Recency bias and NBA Twitter go together like Donald Trump and racism. For that reason, a lot of Raptors fans have come to view the 2019-20 season solely through the lens of the bubble and, more specifically, the disappointing second-round series loss to the Boston Celtics.
There is no doubt that the Raptors played poorly relative to their ceiling throughout that series — with their No. 1 option, Pascal Siakam, never finding his rhythm and their starting center, Marc Gasol, unable to give them anything offensively — yet they still forced a game 7 against a team that was always a bad matchup for the Raptors and were within one Fred VanVleet three-pointer from taking the game to overtime.
(Was the last significant play of the season a poor one? Absolutely. Did I hate every bit of VanVleet dribbling out the clock before putting up a contested, off-balance three? Sure. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t right there).
There were some really positive takeaways from the regular season and even the bubble and the Celtics series — ones that I will get into — but most Raptors fans seem to be passing over those in favour of the negatives. Torontonians can be so cynical and, despite Masai Ujiri urging us to believe in ourselves just one season ago, a lot of us are back to doubting the same group of players that just went 53-19 in a shortened season and set the record for the highest winning percentage in franchise history.
I’m not here to tell you to be satisfied with a consistently competitive team that wins 50 games every season and then flames out in the second round. I’m here to tell you that the Raptors are better than that and, despite losing to Boston this year, they will likely be back and at least as competitive next season, whenever and wherever that is.
They have no reason not to be. In all likelihood, the Raptors will bring back a very similar roster to the one that just won 53 games in a shortened season and was one three-pointer away from the conference finals. Assuming VanVleet and Ibaka re-sign and Gasol leaves, which seems the most likely scenario as of right now, the Raptors will have six of their top-seven rotation players back. Even if one of them signs elsewhere, the Raptors will still have their two best players — Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam — along with money to spend in free agency and an elite coach with a deep bench. They will also have a first-round pick for the first time in years.
Most importantly, the Raptors’ young players will all have one more year of experience under their belts and an additional offseason to train and develop the weakest parts of their game. That might not sound significant given that Pascal Siakam is 26 years old, VanVleet is 26, Matt Thomas is 26, NormanPowell is 27, and Chris Boucher is 27, but these guys are all relatively new to the league, and NBA experience can matter just as much and age. Plus, in the case of Siakam, who only started playing competitive basketball in his late teens, and VanVleet, both players have made significant improvements every year in the league and there is no reason to think their development is finished.
Plus, the Raptors have legitimately young and inexperienced talent such as OG Anunoby (23), Terence Davis (23), Dewan Hernandez (23), Oshae Brissett (22), and Paul Watson (25), who are all due to take a step forward next season after showing promising glimpses in their first (or in the case of Anunoby, third but really second) seasons in the league.
Last offseason, the Raptors front office failed to bring in any free agents that helped the Raptors win in the playoffs, but that is less an indictment on the front office and more of a compliment to the existing top-seven players they had. I have full faith in their ability to build a competitive roster through the draft and free agency this offseason.
Even if the Raptors don’t make a significant free-agent signing, their young players should be enough to fill out a legitimate bench and, if one or two of them can make a leap, they should be able to go seven or eight deep in the playoffs.
That might sound like a lot of “ifs,” and it would be if I was assuming the Raptors were going to win by committee to the same degree that they did this past season where they relied on one of the deepest and most versatile rosters in the league to win night after night. But every season is different, and two players, in particular, are due to make mini-leaps of their own next season, which would lessen the scoring pressure on the veterans and fringe young players.
You might be surprised to hear this (a hater), but the first is Pascal Siakam. Coming off the first All-Star and Second-Team All-NBA appearances in his career, just one year removed from winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award (and receiving votes to win it again this year), Siakam will be coming in hot.
It’s easy to judge Siakam based solely on his performance in the bubble and the Celtics series when he really struggled on the offensive end, but that would be dumb considering the fact that he went three months without shooting a basketball and never found his rhythm in the bubble. Not to make excuses for Siakam, but it’s not fair to judge any player solely on their bubble performance because a bubble in the midst of a pandemic is not a good representation of what NBA players usually go through. Even if the NBA creates another bubble next season, the players will have a much better idea of what to expect. We don’t often talk about the mental side of things with professional athletes, but it cannot go unrecognized.
This is how good Siakam was in the final game of the real regular season, in case you forgot:
This is a player who spent the regular season adjusting to being a No. 1 option for the first time in his career, just two seasons removed from coming off the bench and averaging 7.0 points a game. He had his ups and downs throughout the regular season, especially struggling against elite defenses, but he made legitimate improvements as a three-point threat (35.9 percent on 6.1 attempts per game) and a playmaker (3.5 assists per game), averaging almost 23 points a game (that’s really hard in the NBA). He carried an extremely big load at times in the season when Lowry, Ibaka, Gasol, and Powell were injured, consistently helping the Raptors win games no matter the case. He might not be the most flashy player in the league, but Siakam is extremely skilled on both sides of the ball and drives winning. Plus, he gets significantly better ever season.
The next player who is due for a mini-leap is OG Anunoby. Anunoby spent the regular season defending the best scorers in the league before becoming the Raptors second-best player in the Celtics series (in just his second playoff run).
Anunoby proved that he is already an elite three-and-D player, shooting 39.0 percent from three in the regular season and 41.5 percent in the playoffs with a usage rate of just 14.2 percent while being one of the most versatile defenders in the league. He showed very promising glimpses of an ability to create off the dribble the further the Raptors went in the postseason, and there is no reason why he shouldn’t be given a bigger percentage of the offense next season in order to develop his shot-creating and playmaking. He is due to take some of Powell’s 21.5 usage percentage from this past season.
Anunoby also proved to be an extremely effective small-ball center against the Celtics in a lineup I thought the Raptors could have relied on even more. He has a rare combination of size, strength, and speed, making him one of the most versatile defenders in the league and a rare example of a player who can legitimately guard one through five. Anunoby also improved as a rebounder throughout the season, averaging a career-high 6.9 rebounds per game in the playoffs.
Depending on the matchup, Anunoby could become extremely impactful in a small-ball center roll in the future, potentially making Raptors management think twice before spending money on a backup center when they already have one in Anunoby. Plus, even when he is playing alongside a traditional center like Ibaka, Anunoby’s versatility is useful in that he can guard opposing centers like Bam Adebayo and Daniel Theis while Ibaka “hides” on spot-up shooters.
That is without even mentioning one of the better two-way backcourts in the league in Lowry and VanVleet, or the fact that Ibaka added a legitimate three-point shot to his game and improved as a playmaker (more on that coming soon), or Terrence Davis and the rest of the young players continued development, or Nick Nurse and one of the best coaching staffs in the league.
There is no reason to think that next season will be some sort of holdover or development season as the Raptors await 2021 free agency, which some people have speculated. This core group of players proved this season that they are ready to compete for a title and can go toe-to-toe with any team in the league.
They flamed out in the bubble, specifically against a Celtics team that matched up well against them, but to judge the Raptors solely on that would be a mistake considering their character and their young core’s demonstrated ability to get better each and every season.
The league is as open as it has been in a long time. The Toronto Raptors will be contenders again next season.