Siakam a first time All-Star; also starting!
Pascal Siakam finds out he’s an All-Star starter pic.twitter.com/myShLHzQH4
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 24, 2020
An emotional Pascal Siakam on his All-Star selection and wishing his father was here for it. pic.twitter.com/BtXdgpl0mm
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 24, 2020
The case for Siakam as an All-Star this season is very straightforward: He’s the leading scorer on a very good team, taking on a significant leap in usage and responsibility while contributing on the glass, developing as a playmaker and providing quality defence that pushes to elite when the Raptors use him as a weak-side rim protector or a key piece of their rover zone.
Any concerns with the nonlinearity of Siakam’s ascension to bona fide No. 1 option status register above the cutoff for All-Stardom. He is by no means a finished product as the Raptors’ offensive alpha, struggling with the balances between aggression and commandeering, settling and taking what the defence offers. He’s gotten to the rim less and shot poorly on long twos, which have made up a larger share of his shot profile as he operates against greater attention and every team’s best defender. His individual defence has wavered at times, another understandable balancing act under such a significant offensive load. He’s cooled since a hot start – as a scorer overall and as a 3-point shooter – and there have been mini-slumps over his 33 games, including parts of the six games that have followed an 11-game absence due to a groin injury. He is still figuring things out, and the Raptors are still figuring out how their offensive ecosystem best operates around him.
Any of those concerns miss the point a little bit in an All-Star discussion. Siakam is in his fourth season and his first as anything more than a high-efficiency, average-usage supporting piece. He pushed as high as the team’s No. 2 scoring option and third-best player during a championship run, which was already immense progress. This is his first half-season in a role very few players ever make it to. If Siakam is not a complete player as the star of the Raptors attack yet, that only serves to highlight that they’re even asking that of him in his fourth season. He’s been handed a great deal of Kawhi Leonard’s outbound responsibility and is faring quite well. The process of growing into a superstar presupposes that he has grown to such a level that superstardom is even theoretical. Imperfect or unfinished are not mutually exclusive from very good or All-Star worthy.
To wit, Siakam is averaging 23.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, one steal and one block. He is one of 20 players with a usage rate of 29 percent or higher and a true-shooting percentage of 54.8 percent or better, highlighting the difficult in maintaining even league-average efficiency as one’s role expands this dramatically. Qualitatively, the Raptors offence struggles without him as a lead scorer, with his teammates having a much tougher time creating shots and the offence as a whole producing a tougher diet of threes, both because the ball moves into the hands of one of their best shooters without Siakam and because Siakam commands extra attention move from the perimeter to the paint. To quantify that impact, the Raptors are scoring 5.8 points per 100 possessions more with Siakam on the court, an impact that is pronounced even acknowledging that it’s skewed because his 11-game absence coincided with some other injuries and exacerbated the issues. The team shoots 39.8 percent on threes when he’s on the court and 34.4 percent when he’s not. By PIPM, the system that was skeptical he could ever become a top-25 player, he ranks 33rd with 3.6 wins added despite missing a quarter of the season to date. That might not be the resume of an unquestioned All-Star starter, but it’s unquestionably the resume of an All-Star.
In other words, Siakam is putting up numbers like a star and driving team success like a star.
And now? He’s arguably the best player on one of the NBA’s best teams, and he’s headed to Chicago to play on one of the sport’s brightest stages — thanks in part to per-game averages of 23.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists, all career highs.
Perhaps the only person who saw this coming was the man himself.
“I think for me, from the first day I got to the NBA, I’ve always wanted to achieve more,” he said, moments after learning he would be an All-Star game starter. “I felt like the league was wide open for me to come in and be one of the better players and we worked really, really hard. It wasn’t easy and it’s not easy — I was like, one for [whatever] last night? This is always a journey.
“And I think what makes it just fun is having that support and having the people around me believing in me and, and from the first day I got in the gym, I always say that my man Rico [Hines, Siakam’s Los Angeles-based trainer], even my agent, from the first day, they saw that in me and I saw that in myself and that’s why we connected that well. And I’m so glad that it’s happening.”
There is only one tinge of sadness. For all of Siakam’s biggest moments the person who he would want to share them with the most, but isn’t able to, is his father, Tchamo. It was his father who dreamed the big dreams first and encouraged his sons to use basketball as a way to further themselves and imagined that one of his four boys would play in the NBA. He died in a car accident on Oct. 23, 2014 before he could see his youngest son realize his vision.
