— Ramon Galindo (@RamonGalindoNBC) December 19, 2020
Just as the Raptors massaged their roles around Leonard, I could see them doing the same with Harden. If you’re lining up what a complementary unit around Harden looks like, having two guards who defend like hell and shoot well on a high volume of 3s is a great start. Harden is also at his best defensively further up the position spectrum, where his strength and post defence are bigger assets and you can minimize his bouts of inattentiveness on the perimeter. You’re nominally small with three guards like that, but not too small functionally.
Anunoby is a pretty prototypical power forward next to Harden as an elite defender and willing corner shooter, even if you’d need to see the volume tick upward. If P.J. Tucker comes back to Toronto in the deal, you have a heck of a two-way closing lineup, especially since both Raptors guards and Anunoby are quality screeners. Chris Boucher would get a million dunks in transitional units. Malachi Flynn absorbs some of the concern about how thin the second unit would be. Paul Watson Jr. is now Danuel House, but better at NBA 2K.
I realize that’s a lot of convincing. And it doesn’t address Harden’s playoff shortcomings either. Remarkably, though, despite the narrative Harden is almost a 60/30 player for his playoff career (60 percent true-shooting on 30-percent usage), an insane bar for individual scoring efficiency in any environment, let alone the playoffs, it’s hard to hang it all on him in the aggregate. And in Toronto, he’d be dropped into a pretty ideal on-court environment.
All told, I have very few doubts about it working on the court. Under a Siakam-for-Harden framework, the Raptors would probably become the favourites in the East so long as their thin rotation doesn’t result in injuries or heavy wear and tear. To me, this all comes down to where your gut lands on the off-court elements and Ujiri’s potential willingness to include Siakam.
As for your framework, I’d want Tucker back, which would work within the math anyway. Siakam, Powell and Davis for Harden and Tucker satisfy the salary matching components. I’d take Stanley Johnson out of the deal because doing so saves the Rockets over $6 million in salary and gets them out of the luxury tax for this year, which is probably more important to their owners than any draft equity you could send back. (The Raptors would be over the tax, to which I’d say, pay it for Harden, or attach a pick to unload Johnson and duck back below later.)
In terms of draft equity, I’d try to hold firm on 2023 protections, because Harden can walk and a post-Harden, no-Siakam, old-Lowry scenario could get bleak. Cutting so much money from the Rockets’ books is a very real factor, and the Raptors could even kick in some of the allotted cash to further “Fertitta” the deal. Maybe you even concede a pick swap in 2022 to keep those 2023 protections.
At both the 2017 and 2019 trade deadlines, Masai Ujiri made all-in, franchise-altering trades. Will 2021 see something similar?
I think it’s a possibility. We’ve discussed the potential for a Kyle Lowry trade already, but beyond that, the Raptors are loaded with players on tradeable contracts. Now, not every one of those players has value — Hi, Stanley — but some clearly do, like Norman Powell, Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher.
On the other hand — the extensions and re-signing of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet would seem to indicate that the Raptors believe in their young core and are comfortable building around them going forward.
I think we might see a small move or two, most likely Powell moving on, but nothing franchise-changing this time around.
It’s going to be a very different kind of season; we’re now 18 months removed from the Raptors winning their title, four key players from that team have departed, the team is in Tampa and the league as a whole is rolling the dice with traveling and playing with fans in the arenas during a global pandemic. It’s weird, and risky…
But it’s also comforting. Especially right now, when the holidays are going to be so different, it’s good to have basketball back, to have something familiar to do, to have a team to root for. Let’s enjoy it!
The Raptors have been good enough for long enough that they’ve had to consider and plan for what comes next. That’s what this past year has been about for Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster – setting the Raptors down a path that ensures they’ll be competitive for the foreseeable future.
The foundation they’ve built, and recently secured, features the promising young trio of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby.
In the fall of 2019, the Raptors signed Siakam to a maximum salary contract extension worth more than $130 million over the next four years, beginning this season. Last month, they gave VanVleet a new four-year, $85 million deal. On Monday, just ahead of the deadline, they agreed to extend Anunoby for four years at $72 million. His deal will kick in next season.
All three players are home grown, having been drafted – or, in the case of VanVleet, signed as an undrafted free agent – by Toronto. They’ve come up together through the Raptors’ system, learning from veterans of the previous regime and sharing in the team’s recent success, including the championship run in 2019.
They’re all under the age of 27, yet to or just about to reach their prime years. They’ve each taken meaningful steps early in their professional careers and shown there’s still another level that they can reach. And now, they’re all under contract through 2023-24.
