Cover Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
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— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) July 21, 2020
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— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) July 21, 2020
Those who have followed Siakam’s career will likely also point to the speed with which Siakam has applied each new stumble, struggle or lesson to his game. Siakam might not have taken a ton of shots during the break, but he approached the downtime intending to enter the restart as an improved creator.
“Obviously, I always feel like I’ve been a willing passer. In many situations, making better reads. Understanding that you’re going to get attention — and know how to be aggressive, and know how to defer,” Siakam said. “It’s something that I’m learning and continue to get better at. It’s an exciting time, just working every day, trying to improve. And seeing things that defenses are going to throw at me and (adjusting) based on that.”
Siakam also (somewhat sarcastically at first) said he watches tape on many different player types to pick things up. With his offensive versatility, he can pull from a point guard as much as he pulls from a centre. That should be helpful with the number of defender types he’ll see in a playoff run because opponents will want to vary his looks to keep him uncomfortable and because Nurse won’t hesitate to use Siakam on either end of a pick-and-roll with just about any teammate. The Raptors might have six or seven comfortable pick-and-roll handlers and six or seven comfortable screeners in the top eight of their rotation, giving Nurse a lot of ways to involve Siakam and try to maximize his matchups when things slow down.
How Siakam looks against increased defensive attention, especially late in games, is at the top of the list of things I’ll be watching closely when the Raptors get underway Friday in a scrimmage against Houston.
One of his tricks is to play more traditional. In an era where teams like the Houston Rockets have decided that centers and power forwards are obsolete, Nurse sees value in bucking the trend. On two separate conference calls with reporters over the past month, Nurse flirted with the idea of playing his “jumbo lineup” with two centers sharing the floor when the NBA resumes the 2019-20 season.
“I can envision us playing very big, I like to call it our Jumbo Lineup with OG at the two, Pascal at the three, Serge at the four and Marc at the five. I can envision that being very useful for us in the playoffs,” Nurse said a few weeks back.
This alignment isn’t new. Nurse debuted this strategy against the Philadelphia 76ers last season, and it saved the title as much as Kawhi Leonard’s shot. The supersized Sixers had size advantages across the board, and they were in prime position to take a 3-1 lead. But in the second half of that must-win Game 4, Nurse went his jumbo lineup, and that gave them just enough of a boost to even and eventually win the series. It was also implemented to a lesser degree against Milwaukee.
Nurse used it sparing this year, teasing the jumbo lineup in only three games: In a last-ditch comeback push against the Sixers, and as a temporary starting five against the Thunder and Wizards while Fred VanVleet was out. But its limited usage points more to a concerted effort to hide their cards, rather than a lack of results. The jumbo lineup was plus-19 in 30 minutes.
It was a natural fit on defense because of the flexibility in the lineup. Marc Gasol remained in his natural role as the anchor in the paint, while everyone else shifted up a spot. OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam might be 6-foot-8 on paper, but they are both nimble enough to slide their feet with smaller guards. The biggest ask was for Serge Ibaka to play on the perimeter, but he is fundamentally sound and didn’t look out of place. If anything, it was a familiar job for Ibaka, who spent the large majority of his career at power forward before Nurse converted him into a full-time five last season.
“Defensively, right away it was awesome .. The size could handle the speed, the quickness, the shooting. Usually when you’re too big you can’t keep up or you can’t get back, or you can’t guard all the pick and roll actions, but that didn’t happen.
“That’s one of the nice things about our size and length. From OG, to Pascal, to Rondae — these guys can go out and move their feet and guard the majority of the perimeter players,” Nurse said.
Surprisingly, the Raptors maintained their defensive versatility despite the unorthodox collection of players on the floor. They ran zones, pressed full court, and doubled the post just as they would with their regular lineups, and it worked just fine. Anunoby was a standout, recording six steals and forcing a backcourt violation in 30 minutes.
