The Toronto Raptors are officially tired of talking about Pascal Siakam.
At various times, Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, Nick Nurse, and Siakam himself have batted away questions about his play in the bubble. I’d offer all the quotes, but they’re pretty much the same. He’s been playing well. Taking good shots. They just aren’t dropping. You get the picture.
After a few weeks of incessant questions after the bad games and the good, the Raptors have their backs up about Siakam, finding slights in questions and comments even when none exist.
“I know it seems to be since we got here a lot of talk about Pascal, Pascal, Pascal, Pascal, Pascal, Pascal, Pascal, Pascal, Pascal, and he’s playing really well and fine, and I’m not sure what everybody’s issue is with continuing to question his play and all this kinda stuff. He’s a really good player, and he’s gonna do his thing, but we like to take what comes to us and not get too bonkers here about that,” said Nurse before the game. I asked him whether Siakam can attack the rim more when Jarrett Allen is out of the game.
It is, of course, sensible that a team would support its leading scorer against criticism, real or perceived. It is equally logical that players get tired of being asked the same question time and again. But there’s something to the conversation. Siakam has shot 10-of-27 in the playoffs, good for 37.0 percent from the field, and 41-of-104 in the bubble before that, good for 39.4 percent. He has not scored well or fluidly. Is it just a slump? Does it mean nothing at all? Even if various Raptors have no interest in hearing the question, we can still ask and answer it.
What’s going on with Siakam?
So, first things first, we can comfortably discount the on-off net rating in the playoffs for Siakam. It’s been two games, and Siakam has been on the bench during some unlikely offensive explosions for Toronto. That’s the definition of small sample size theater, and it’s not predictive of anything. But perhaps more important, you can see Siakam’s usage rate and shot attempts have been dwindling since the NBA returned to play. As important, and on the positive side, Siakam has maintained a reasonably average true shooting percentage despite shooting below 40 percent from the field since coming to the bubble. He’s done that by taking more triples, making more of them, and increasing his free throw rate. So he’s adapted well and found ways to improve his efficiency in other ways. Still, there has to be something to the missed shots.
Let’s dive deeper, even. To the level of film. What’s actually going on?
Siakam has relied on his jumper slightly more in the bubble, though that hasn’t carried over to the playoffs. His jumper, by the way, has remained solid. No drop-off there. But his share of using possessions has dwindled, as has his efficiency in finishing the plays he does start.
The former is easily explicable. Fred VanVleet — the constant bearer of bumps and bruises to his shoulder, back, knees, ankles, and more — is finally healthy. And when he’s healthy, he is a great finisher around the rim, which unlocks much more of his game. He is a very capable and efficient initiator. He’s averaged 27.0 points and 10.5 assists per game through two playoff contests. He hit easy triples on Jarrett Allen in drop coverage in game one, and he blew past him with ease in game two for layups and dimes. So with VanVleet playing like Steph Curry on one end and Gary Payton on the other, it’s only reasonable that Siakam spends some possessions standing in the corner. His missing shots when he does take them, though, deserves a little more investigation.
First and simplest, he has been missing some makeable looks around the rim. Nurse has stressed that he likes Siakam’s shot profile, and it’s true that he’s blown some easy ones.
That’s a good, solid move getting his shoulder into Allen before he leaves the ground. No blame there for missing the layup.
But Siakam has actually struggled to create space against lesser defenders. He spent all year cooking smaller, slower, or weaker guys. And the Nets field a bevy of defenders who carry one or more of those labels. Yet Siakam has failed several times against the Nets to create a good look in individual coverage. That hasn’t stopped him, at times, from still flinging bad shots at the rim.
He has seemed slower upon reaching the second line of defense. Absent have been the rapid spins and shoulder fakes. Vanished are the moments when Siakam throws his endless arm towards the hoop and creates an uncontested layup out of thin air despite tight defense. Missing are the times when Siakam creates contact with his lower body and sees nothing but empty space between his upper body and the rim. Instead, he’s playing slower, more tentatively, and allowing contact to come to him rather than vice versa.
Yes, Siakam has played through a lot of physicality. More fouls could be called. But that’s true of the playoffs. He simply hasn’t been creating as many good shots.
Fortunately, Siakam’s finishing troubles have not extended to the rest of his game. His defense has been fantastic. He has been rebounding, passing, screening, and shooting well. As is important for any Raptor in the rotation, he is a multi-dimensional player, and he’s been thriving in almost all of those dimensions. He dominated Caris LeVert in all opportunities in game two, limiting LeVert in single coverage with his massive length and indomitable quickness. And his passing when he’s drawn double teams has remained on-point. Siakam has, mostly, stayed within the flow of the offense and used the defensive attention to benefit his teammates.
And it’s important to note — the Raptors sure have been noting when asked about Siakam — that the team keeps winning! The Raptors are now 9-1 in Orlando, second only to the real 2019-20 champions, the undefeated Bubble Suns. Siakam has been a massive part of that. The bizarre on-off net rating blip in the playoffs aside, the team has really struggled with him off the floor this year, and that has been more true as Siakam’s finishing has been wayward in the bubble. He continues to drive winning.
Of course, Siakam has struggled against average-at-best defenders in Garrett Temple, Rodion Kurucs, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Joe Harris. He’s had trouble finishing against a back-line anchored by Jarrett Allen. In the future, his primaries will be Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The back line will be Daniel Theis, Brook Lopez. It’s only going to get more difficult from here. So, as of now, no, we don’t need to talk about Siakam in any tone other than praise. His contribution to winning has been manifold. But more difficult tests are coming. And if Siakam continues struggling, and perhaps VanVleet cools to something less than the greatest player of all time, the Raptors may no longer dominate all comers. And then, the Raptors will have to answer far more questions about Siakam’s wayward offensive game. Then it will be time to talk about Siakam.