The dust has settled and if you were expecting any late movement that could make this off-season less apathetic, you will have to settle for Svi Mykhailiuk. As it stands right now, and there’s no reason to believe it’ll stand any other way, the Raptors are headed into another bridge year. It’s the second bridge year in a row and there’s a high likelihood that it’ll extend to a third because the roster this season isn’t taking us anywhere that can be called a destination.
Scottie Barnes has been the marquee signing of the summer, and forgive this observer if they’re not terribly excited about pegging hopes on 19-year old rookies, even if they agree with the philosophy behind the selection (more on that later). He has the potential to be good but right now he’s just a lanky athlete who can’t shoot. Maybe he’ll turn into Giannis. Maybe he’ll turn into Chris Jefferies. I have no issue with the pick since the draft is ultimately a crapshoot and much like as in 2004, the Raptors pick was one spot out of potential elite talent. So Masai Ujiri picked the higher ceiling disregarding the floor, which he has done often enough that one shouldn’t be surprised.
The thematic elements of the previous two seasons will remain much the same again with the Raptors playing off their defensive strengths. The natural progression of Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby peppered with Malachi Flynn’s on-ball defense, Fred VanVleet sticky hands and the length supplied by Barnes and the likes of Yuta Watanabe make the Raptors, at the very least, a team you got to watch your passing against. This is by no means a defensive juggernaut, far from it as we saw last year when length mattered little if you’re falling for every fake and giving up offensive rebounds.
It is in strengthening the interior where the Raptors can yield the highest dividends. The table stakes for next season have to be Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa supplying the requisite paint presence, both against incoming drives and on the glass. The Raptors were dead last in rebounding rate last season and if that trend continues, it matters little what else is going on on the court. I don’t believe rebounding-by-committee has ever worked, so I look at our big men being our Achilles’ heel, and no, that’s not the scars of Aron Baynes talking.
The contract extensions to Khem Birch and Gary Trent Jr. were both reasonable, and it’s not like the Raptors had many options to pick from. With no big name free agents available (not that they were coming to Toronto anyway), this off-season was always going to be an incremental improvement rather than a leap forward. The only options to shoot from the hip were Ben Simmons and thank God we passed on that. The Wiseman trade rumours were all terrible since in each configuration of that deal the Raptors were giving up the best player in the trade. So what’s a GM to do but to stick to his guns and double down?
In his press conference, Masai Ujiri basically outlined his entire strategy:
We are going to develop players and we are going to build on that. I’m saying it again that we are going to continue to develop these players and we are going to find a way to a way to win a championship here, based on the development of our players. Whatever comes from that, sometimes trades, sometimes you acquire through free agency, we are just not going to cry that players are not coming here. That’s not what we’re about. I think we’ve gone past that.
Once you take this viewpoint into account and combine it with the fact that the Raptors do not have any Tier 1 players or any players that project out to be such, and that a Tier 1 player is pretty much required to compete for the aforementioned championship, then the Barnes picks makes sense. Pascal Siakam’s ceiling is a very good NBA player, OG Anunoby’s remains to be seen but I would imagine it’s around Siakam’s or perhaps a little higher, which means the Raptors have to place riskier bets which is exactly what Barnes is when compared to Jalen Suggs. ESPN, in their absolutely garbage power rankings which isn’t even worth linking to, gave the Raptors a D for their off-season for taking this approach.
In his press conference I got the impression that Ujiri was taking an “us against the world” approach when talking about not crying about how players not wanting to come here, much like he did with F-Brooklyn. My guess (and this is entirely speculation) is that the free agents or trade targets he had in mind were lukewarm about coming to Toronto, which might’ve taken Ujiri by some surprise given the franchise’s recent success, hence the tribal take.
Ujiri deserves our full support in this rebuild despite his flubs and an off-season that could be questioned. However, I sense a tinge of blind faith in many fans that reminds me of the way Bryan Colangelo was seen as infallible by many. I am not suggesting the two are remotely similar in approach, character or philosophy, and this is more a comment on the fans rather than management. A healthy critique of the franchise is always in order and never should we have blind faith in anyone. Having said that, the way the current roster is constructed does not compromise the Raptors flexibility as all their contracts are reasonable, their future draft picks intact, so kudos to Ujiri for retaining flexibility during this step forward.
The difficulty with evaluating the Raptors right now is that there aren’t any clear goals set by the team or even by the fans for which to measure performance against. Vegas has them at 35 wins, some fans have them at 58 while others have them in the lottery. I can’t recall a summer with such high variance heading into the season, and part of it is because a core tenet in Kyle Lowry is no more. He has left a scoring, defensive, leadership and playmaking void which can only be filled by committee. There are too many open questions to make predictions:
- Can Fred VanVleet take the helm as lead playmaker?
- Can OG Anunoby take a significant offensive step forward?
- Can Gary Trent Jr. become a formidable scorer?
- Can Pascal Siakam improve his clutch scoring and three-point shooting?
- Will Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa sustain defensively?
- Can an entirely unproven bench unit be a net positive?
- Can Scottie Barnes have an impact or is he a couple years away?
- Will the “length and strength” strategy work or backfire against nimble offenses?
These aren’t just peripheral questions that can be discounted when trying to analyze what the Raptors can achieve this season, but core ones that dictate it.