 2018-19 season seemed completely misrepresentative of what he’s capable of, but brings us to an important point about the prism through which his 2019-20 campaign should be viewed.
What are appropriate expectations for someone who was reportedly made an untouchable in trade discussions, including the one that eventually brought Kawhi Leonard to Toronto? Pascal Siakam, president of the superseding expectations club, for one, thinks that setting them too high would be a mistake.
“I think it’s not fair to him,” Siakam said. “I think we have to let OG continue to grow and do what he’s gotta do. OG works extremely hard and I think I’ve seen him work a lot, you know, coming to the gym and seeing him early, work on his game. We’ve just gotta let him be himself and continue to grow.
Will Pascal Siakam pick up the torch from Leonard and become the go-to star the Raptors need him to be? Will Ujiri allow the expiring contracts of four key contributors — Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet — to fall off the books at seasons’ end, or will he flip them for other assets? With so many minutes available on the wings with Leonard and Green gone, which role player will step up and seize the opportunity?
The answers to those questions will guide which direction the team heads in the long-term. They also explain why, when asked if he can enjoy the success of a championship season, Ujiri responded: “In our position, honestly you can’t.”
But with opening tip less than a month away one question looms: How will the Raptors remain competitive after losing their best player?
“As you look at our roster, you realize there’s a couple starters missing from that team,” Nurse said. “There’s [sic] opportunities to take on new identities, expand roles — maybe take on new roles.” One thing is clear: “That sheet of paper is still blank.”
The Raptors haven’t hit the reset button — yet — but are facing an uphill battle looking to come anywhere near replicating last year’s success. The 2019-20 Raptors aren’t just living in a different postal code this year, they’re on another planet entirely.
Leonard has moved on, and the Raptors will look to do the same.
Regrets? When you reach the ultimate goal as Toronto did last season, there aren’t many. The Raptors will carry the mantle of “defending champs” all season long, and that sentence alone makes it all worthwhile.
“I can’t sit here and trade DeMar, then Kawhi leaves us, and be upset,” said Ujiri. “That’s just the nature of the business. We understand it and we move on as an organization.”
Lowry said he’s “not really worried about the free agency thing” and added it’s an ongoing conversation between his camp and the Raptors.
“But for me, it’s just going out there and doing my job like I’ve always been. Be professional and lead the best I can, like I’ve always done.”
Lowry, who has franchise marks for three-pointers and steals, should become the assist leader too this year and move into second in a host of other categories as well.
Lowry said he doesn’t mind that the Raptors might not be getting the respect for their championship win from some corners that they deserve. His peers have been supportive and complimentary and that’s all that matters to him. “I don’t care what other people say and whoever says what. We know what we’ve accomplished and who cares what other people think? We know what we’ve accomplished and our peers understand what went into it,” Lowry said.
Does Lowry understand what went into it. Or, better put, has it all sunk in yet?
“I think that’s when it’s going to finally hit me,” Lowry said of the ring ceremony and banner unfurling that will happen on opening night. “I haven’t really let it sink in too much. I think when the banner rises, that’s really when you really feel it.”
One day the Raptors will surely raise another banner. One with Lowry’s No. 7 on it.
Among the new faces there is a lot of intrigue. Matt Thomas comes over from Spain’s vaunted ACB league and brings with him a shooter’s resume which should play well with head coach Nick Nurse. There’s also the plug-and play Rondae Hollis-Jefferson who brings a defensive bent, and the physically gifted but still untapped potential of Stanley Johnson.
The Raptors, despite the kind of lack of respect most defending champs would never have to deal with, are not starting over.
Siakam, who flourished in his first real season as a starter is only just getting started. He’ll be a bigger focal point of the offence with the departure of Leonard and has given no indication he can’t take another step forward with that opportunity.
“He’s just become a diverse player, a very dynamic player that continues to grow,” team president Masai Ujiri said. “He’s going to have more on his shoulders this year. I think he accepts that responsibility. He’s up for the challenge everyday. We see his game continue to grow and grow and have ups and downs. This season I think is a good season for him to grow as a player, to potentially get to where we all feel he can be as a player, which I think could be one of the best players in the league.”