Once again proving their commitment to meaningful social change within the organization and their community, the Toronto Raptors on Monday named John Wiggins vice-president, Organizational Culture and Inclusion.
According to the team, Wiggins will lead a group drawn from all parts of the organization to address social injustice, inclusion, equity and political reform. He will consider both internal matters — such as how we build a team culture that addresses social injustice, inclusion, equity, and political reform — and will lead our external outreach.
“We want to effect change on a global scale, and that has to begin at home,” said Raptors’ president Masai Ujiri. “John knows this community and he knows the people who live in this community. He understands how to get things done and how to build consensus.
“And importantly, in this role John sits as a member of our team leadership committee. He is part of the key decisions that are being made every day and will address those decisions from a viewpoint of not just how they affect our team, but how they will affect our organization and our community.”
Wiggins makes the jump to the Raptors from Raptors 905 where he helped launch Canada’s first G-League franchise. He most recently held the title of vice-president and oversaw all day-to-day and business operations for the club. During his tenure, Raptors 905 won their first G-League championship in 2017.
3. Oshae Brissett: “If you’re with the Raptors and you don’t get where you need to be, that’s kinda on you”
Rookie Oshae Brissett talked at length about being a young guy on this veteran Raptors team, learning from the players around him (especially now that the whole team is healthy and practicing together, something they didn’t get the chance to do during the season), and how valuable it is to be able to lean on a guy like Fred VanVleet, who came in undrafted but is now respected throughout the league. But he also talked about the importance of the Raptors’ development program, how hard the coaches work and how willing they are to put in the time with young players. And I do think that’s under appreciated. We’ve heard a lot lately about the Raptors and how they develop young guys, and yes, they have good scouts and good coaches and a good system with the 905 — but the players still have to be willing to put the time in, to work, to listen, to be coached.
It sounds like that’s the type of guy Brissett is, and that gives me confidence he’ll make it in the NBA.
Nurse was speaking in the past tense because that’s the only baseline test that Siakam has had to face, and he did it successfully in the games he played before the season went on hiatus in March.
But this is new, the playoffs are new, the attention the 26-year-old will attract will be entirely new. He is going to be the focal point for the Raptors once they begin to defend their championship, and it will be different.
“I think the goal for us as a team, not just me, is to just peak at the right time,” Siakam said. “That’s what I’m focused on and continue to work gradually toward: being the best, or playing my best basketball, when it matters the most.
“So, it’s going to be a process and we’re just learning every day, getting better.”
History suggests he’ll be more than capable of carrying the load. Everything the Raptors have needed him to do, he’s done. He morphed from an intriguing rookie prospect into a delightful and vital part of a championship team. And without the crutch of Kawhi Leonard this season, he continued his ascent to among the top dozen or so players in the entire league.
Being the guy every opponent game-planned to stop, Siakam averaged 23.6 points, shot 51 per cent from two-point range and 36 per cent from three and took almost every big shot in every close game, a role that true No. 1 options get and relish.
His playmaking and decision-making improved — he averaged 3.6 assists and was seldom ball-stopped on offence — and he was just a better player overall as the top dog in 2019-20 than as a second or third option on the 2018-19 Leonard-based Raptors.
“Understanding that you’re going to get attention, and know how to be aggressive, and know how to defer, it’s something that I’m learning and continue to get better at,” he said.
According to Odds Shark, Toronto is trailing the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics to repeat as Eastern Conference champions. While it’s easy to see why the Bucks would be ahead of Toronto since they are the clear cut favourite in the East but it’s tough to see why the Celtics are ahead of them.
Part of the explanation from the oddsmaker is Boston getting some healthy bodies back and a more favourable schedule to round out the rest of the regular season. Sure, if Boston gets ahead of Toronto it helps their chances but it also discredits what the defending champions have done.
Like the Celtics, the Raptors have had to deal with their fair share of injuries and despite that, they have been able to remain atop the Eastern Conference and make improvements despite losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Greem. There aren’t many teams capable of doing that.
