After Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green chose to take their talents to California this past summer, there was a wide variety of expectations for the Raptors, and a lot of skepticism about how they would replace those players’ roles this season. Through the first two weeks of the season, however, the Raptors have looked just fine in putting together a strong starting lineup and 7-man rotation that has helped them to a 4-2 record, with the two losses being narrow defeats to very good teams.
There are a lot of reasons for Raptors optimism, as well. Pascal Siakam, despite a tough night against the Milwaukee Bucks, looks on the verge of establishing himself as a NBA superstar, showing a much improved pull-up game on offense and a propensity for taking, and hitting, above the break three-pointers that opens up a lot of his offensive game. OG Anunoby, who missed the entire playoffs due to a burst appendix, has returned looking like one of the best defensive wings in the NBA and has fit right into a role on offense that has helped, and Kyle Lowry looks like he’s in his 2015-16 form when he garnered a few end of ballot MVP votes. Coach Nick Nurse doesn’t seem to have a lot of confidence outside of their 7-man rotation, but that 7-man rotation is extremely good and looks like they can play with anyone.
On the surface, it would seem like the very idea of trading veterans for parts to help a mini-rebuild along would seem foolish for a team that looks like they might be one of the three or four best teams in the Eastern Conference this season, an idea made popular by many this summer given that it had been circulating for years that Masai Ujiri wanted to rebuild prior to the Kawhi trade becoming an option to build a true contender last summer. The Raptors have, thus far, retained their flexibility for the summer of 2021, when it’s said that Masai has his eyes on bringing in another star for building the next Raptors contender, and they’ve done so while still winning games this season.
On the other hand, though, contenders often are the teams that have that next gear in the playoffs, and that gear is often found through cracking down on your rotation and bringing up your starters’ minutes to make teams deal with your best players more often and in greater concentration, and the way the Raptors have been playing this season leaves little room for that. Kyle Lowry leads the league in minutes per contest thus far this year, and Fred VanVleet is in second place. Pascal Siakam’s minutes are lower, but a large part of that is the foul trouble he’s been dealing with, and the team has been thin when needing to fill those minutes. The Raptors’ core seven are all averaging more than 24 minutes per game, and no one else has played in every game except for Terence Davis, who despite looking like he belongs in a NBA rotation, has averaged less than 8 per game.
As someone who predicted the Raptors would remain good this season, and who largely argued during the summer that the team was being undersold and the necessity of them trading their veterans was being oversold, one would think that these first weeks would leave me feeling vindicated, but instead, it’s hard not to feel a little uneasy, despite the success. I buy into Pascal Siakam as a star, I think he’s on the verge of establishing superstardom, that he can open the door to him being seen as one of the absolute best in the league through just sustaining when he’s done, and continuing to grow his confidence, and that this is a good supporting cast around him.
However, the NBA season isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Part of the path to a Championship is the attrition along the way, and it’s extremely unlikely that a team makes it through the season with their core intact the entire way. That’s where things get complicated for the Raptors. Lowry, despite looking dominant once again, doesn’t have a great history of remaining healthy when his minutes are high. The Raptors’ being as thin as they are past that core seven will be a problem should any of those guys end up missing time at any point this season, because they can’t adequately fill those minutes otherwise. Malcolm Miller, Matt Thomas and Chris Boucher can each provide some offense, but none of them seem to have obtained Nick Nurse’s confidence that they can give the team consistent minutes, while Pat McCaw, Stanley Johnson, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson can each help with the defense but all struggle to provide the team contributions at the offensive end. Davis seems like the logical candidate for the 8th spot in the rotation, but contenders don’t often turn to rookies for roles that large.
The Raptors are thin, and that has put them on thin ice as soon as that first injury does hit. A team never wants to expect an injury, but it’s also unrealistic to expect to go through a season without any of them. If this does go badly, and someone critical to the team maintaining it’s current levels gets hurt, there’s a good chance that it gets pretty bad.
There is another aspect to this as well, in that if one of the Raptors’ veterans does get injured, that also could impact the team’s ability to bring in some younger assets or draft picks while looking forward to what comes next in their team-building. This is a good season for a NBA team to be a seller, with no true juggernauts established yet and a lot of teams considering themselves contenders, and the Raptors have veterans who have established roles that they can bring to a contender, and recent evidence of being able to contribute to a Championship. This option has been brought up plenty this summer, and wherever you stand on it, in order for it to be a safety valve that the Raptors can use if the season doesn’t go according to plan, they need those veterans to remain healthy to keep this chip in play.
The tougher decision to make for Toronto would be trying to bring in reinforcements for this season to give them insurance against injuries, because you can’t predict where the gap is going to come. They don’t have frontcourt depth, they don’t seem to yet trust their wing depth, and they also are lacking depth at point guard. The team would first have to pick the gap they want to fill, but then actually filling it becomes a problem as well. The Raptors don’t want to take on long-term salary, they don’t have great draft assets if they intend to stay good, and they don’t have depth pieces to trade away. Add it all up, and improving in the short term to buy minutes will competing doesn’t seem like much of an option.
The team traded five rotation NBA players to win a Championship a season ago, and with Danny Green and Kawhi both now gone, they have only one player in Marc Gasol to show for that trade. You make that deal every time, because the Championship is always the goal and the Raptors made it to the top of that mountain, but it’s hard for a team to absorb losing that many rotation guys without replacements without having some gaps in the rotation.
As someone who came into the season optimistic about the Raptors, their success has been what’s warmed me up to the prospects of them making trades to rebuild this season, something which I didn’t expect coming in. The success has been great to see and this team is fun while it lasts, but the front office has to account for the improbability of being able to maintain this all year, and that’s something they would probably prefer to reckon with before it comes to a head due to an injury. That is, of course, complicated by the fact that early season trades aren’t all that common, and nearly half of the players in the league still being untradeable until December 15th, when free agents signed this summer can be moved, does limit things as well.
It’s possible of course that all of this is a non-issue, that the Raptors deep bench guys will step up into bigger roles, allowing the minutes to be alleviated to some extent, and the team will have the unlikely healthy season, but it doesn’t feel like the team should bank on that happening, and doesn’t feel in the nature of the Raptors organization not to hedge against things going wrong. For the moment, however, the Raptors remain a good, fun, team, and that’s worth celebrating, even if it does seem to be one with very little margin to work with for how much misfortune they can absorb this season.