Siakam should have been an all-star a year ago. He’s a very good bet to get there this year as his role expands.
The point is this is not all doom and gloom.
The Raptors head into the season without Kawhi Leonard and there are huge decisions looming for GM Masai Ujiri. Josh Lewenberg, Bruce Arthur and Dave Feschuk talk about how this will be a very different season and what they expect.
Raptors’ off-season signing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson explains why he chose to come to Toronto, explaining that he believes the Raps are a perfect fit for his personality and skill set.
Serge Ibaka sits down with Josh Lewenberg to talk about how much the last year has meant to him personally after the journey that he has traveled in his life and how he is a person who always wants more.
Marc Gasol sits down with Josh Lewenberg to talk about winning two championships in such a short span, the lack of stars playing in the FIBA World Cup and why it will be easier to start from day one with the Raptors this year.
Pascal Siakam joins Josh Lewenberg to talk about how he is aiming to continue his growth as a player, why it feels great to know he will be leaned on as a key contributor to the Raptors, how amazing the fan reactions have been since winning the title, and much more.
Fred VanVleet sits down with Josh Lewenberg to discuss the challenges of the shorter summer coming off an NBA championship, how much he appreciates all the love he is receiving from the Toronto community, and much more.
After being forced to miss the entire 2019 playoffs due to an emergency appendectomy, OG Anunoby talked to Josh Lewenberg about the progress he has made to get back in game shape. Lewenberg also asked OG what he learned from Kawhi Leonard as a teammate and his experience attending Kobe Bryant’s mini camp this summer.
These Raptors are only the third team in NBA history to open a season as defending champions without the reigning Finals MVP on their roster. They’re the first to open a season as defending champs with that Finals MVP on somebody else’s roster.
Vegas is projecting them to win 46.5 games after winning 58 a year ago. That, according to their win projections, would be tied for the 12th-best record in the league and the fifth-best mark in the East.
They’re not getting a lot of love outside of Canada these days, but it might not be as awkward as you would think. The team’s longest tenured players, and even some of the newcomers, are used to being underestimated, overlooked, and maybe even disrespected. It’s a familiar feeling and one that has defined many of their careers.
“It’s no different,” said VanVleet, a key contributor to that championship run – even getting a vote for Finals MVP – after going undrafted in 2016. “This is my fourth year, and three out of four years we’ve been disrespected and counted out and talked bad about. So you learn to deal with it. It doesn’t take any emotion or energy out of my day. I’m not losing sleep over it.”
“I mean it feels the same to me,” said Norman Powell, a former second-round pick. “It’s been the story since I’ve been here. Every year we’ve been counted out – ‘We’ll be a middle of the pack team, not going to make the playoffs, or we’re going to be a first-round exit’, this, that and the other, whatever story they come up with. So it’s nothing new. This team’s been there. The team is full of underdogs who want to go out there and prove people wrong.”
For years, that’s been the team’s calling card: the chip on their shoulder. Kyle Lowry was the disgruntled journeyman point guard, turned perennial all-star and franchise icon. Pascal Siakam, the kid from Cameroon who didn’t even pick up a basketball until he was 18 and is now a budding star in the NBA, the league’s reigning Most Improved Player. Individually and collectively, it’s in their DNA.
“All the bandwagons and all the people that came after Kawhi and kind of went away, it’s kind of like back to us. Just continue to grind and be who we are, the Toronto Raptors, always known to be that team that everyone kind of doesn’t look at. It definitely puts a chip on our shoulders, and we want to continue to grind, continue to be who we are and work hard. That’s what we’ve always done.”
“The goal has always been to win a championship,” he said. “You can go back and talk to 21-year-old Bobby and that’s why I decided to do this: to win a championship.”
Or two. Or three. Or to eventually join the pantheon of all the greats.