Toronto Raptors Big Logo Gaiter Scarf – Youth
Not only have the Raptors been a model organization team on the court but they have also made it a point to be leaders off the court with their focus on social injustice. When they get back to the hardwood, you can bet Nick Nurse is going to make sure the team makes use of the opportunity to get healthy, having options at his disposal that he didn’t have for most of the season.
If Toronto wants any chance of getting back to being on top, they will need star players to be star players including veterans like Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. However, it can’t be said how important Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet will be in all of this considering they are the future of this team.
Regardless, the Raptors find themselves in a familiar position and they don’t mind being looked over and this should hopefully play into their favour.
Toronto Raptors: 1 More Year?
Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet all played significant roles in the Toronto Raptors’ 2019 championship, and all three will have plenty to say about how close this year’s team comes to repeating.
All three are also headed for unrestricted free agency.
With Kyle Lowry entering the final year of his contract, the Raptors could retain all three on short-term deals (or at least two: Ibaka and Gasol), make one more run and smash the reset button in 2021-22. If the Raptors’ run-it-back plan requires them to offer Ibaka and Gasol multiple years, they can probably kiss that precious 2021 cap space goodbye. And with it, their chance to sign Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Giannis gambit may only be a pipe dream, but the Raptors still have to acknowledge that Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka aren’t young enough to be key figures on a next-era squad led by Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and FVV. Even if it has to set its free-agency sights a bit lower, Toronto should still prioritize hitting the 2021 offseason with flexibility and cash to spend. But sentiment and the real possibility that the current core is good enough to contend next season complicate the Raptors’ path forward.
No. 6: Toronto Raptors
Net Rating: 11.7 in 280 minutes
PG: Kyle Lowry
SG: Fred VanVleet
SF: OG Anunoby
PF: Pascal Siakam
C: Marc Gasol
Owners of the NBA’s third-best record, the Raptors combine depth with a fantastic starting five.
Despite an undersized backcourt, Toronto has plenty of championship experience on the roster and a legit No. 1 option in Siakam to go to when the team needs a basket.
Benching Lowry and using Normal Powell along with VanVleet in the backcourt has been an even better lineup for the Raptors with a net rating of 16.1 in 192 minutes. Since Lowry isn’t getting benched anytime soon, Toronto will have to settle for the sixth-best starting unit in the NBA.
Coach of the Year: Nick Nurse
The Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and divided their minutes between Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and rookie Terrence Davis. And yet, when the season was suspended they had a better win percentage than during their championship season and still held onto the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. And, relative to the league average, their defense was actually better than it was the previous season with Leonard, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. I’m not sure what other complications you could have thrown at Nurse this year and he aced every test.
Just his presence would be enough to inspire some rookies, but VanVleet is far more than just a symbol to Brissett. The two have had conversations throughout the year about how to get to where VanVleet is now.
“He told me just to stay ready,” Brissett said. “That’s kind of what I did all year, no matter if it was with the 905 or the Raptors, anytime I was called I was trying to get my maximum effort going out there.”
Then there’s the organization side of the developmental equation. The Raptors have the presumptive Coach of the Year winner steering the ship in head coach Nick Nurse and arguably the NBA’s best executive in Ujiri ensuring that development is a focal point of the team’s organizational strategy.
“Our coaches are so willing and ready to be in the gym with you and our older guys are also willing and ready to teach as well. So if you’re not really listening, you’re not really putting in the work, that’s kind of on you,” Brissett said. “There’s definitely a plus and a bonus being in this organization because everyone’s so keen on development.”
The Raptors will keep development at the forefront of their plans when they take the court Friday for their first of three scrimmage games, according to Nurse. The team’s plan is to rotate players in and out of each game to make sure everyone is healthy for the seeding game opener on August 1 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I think everybody probably will take their turn of staying out,” Nurse said. “I wouldn’t imagine we’ll have the full complement maybe till the first game against the Lakers”