“It’s unbelievable man. I think you’ve just gotta think back to the journey,” said Siakam. “I think back on my dad, you know, just kind of taking the chance and being like, ‘Man, I’ve watched these guys on TV, they play with this orange ball, and it’s super fun, people are excited to watch them play, and it’s so exciting.
“And him wanting and hoping and dreaming that one of his sons could do that. And working so hard to send his sons to the US, get an education, play college ball and hoping to get to the NBA, and there I am. To be able to be at this stage and winning a championship and being an All-Star, and not only an All-Star but starting in the All-Star Game.
Four years ago, he was an under-the-radar sophomore at New Mexico State. He wasn’t supposed to be a first-round pick, but the Raptors went off the board to take him 27th-overall.
Four years ago, his NBA career started off on the right track but he fell out of the rotation by mid-season because his limited shooting range made him an offensive liability. He went to the G League and won a championship with the 905.
A couple years ago, he wasn’t supposed to be a rotation player. He started the season as the 11th man and it took an early injury to Jonas Valanciunas to get him on the court. He would become a key part of the league’s best second unit.
Last year, he wasn’t supposed to be a full-time starter. The plan was for him to platoon at the power forward position. He went on to win the league’s Most Improved Player award.
Now, he’s an NBA champion, max contract player, and all-star starter. Few would have expected him to come this far.
This is Siakam’s first All-Star appearance, and is another step in an incredible career that his seen him win a G-League championship and G-League Finals MVP, NBA championship, and NBA Most Improved Player Award — all in four years.
Siakam is leading the Raptors in scoring at 23.5 points per game; he’s also averaging 7.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, one steal and one block per game — all career-highs. He’s shooting 37% from three-point range, a staggering number considering he couldn’t hit the ocean from three-point range at the start of last year. He’s also doing all this on a usage rate of 28.8%, by far a career high — while Kyle Lowry might be the Raptors’ engine, Siakam is the team’s best overall offensive player and shot creator.
Siakam is the seventh Raptor to make the All-Star team, joining Vince Carter, Antonio Davis, Chris Bosh, DeMar DeRozan, Lowry (who will likely be voted in by coaches as a reserve this season) and Kawhi Leonard.
As a surprise for the Raptors’ go-to scorer on this special day, Siakam’s agent flew in his older brother, Christian, for the big announcement.
Siakam acknowledged the big moments in his basketball career — first making the league and then becoming a starter, winning Most Improved Player award a year ago, an NBA title, and now this all-star nomination — carry a certain emptiness without his father around.
“I wish that he was here,” Siakam said, his eyes showing the emotion of the moment. “I kind of hate, like, every time there’s a big moment, it feels like there’s something missing. But I know, I know he’s here, I know he’s watching me. I can feel his presence. But I think it would be kind of nice to be able to look him in the face and just tell him, like, ‘You did it. And we did it. And whatever you put your mind into and whatever you’ve worked so hard for is here, and we do it at the highest level.’
Siakam has made it clear on every such occasion that he plays this game for his father. It is what drives him and what took him from a tireless young man with all that raw athleticism at his disposal to the polished NBA player that will start for the Eastern Conference alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, Cameroonian countryman Joel Embiid, and guards Kemba Walker and Trae Young.
Siakam is not surprised he has reached these heights in such a short time because he knows better than anyone else how much work he put into it.
“I think for me, from the first day I got to the NBA, I’ve always wanted to achieve more,” Siakam said. “I felt like the league was wide open for me to come in and be one of the better players and we worked really, really hard. It wasn’t easy and it’s not easy. I was like, one for what (Wednesday) night?,” he said, referencing a rare rough night shooting the basketball as he re-acclimates himself to the grind of the NBA after a month off with a groin injury.
It has been a storybook rise for Siakam, the 27th pick in the 2016 NBA draft who was toiling in the D League just four seasons ago.
He is the focal point of the Raptors offence most nights. He is averaging career highs in points (23.5 per game), rebounds (7.7) and assists (3.5) and he continues to find new ways to use his formidable talents. After the departure of Kawhi Leonard last summer, the Raptors basically gave the keys over to the six-foot-nine forward, complete with a four-year, $130-million (U.S.) contract extension he signed just before this season began.