“Obviously you get into this business to win one and … if you want to be kind of legendary you want to win multiple (titles), so that’s the fun of this challenge. How do you get this group to win, and which parts of this group are going to be part of the next Raptors championship?”
Legendary? Seems like an odd and uncharacteristically bold word for him to use.
”I just think if you look back, I don’t think every franchise has won one. I bet half of that (group) hasn’t won two, so now you’re starting to get into a different (historic) group.”
That’s why this season holds such intrigue for Webster. It would have been easy — and much better, truth be told — if the Raptors had convinced Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to stick around. Running it back, as the cliché goes, is so much easier when all pieces are familiar and in place.
But that’s not really fun, is it? It’s more fun to build and tinker and deal with a different reality and figure things out.
“The fun of it is exactly what we have here,” he said. “It’s unknown. You don’t know how everything is going to play out and that’s the fun of it, and I’m sure by January or February we’ll be in it deep again and be evaluating the team: Are we missing something?
“In some ways, if everyone comes back we know exactly how the season is going to go. That’s part of the fun for us. You see other teams unfold. We really don’t know how it’s going to unfold, who’s going to start … who’s going to be on the second unit, who’s going to be on the team.”
That drive to find those bits — the starters and the backups and the necessary personalities for the living thing that is a team — is Webster’s ultimate pursuit. And no one should wonder about his competitive intensity and the sense of satisfaction he feels when it all comes together.
Ujiri has balanced winning and development for years, and then he jumped when Kawhi became available. You always have to be ready in this crazy league. Lowry mentioned that he and the Raptors have engaged in early extension talks. The belief is the Raptors would offer a big-money one-year addition to his deal to help bridge the gap to 2021 and give Lowry the respect he deserves with the franchise. The franchise adores Gasol and appreciates Ibaka, but Lowry is different than the other expiring contracts.
“No question,” said Ujiri. “Kyle has an incredible legacy here that I think we all have underrated … There’s legacy status for him in my opinion, everything he’s given. We can say whatever we want about Kyle. He comes and he gives it his all on the court. He’ll give me a headache once a month, but that’s fine. That’s our relationship. I really respect him for that. We’ll always pay Kyle that respect. What he’s done for this city, for this ball club, is remarkable.”
“I think it’s been a long time,” said Lowry. “I’ve been here the longest now, I’ve been through the ups and downs and I was able to help bring a championship here, an unbelievable team … I’m not saying I’m the sole reason, but I feel I have a great pride.”
“I don’t worry about the respect,” says Lowry. “I think from our counterparts, everywhere I’ve gone the guys are so happy for our team, for me. The peers that I’ve seen this summer, it’s just a lot of respect. I don’t care what other people say … We know what we’ve accomplished, and who cares what other people think? We know what we’ve accomplished, and our peers understand what went into it.”
“We have the same group of champions,” said Ibaka.
Well, nearly. Lowry and Ujiri said similar things: It hasn’t sunk in yet, not fully. Ujiri said one day he will lock himself in his basement and watch it all again. And now they will roll out again, the defending champs, living the life that happens while you make other plans.
There was golden confetti dancing on a video loop near the press conference dais. In a matter of a few weeks, they’ll raise the championship banner and hand out the gaudy rings.
But the truth is the arena on Bay Street didn’t much feel like the home of the NBA champions during the Raptors’ 25th annual media day on Saturday.
Yes, it was only a few months ago that Canada’s NBA team luxuriated atop the basketball universe. Now that another season is getting underway, with training camp in Quebec City beginning Sunday, the Raptors are back to playing a familiar role — that of rank underdogs.
That, at least, seems to be the message emanating from the U.S.-based pundits and the Las Vegas oddsmakers. In a year in which parity has returned to the wide-open NBA, the consensus suggests anybody can win it but the reigning champs. Which seems to suit the Raptors just fine. Being underestimated is a big part of being them.
“I mean, if you look at the roster and you know all the players that make this team, at some point they’ve been overlooked,” Marc Gasol was saying. “So for us, it’s nothing new.”