If it felt like an unnaturally short offseason, that’s because it was; the Raptors didn’t finish the 2018-19 season until June 13, and the latest the team has ever previously finished was May 27. If it felt like an unbearably long offseason, that’s probably because you just crave basketball. Have no fear. With media day, the NBA is officially back, and the defending champion Toronto Raptors have begun the 2019-20 season. There were a variety of plots and storylines, with new players and old faces. Here are some of the most pertinent narratives of the upcoming season, as told by the Raptors themselves.
The team isn’t satisfied with one championship
This is a tough one. The Raptors won a championship, and before the summer was done, Kawhi Leonard had left Toronto. With Leonard gone, so too was Toronto’s best odds at repeating. To be fair, this is still a dangerous basketball team: “I think it’s a very hungry team,” said Marc Gasol of his Raptors. “We all understand what Kawhi meant to the team and how well he played in the playoffs. But we also understand how great, how good we can be as a team. So we are going to invest everything needed to be that team.”
One has to think that had Toronto brought the band back together, the players would be more comfortable basking in the glow of the city’s first championship. Almost none of that happened. Some of the veterans had a few moments in which they reminisced about winning the championship, but in general, it was absent from most conversations, as large an elephant as Kawhi Leonard himself. The team is treating this like any other season, framing its slights as a chip on the collective shoulder.
“We lost Kawhi, we lost Danny, but we still have the same group of champions,” said Serge Ibaka. Those two weren’t the only champions, and now we have the mentality of a champion. We know what it take to be a champion.”
“Another championship, it’s always the same goal for me,” added Kyle Lowry when asked about his goals for the season. “I’m more motivated than ever. You get a little bit of a taste of it, you want to continue to grow … want to continue to feel that feel that feeling. It’s an unexplainable feeling but you want it.”
Contract negotiations are happening, even if nobody’s talking about them
It’s no secret that Toronto has a boat load of cap space freeing up this summer and even more next summer. The team could free two maximum contract slots this upcoming summer, as the contracts of veterans Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka expire. However, there are plenty of players on the roster who’ll demand some of that money. For one, Pascal Siakam’s rookie deal will also expire, and he is playing his way into a huge payday.
“We’ve had conversations,” said Ujiri. “We’ve had conversations with Pascal’s representation and we’re excited. We’re excited whether it’s going to be this fall or whether it’s going to be in the summer. [He’s] somebody we’re definitely going to keep for a long time here. And we see what the potential of that could be. So we’ve had conversations with them and we’ll see where that takes us.”
The team has motivation to wait until next summer before extending the star, as Siakam’s cap hold of slightly more than seven million dollars is far less than he’ll make in his new contract. If Siakam is amenable — and if the two sides are transparent, there’s no reason Siakam should be offended by Toronto’s desire to wait — then don’t expect Siakam to be extended before the deadline of October 21. If Siakam is willing to take less than a maximum extension, giving Toronto a little bit of a discount in exchange for security, then the team will have to think long and hard about eating into their cap space in order to lock up their prize youngster.
On the other hand, Toronto could also use much of their cap space to re-sign their veterans in Lowry, Gasol, and Ibaka. Lowry takes precedence for emotional reasons, which Ujiri practically admitted.
“Kyle has an incredible legacy here that I think we all have underrated,” Ujiri said. “We’ve had our ups and downs and bumps and grinds, but the inner core of who he is as a player and what he’s done with this franchise, he definitely deserves that.”
“There’s legacy status for him in my opinion.”
Pascal Siakam is going to have a big season
It’s media day tradition for big jumps to be predicted all around. And plenty of players, virtually all of them below the age of 28, were predicted for a big jump at some point during the day. But one name stood out in particular: Pascal Siakam. Almost everyone, from coach to president to fellow players, prophesied a monstrous season from Siakam.
His skills have improved: “I think for me it’s just looking back at last season and looking at things I didn’t so well,” said Siakam. “Working on every facet of my game, trying to be a complete player. For me, I think that’s ball-handling, obviously, there will be more opportunity, that means having the ball more, so taking care of the ball and be able to be a playmaker is going to help.”
And as Siakam himself acknowledged, the extra opportunity with Leonard gone will offer Siakam more touches than he can handle. Last year, Siakam somehow combined huge jumps in usage and efficiency, which are rare in concert. Siakam will have another leap in usage, and if his efficiency even plateaus, the team will be in good shape.
The youth on this team is mega talented
Toronto has earned a reputation as an excellent team at developing young talent. Stanley Johnson admitted that’s a reason why he’s in Toronto. Johnson said one of the first things VanVleet said to him was “we work here.”
The new and established players on this team haven’t all had a chance to meet. Kyle Lowry offered his annual preseason confession that he hasn’t had a chance to bond with any of the young guys yet. That’s fair. He’s earned his summers off. But many of the Raptors young vets — as Norman Powell used to refer to himself, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and others — spent plenty of time this summer getting run with the new faces in town.
“So young vets, we’re still helping the new guys get adjusted to what Nick wants,” said Powell. “You know, we had our little mini camp heading into training camp, and being a part of that, playing pickup with them, talking to them, still doing the stuff in the summer with them.”
There’s players on the roster who have enormous talent — showed through absolute domination at the summer’s Rico Hines runes — and only need an opportunity to show it: “I’m still always gonna be the guy that blocks shots, shoots the open threes, play defense, trying to rebound, and push the ball when you can,” said Chris Boucher. “I don’t think anything really changes except that I get an opportunity and a bigger chance to show what I’m capable of doing on the biggest stage.”
Boucher, by the way, has his ideal player comp already on the Raptors’ roster: “I’m close to Pascal. I talk to Pascal every day. I’ve watched his journey. I’m trying to be like what he did. When you put me and him together, for me, it’s a privilege to play with him and learn from him. I feel like we have a good chemistry, we both know what we’re capable of doing, we’re different bigs but we all know the different stuff we’re capable of doing. Playing with Pascal, he doesn’t make the game complicated for nobody.”
OG Anunoby had a down year last year, but internally, the team is hoping for a big bounce-back season. “He’s a guy who’s gonna have a good year,” predicted Nick Nurse. “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.”
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a new pick-up who’ll surprise plenty of folks with his defensive brilliance.
“I’m sure everybody knows I play defense,” said Hollis-Jefferson. “So, definitely [I bring] a defensive mind-set. A lot of energy. A lot of fun and excitement. And offensively, play-making, getting downhill in transition, and an improved jump-shot.”
Rookies Terence Davis and Dewan Hernandez were both high on Toronto’s big board, and the team was able to nab both with only a single second-round pick. Davis took Fred VanVleet’s route to the team — informing teams not to draft him towards the end of the second round so he could sign wherever he chose as an undrafted free agent — and the have already formed a bond.`