“They were second-year players when I was a rookie, so we all started off the same and we’ve all just been growing,” Anunoby said. “It’s been cool to see. We all work really hard, we’ve all been happy for each other. So it’s cool to see and I’m excited for the future.”
“I think it’s really been fun and interesting to watch them all grow,” said Nurse. “I think it’s a real credit first of all to them individually and to our organization – coaching staff, player development, all that stuff that we’ve been able to grow these guys to this point.”
“I don’t think any of them were real sure-fire high draft picks or whatever. Freddy’s undrafted and [Siakam and Anunoby were] late first-round picks, and they go out there and they compete with the best.”
The fundamental way the Raptors play on offence will have to change. Gasol and Ibaka were instrumental in what Toronto did when it had the ball — shooting and passing and finding open teammates they were familiar with — and it’s too much to ask Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher to replicate those contributions.
So a guard- and wing-oriented offence will have to be the order of the day.
“My job is to piece in some guys around those guys and find the right guys to be on the floor the majority of the minutes,” Nurse said.
That kind of adaptability has been a trademark of this group, though. They figured out how to win a championship two seasons ago with a load-managed Kawhi Leonard and overcame injuries to every key player to post the second-best regular-season record in the league last season.
This season may be different, but it’s not new.
“Just plainly speaking, there’s a lot of different guys that are going to be playing,” VanVleet said. “Serge and Marc were very big pieces of what we did over the last few years, certainly big parts of the championship team and last year even more.
“Those two guys were such a huge piece of what we did, and I don’t think that we have to necessarily replace ’em, but I think just the dynamic will be different and the way we play might look a little different.”
The Raptors would love to maintain their status as one of the best defensive teams — they were ranked in the top five last season — and that means exerting a physical presence on every game.
“I want us to be a defensive team where every single possession, every single night, the team who is coming in knows that it’s going to be a slug-it-out game, and they’re going to get hit, they’re going to get beat up,” Lowry said. “They’re not going to be roaming free.”
There is cost certainty at the top of your roster including a no-question bargain in Anunoby as long as he stays healthy.
You have good young talent behind that trio in a pair of draft picks who have yet to take a wrong step in Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris not to mention potentially huge upsides in both centre Chris Boucher who is signed for two seasons and Matt Thomas who has two years left on his deal have both carved out a niche for themselves on the roster but are both looking to expand their respective roles as well.
Head coach Nick Nurse believes he can support those goals of a growing role by offering both players consistent minutes in the coming season, but if those minutes are not earned, growth is going to be that much tougher.
Beyond the starting five as well as Norm Powell and Malachi Flynn, Nurse admits the pecking order of the rest of his roster remains very much up in the air.
“I think there is such tight competition from eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and keep going positions for us. I am just not quite sure how it will play out here early,” Nurse said yesterday when asked how much time he felt newcomer Yuta Watanabe would spend in the G-League.
But the core of the team is very much set and count Nick Nurse among those that likes the direction this thing is going.
“I think that’s where we’re heading, can these guys, what can they do on nights when the superstars are coming in, can they guard them, can they score on them, can they compete and beat them, that’s the main thing,” Nurse said of his new core, along of course with Kyle Lowry.
Article content continued
“Maybe OG doesn’t have to win his matchup head-to-head or Pascal win his head-to-head but can the three of them, along with Kyle and whoever else is in with the group of four — a four pillar foundation is kind of what we’re at right now and Norm would be another guy who’s been around a while — can they collectively find a way to win and I think that’s really all we’re concerned about now.”
There will come a time when Masai Ujiri will once again attempt to add that elite piece to the mix like he did with Kawhi Leonard. That may come as early as this summer when the team, even after the signing of Anunoby, retains some financial flexibility to add a large contract, but for now it’s all about building the foundation and that foundation is starting to look pretty rock solid.
Let’s start with this: the expectations on Siakam coming into last season, elevated by his superstar numbers in the winter, were totally unrealistic for playoff basketball as a number one option.
Beginning with a 34-point, 18-rebound performance in the season opener against New Orleans, Siakam went on to average an amazing 23.5 points per game on 45.8% shooting before the All-Star Break, including a three-point percentage of 36.2 on 5.8 attempts per game.
Siakam was both the floor-spacing big that helped power Toronto to a championship, as well as a half-court creator in space — picking up Leonard’s usage and scoring with similar efficiency.