It hasn’t been a seamless transition but Siakam has handled it as well as can be expected given the attention he draws from opponents every night, not to mention the 10 games he missed with a groin injury.
“I think for me, from the first day I got to the NBA, I’ve always wanted to achieve more,” he said. “I felt like it was there … the league was wide open for me to come in and be one of the better players and we worked really, really hard. It wasn’t easy … it’s not easy.”
Siakam continues a string of all-star starters for the Raptors that began in 2015, a six-year run that is the longest in the league right now. Kyle Lowry, who is expected to be added as a reserve next week, started in 2015 and 2016, DeMar DeRozan started in 2017 and 2018, and Kawhi Leonard started last year’s game.
Salary matching is one thing. Deals that make financial sense for both sides get a little more complicated. Norman Powell is a helpful example here. Yes, he’s a useful mid-tier salary to make numbers work in a lot of different trade scenarios. He also holds a player option for 2021-22 for $11.6 million. A team acquiring Powell isn’t just doing so to match salary this year, they’re also taking on that potential future commitment, in a year where many teams will be trying to hoard cap space. His recent play has reframed his asset value but the perceived opportunity cost of that player option will vary team-by-team.
Conversely, teams may not blink at having to take on money for 2020-21. Very few teams project to have cap space next summer, anyway, and the free agent market is one of the thinnest in recent memory. A willingness to eat an extra year of salary is still a valuable thing to offer in a trade, it just may not move the needle as much as in recent years (or as much as it will next year). Throwing cash at a trade can help with these wrinkles to a degree, too. It’s real money that can offset salary, though it doesn’t negate the opportunity cost of sacrificed cap space, which can be used not only for players but to acquire other assets by eating money.
The Raptors will probably be unwilling to take on money past next season unless it returns a legitimate star, of which there are none on the market. Eating some 2020-21 money would be far less of a concern for them.
“I’ve always been confident,” Lowry said after his 16-point, three-rebound, four-assist, two drawn-charges night Wednesday in a win over a short-handed Philadelphia 76ers team. “But when you have that championship, that ain’t never get taken away from you. And it gives you an extra, just …reassurance of yourself. And you know what you can do, and you know what you can accomplish. And once you get there, you know you just want to get back.”
For Lowry, that reassurance is something he has looked for over the years. He has been the best Raptor in the city in every non-Kawhi year he’s been here, and he can be named to his sixth consecutive all-star team next week when the reserves are announced. He’s had the greatest Raptors career ever, and should be the first player to get a statue.
But he has had bouts of doubt over that time, according to people who know him. He has heard every criticism, read every slight, paid attention to how and when this city loved him. Other teams used to hear semiregular reports of dissatisfaction, once or twice a year. Even now, when you mention how the Toronto crowd chanted his name the night they beat Milwaukee to advance to the NBA Finals, or at the parade as the buses were stranded in an ocean of adoring fans, Lowry is ready with his reflexive counterpoint.
“I’ve been booed,” he says. “I’ve been booed before, too. I’ve been asked to be traded before by the fans too, trade Lowry for (Andrew) Wiggins, I remember that. I remember everything.”
He does. But he was the best player on the team the night they won the title, and that matters. He’s not paying attention to the noise anymore. He’s not looking for slights, or fights. When a heckler came at him in Indiana earlier this season, Lowry just pointed at his championship ring finger with a wink. He’s just being Kyle Lowry, but more at peace than ever.
Why it matters: This possession gives some insight into how the Raptors have been able to build the second-best defence in the league despite losing two elite perimeter defenders in the offseason in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
It begins with Siakam picking up Simmons in semi-transition, where the one-time All-Star is at his best. Because Siakam has the size and speed to match up with him, Simmons isn’t able to score a quick basket, forcing the 76ers into their halfcourt offence, where he’s far less of a scoring threat.
From there, the 76ers look to punish the Raptors for having VanVleet on Horford, only to have Toronto blow it up by switching Siakam onto Horford.
MORE: Nine thoughts from Toronto’s win over Philadelphia
It speaks to Siakam’s versatility as a defender that he can transition from guarding Simmons to Horford without it being a clear mismatch. Simmons is obviously not a traditional point guard even though he functions as Philadelphia’s point guard on offence, but the list of players who can guard as many positions as Siakam isn’t very long. It includes the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, plus LeBron James when he’s locked in.
