If the 2021 incarnation of the Toronto Raptors proved anything, it’s that consistency and continuation make up the foundation of the Kyle Lowry-era in Toronto. Speaking of Lowry, his decision this summer will impact the NBA regardless of his destination, and should he leave, it’ll be the signalling of a new beginning as the Raptors usher in a new era, where the offensive depth and potency is incredible.
Throughout 69 games this year, the Raptors have had eight different players lead them in scoring, which is a testament to Toronto’s ability to adapt and adjust, especially in the midst of a global pandemic and during a season where injuries were very prominent. Things will obviously change between now and the beginning of next season with the draft, trades, and of course, free agency. But the core group of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby is finally ready to take the reins and spearhead a team that’s gushing with offensive potential.
Speaking of the core, the continued progression of Anunoby’s scoring has been a common bright spot throughout a murky season. The best part about OGs expanding offensive game is that it hasn’t disrupted the team’s chemistry – it’s actually strengthened it because of his low usage, meaning he gives Toronto efficient points without taking touches away from the initiators. OG is among the league’s elite in catch-and-shoot situations (max. 43 games played), ranking eighth in catch-and-shoot threes made.
Normally, if a player thrives in catch-and-shoot situations, it’s a safe bet that his usage rate will reflect that. For example, OG isn’t a ball-dominant player like Siakam or VanVleet, and while he ranks seventh on the Raptors in usage (max. 30 games), he’s still fourth in scoring among the current roster.
This is important to consider because it gives Toronto more flexibility in how Nick Nurse wants to run his offensive sets. Guys like Siakam and VanVleet are capable of creating their own shots, but when an opposing defense collapses on whoever is in the paint, or if Toronto is in the middle of a fast break, OG finding his sweet spots outside will be instrumental to the Raptors’ hopes of contending again next season.
Gary Trent Jr. and Malachi Flynn were both solid additions for Toronto this season, and if Lowry returns and the Raptors pick up a starting-calibre big man, it stands to reason that both will come off the bench. However, if Lowry leaves, Trent will benefit the most. The issue with that is adjustment in roles. Starting versus coming off the bench really impacted the way these two played:
Trent starting (top) vs. bench (bottom):
Flynn starting vs. bench:
If there was any indication as to how lethal this combo can be as a starting backcourt, look no further than when they torched the Cleveland Cavaliers for 64 points. Trent erupted to score a career-high 44 points on 89 per cent shooting, along with knocking down seven of nine attempts from beyond the arc.
Flynn dished out a career-best 11 assists, to go along with 20 points, as he completed his first double-double. The icing on the cake was the franchise-record 87 first-half points, which would not have been possible without both Raptors taking over. There’s one fundamental reason that Flynn and Trent meshed so well together throughout this game:
Spacing. Every time Trent received the ball, Flynn created space between them. He also demonstrated impressive court vision. Anytime that Trent had an opportunity to get a bucket, Flynn made sure to get in position and pass him the ball. The potential is there, and scoring the ball isn’t the issue. It’s a matter of how to incorporate both Trent and Flynn off of the bench without sacrificing their consistency.
Trent is without question a natural scorer but will need to work on attacking the paint and slashing in order to maximize his capabilities in the event that he’s relegated to the bench. Flynn, heralded for his defense in college, is wrapping up his rookie season and showcased his offensive talents at a time where the Raptors needed to lean on him the most.
Remember when VanVleet joked about the Raptors being the ‘best worst team of all-time’? While I don’t think that title suits Toronto the best, I’d argue that the 2021 Raptors are the most offensively conflicted team ever. How does a team that loses way more than they win, maintain a positive net rating throughout much of the season? Right now, it’s sitting at minus 0.1 but it was 0.2 above zero for a majority of the year.
In 27 wins, Toronto has scored an average of 117.2 points, while holding opponents to 103.7. That’s a bigger margin of win than the Brooklyn Nets (45-24), Philadelphia 76ers (47-22), and the Phoenix Suns (48-21). The loss of players to injury and missed games due to COVID-19 protocols prevented Toronto from building chemistry and navigating through a tumultuous season. On top of that, the Raptors core four played only 471 minutes together. The equivalent of 10 games.
In a perfect world, Toronto will play in Canada again next season and with another year of handling the pandemic, NBA protocols should be better suited to accommodate teams. Toronto will also have gone through a full summer of rest and strategy, unlike the two months between last season and this season. Well-rested bodies and a refreshed mindset is exactly the pause the Raptors need right now.
Adam Silver even attested to his belief that the 2022 season will operate like the league did before COVID. If his prediction comes true, Toronto and the rest of the league likely won’t feel as precarious due to a return of that routine. With more consistency and cohesiveness, the offensive potential for Toronto is sky high for next year. While this year has been filled with ups and downs, it takes a dive into the bigger picture to understand what ‘ups’ are on the horizon.