As the season wore on, though, playoff teams began to build a solid game plan to slow Siakam. By packing the paint on his half-court touches, they were able to bring help on spin moves and post-ups — forcing Siakam into mid-range jumpers or tough finishes at the rim. As I explored in a series preview during the 2020 playoffs, Pascal’s inefficiency on these shots was the main reason for his offensive struggles. The three-point shot wasn’t shaken until the Boston series, that part of his game was fine throughout last season.
Teams will continue to use this strategy of defending Siakam. We’ve already seen it in the preseason against Miami, who contracted their defense effectively against the Raptors. (The Hornets attempted the same thing but, well, they’re the Hornets.)
Expectations for Siakam this season should be more modest than they were heading into the bubble. They should, however, include an improved ability for Nick Nurse and offensive guru Chris Finch to find shots for their star player. An improved OG Anunoby off the dribble will help loosen things up, but Siakam is still the best frontcourt player on Toronto at creating his own shot in the half court.
Using pick and roll, ball movement, and different actions to get Siakam the ball in space — without the defense able to contract every look — will be critical to the Raptors’ success this season, as much of it hinges on their ability to score at a slower pace. We will see early in the regular season whether progress can be made.
But even if, as the coach said, “these aren’t huge, gaping improvements that normally stick out,” there’s something about Siakam’s effort that stands out. Watching Siakam assemble a personal team that included skills coaches, a strength coach, and assorted experts assigned to optimize his nutrition and hydration and mental and physical health, you can get the sense that Siakam’s off-season wasn’t as much about ensuring self-improvement as it was about doing penance. Given that Siakam was once a student in a Catholic seminary, he’d be intimately familiar with the concept of enduring a bit of self-punishment in an attempt to make good for one shortcoming or another. His summertime sweat fest seemed to qualify as such.
What, precisely, was he working on? Off-court habits, he tells us, such as eating bacon and eggs for breakfast instead of whatever it was he was eating previously.
And on-court nuances.
“One of the things we really focused on was balance, being strong at the rim, finishing better, staying balanced,” Siakam said recently, confirming Nurse’s observation.
Fans who have had their fill of watching Siakam squander another possession by haphazardly spinning into the lane on wobbly legs can only hope the work pays dividends. But certainly acknowledging the weak spot is a start.
“I’m my biggest critic. I’m my biggest hater,” Siakam says at the outset of the first video.
So long as Siakam’s self-criticism continues to be bathed in the undeniable self-confidence that has helped him emerge as a viable No. 1 option, at least in the regular season, everything we’ve seen from Siakam, both on video and on the pre-season court, looks like a plausible recipe for redemption. In the wake of laying a playoff egg, Siakam has proceeded in precisely the way a serious NBA all-star ought to proceed. He saw a wrong that needed to be righted with righteous labour and another honest kick at the can.
“I just love his energy, and his personality,” Fred VanVleet was saying of Siakam the other day. “I know (the media was) pretty rough on him after the playoffs, but I like his motor and his energy going forward and I’m excited about the year he’s gonna have.”
It’s hardly a media creation that has Siakam finds himself residing in a lamentable category of Toronto franchise player: The regular-season all-star who underachieves in the playoffs. DeMar DeRozan wore that status for the bulk of his time as a Raptor. Kyle Lowry only fully shed the label after Kawhi Leonard arrived in town. If the Raptors are going to be something better than projected this season — and the consensus at various sportsbooks is that they’re something like the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference behind the Bucks, Nets, Celtics and Heat — it stands to reason they’ll need Siakam to be far better than he’s been in the moments that truly count.
Of course the analysis which began with Siakam would end up recommending a teammate of his, and a teammate who has never been as efficient as Siakam by a metric like PER. Still, you can see that Siakam’s field goal percentage dropped nearly a hundred points when his usage rate went from 20 percent to 28 percent. Maybe Anunoby can avoid the same fate, and maybe Siakam’s lessening efficiency will be part of the reason the younger Raptor gets the chance.
Possibly because he moved into the starting lineup last year, Anunoby’s usage dropped, but his efficiency soared, and his hustle stats were off the charts. It might be tough to pry someone who nearly stole two a game loose, but consider a slightly overpay since the floor is so high, and there’s some evidence that he can create his own shot and continue to be offensively efficient as he gets to use the ball more. Anunoby’s fantasy manager may think he’s just a three-and-d type, and may think Norman Powell will steal some minutes — but OG got more minutes and did more with them this preseason, for one.
Send me any Raptors related pieces/videos/social that I may have missed: [email protected]