The timing of that switch is important. Had VanVleet and Siakam done it a split-second sooner, Horford may have been able to sneak his way to the basket on the cut. Had they done it a split-second later, Horford may have gotten deeper post position, setting him up for a much better shot than he ended up getting.
What goes on on the other end of the court is also important because the Raptors execute another switch when Horford catches the ball, this time moving Lowry onto Simmons and VanVleet onto Thybulle. While Lowry isn’t much bigger than VanVleet, he’s one of the stronger players at his position, giving him a better shot of keeping Simmons out of the paint.
That’s three switches in seven seconds, each done for a different purpose – the first to keep Ibaka as close to the basket as possible, the second to keep Horford out of the paint, the third to keep the 6-foot-10 and 240-pound Simmons off the offensive glass.
The win at home also highlights how important it will be to secure home-court advantage during the playoffs. While it would be tough to catch Milwaukee for first place in the East, if they can catch the Miami Heat for second place in the conference, it would help them in a big way.
Not only does this Raptors team have a distinct advantage with their depth because of their ability to get scoring from various players, but they are also no slouch defensively as well. Basketball reference has them sitting second in the NBA with a 105.41 defensive rating which shouldn’t be a surprise.
When you look at some of the games the Raptors play, you would think that their hot and cold swings offensively and habit of turning the ball over would make life tough on Toronto. Fortunately, Masai Ujiri has built a team that doesn’t sway one way or the other when it comes to how they balance their offensive and defensive production.
Eighth Man Title Holder
Trust Meter: 8 out of 10
Happenings: You might be thinking, hmmm, did Rondae Hollis-Jefferson do anything notable this week to win the title?
Well, no, not really. But what you want from your bench is consistency, and guys that know their roles, and that, Rondae provides. (For the most part. That corner three attempt against the Sixers? Thankfully, an outlier — his only three-point attempt of the week.
Rondae was, of course, part of the bench unit that brought the Raptors back against the Hawks. Although Norman Powell is getting all the shine from that one, Hollis-Jefferson hauled in 10 boards, and had three assists and two steals in that contest. He also led the deep bench reserves in +/- for the week.
Defense will keep the Raptors in games where their offense struggles – 9/10
Leading up to the season, the Raptors offense was a question mark. A tough defense, however, felt like a certainty. That’s strange to say, considering the team lost perhaps the best perimeter defender of 2000s, and another former All-Defensive player in Danny Green.
The loss of Leonard, however, was always going to be easier to deal with defensively than it may appear on the outside, at least in the regular season. The Raptors were comfortable playing without him, as they did so 22 times last season. Additionally, Leonard was not often deployed as the defensive destroyer of worlds that he had been in the past, another measure taken to keep him fresh for the playoffs.
Slotting into Leonard’s vacated position was OG Anunoby, about as good a defensive replacement as possible, and perhaps more suited for night-to-night defensive impact, given his age and health. Beyond that, organizational depth and a culture of defense had fans feeling bullish on this squad’s defensive ceiling. That being said, the results thus far are a pleasant surprise for all but the most optimistic.
The Raptors currently sit second in defensive rating at 105.41 according to basketball reference, behind only the dominant Milwaukee Bucks. In an injury-riddled season, their defense has won them games when the offense was reduced to “Kyle Lowry, go be awesome.” The Raptors regular rotation does not see them trot out a bad defender, and Nurse’s creative scheming has been largely effective.
What really separates this team defensively is their versatility. The Raptors are uniquely suited to take on star players of any position. VanVleet and Lowry defend as well as anybody at the point guard position. The trio of Anunoby, Hollis-Jefferson, and an engaged Siakam can provide 48 minutes of lockdown wing defense. Marc Gasol is an ideal defensive quarterback and specializes in shutting down big men. Serge Ibaka still shows flashes of his Oklahoma City days, where he was a rim-protection extraordinaire.
Nurse deploys these players in varied ways. They can go small and fast. If the matchup calls for it, they can go enormous. Sometimes, it makes most sense to just remain balanced and rely on defensive talent and a commitment to playing hard on that end. Whatever the opponent is doing, the Raptors have a counter.
Occasionally, the Raptors system will fail, and hot shooting nights from opposing role players will make one question Toronto’s tendency to allow corner 3s at such a high rate, as that happened in the Raptors game against Houston, for example. That is an outlier, however, and not the rule. This Raptors defense is legitimate, and fans were right to be excited about it this season.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images
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