“Can I get comfortable?” Siakam said. “Sorry.”
In a way, that has been Siakam’s same request for two years. Maybe we’ve forgotten how quickly Siakam’s leap to secondary scorer was when the Raptors won the title. He was a low-usage player who spent some time in the G League in his first season and an equal part of a five-man bench group in his second. In his third, that 2018-19 season, Siakam and OG Anunoby were supposed to fight for the fifth starting spot. There was no talk he might be anything other than the last offensive option in the opening group, let alone fill the guy-behind-Kawhi spot efficiently.
That was the weird part. Siakam struggling to figure out how to make the leap from Plan B to Plan A, failing to properly dissect the added attention that comes from being a team’s leading scorer? That should have been expected. Siakam played poorly in the post-pandemic bubble, and had an, at best, uneven season last year, with a plummeting 3-point percentage obscuring some real gains he made in other areas of the game.
If there were only concerns about where Siakam was as a player coming into his sixth season — his second on a four-year max deal — then he still might have seen his name in trade rumours this offseason. That is the nature of this league: As Raptors fans know better than almost any other group, the point is to acquire elite, top-10 talent. When you have a player (or players) like that, the climb to a championship is much more doable.
It was the other stuff that was much more confusing: leaving the bench after fouling out before an early-season loss in Philadelphia was over and a blowup with coach Nick Nurse in Cleveland. It was openly chafing, if only in hindsight, about his uncertainty about his role last year in an interview with the New York Times recently.
“I had the contract, but I never really felt like I was the guy, to be honest,” Siakam said in the interview.
It’s fair to wonder what else the Raptors could have done to make that clear, or clear enough. They gave him the money, and then they gave him the ball. The fact is if Siakam was still uncertain, that was on him. Siakam had a team-leading 27.8 percent usage in 2019-20. That number fell to 23.5 in the playoffs, which is indeed low for a top option, but which was still the highest on the team. The Raptors worked to get Siakam involved to something approaching his usual level, even if his play didn’t warrant it sometimes. Lowry took over more of the offence in the playoff series against Boston because it was necessary, not because he wanted to.
The Raptors in this iteration will go as far as Siakam, VanVleet and OG Anunoby can take them, a formula complicated somewhat as Siakam – recovering from off-season shoulder surgery – won’t likely take the floor until late November or early December, with US Thanksgiving as an optimistic target.
Not that it matters all that much. This is a season about ceilings more than floors. If the returning core can’t show signs of elevating this team beyond the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference, chances are changes will begin in earnest.
But for now, in the first year after Lowry, it’s a fresh opportunity to see what is possible and what can be achieved.
Siakam seems energized by the opportunity. He’s as eager to put the past 18 months behind him as anyone else.
“For me, coming in in a year where there was COVID and everything happening, I was trying to figure out my role and where I fit in on the team — knowing when to say something or not,” he allowed. “… I think for me it was just understanding where I stand.
“Now obviously with Kyle gone, there’s no question. We had a conversation with Masai [Raptors president Masai Ujiri], and it was me, it was OG and it was Fred. Everyone else is gonna be young or [new to the team]. ‘We’re gonna go wherever you guys take us.’ I think that’s the focus. We’re gonna do it together. I think for me, again, I don’t like the word ‘the guy.’ I don’t like using it. I want to be the guy who wins. I want to win. That’s all I care about. If it’s playing more defence, if it’s scoring more points, if it’s being more of a vocal leader or someone who leads by example, that’s what I want to do. I just want to figure out what my role is. Whatever I can do to help the team win, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
He’ll have help. VanVleet has quietly been — odd as it sounds — the team’s vocal leader for several years now. It’s just that without Lowry, there’s no safety net.
“There were some things along the way that were out of character [for Siakam],” said VanVleet, referring to a couple blow-ups from the 27-year-old that bubbled into the public sphere. “But it’s all part of the journey. The only thing we don’t do now because we have phones [in our hands] every day is we don’t give [players) time.
Who starts: Goran Dragic or Gary Trent Jr.?
The Raptors’ biggest weakness, in a broad sense, figures to be their half-court offence. Without anything resembling a top-end creator, the Raptors will struggle dramatically when the game slows down, barring some truly massive leaps from multiple Raptors.
This should hold true whether it is the starters or a bench-heavy unit on the floor, leaving Nurse an interesting decision: Does he prioritize some sort of balance, using Dragic as an instant-offence type off the bench, or does he put as much creation on the floor at the start of the game?
The Raptors’ eye on the future might very well have something to do with the final decision. Obviously, Nurse attacks every game with a desire to win, but this is a year in which the Raptors are thinking as much about a few years down the line as this year. It is probably prudent to get Trent — who the Raptors hope plays well enough to stick around Toronto for a long time — more reps with the guys who will surround him over the years. All the while, pairing Dragic with Flynn a bit more often should put the sophomore point guard in more advantageous decisions.
Nurse will not hesitate to play Flynn or Dragic with VanVleet at varying times. We will see some weird lineups throughout the year. However, Trent probably has the inside track to a starting spot because of his positioning on the roster over the next few years.
The last time Siakam played in Toronto he was a player on the rise, one of the league’s brightest young stars enjoying what would be an all-NBA calibre season. After a turbulent 18 months on and off the court – as well as off-season shoulder surgery, which will sideline him to start this year – can he get back to or even exceed that level?
Can he and VanVleet fill the Lowry leadership void? Will Anunoby build off his career year and continue blossoming into a two-way star? How will Nurse round out his starting lineup and manage a roster loaded with long and versatile players with similar frames? Can they extract value from Dragic, either as a rotation piece and mentor or in a trade ahead of the deadline? How steep will the learning curve be for Barnes?
But, after missing the playoffs for the first time in eight years, the biggest question is how much of last year’s misfortune can be chalked up to being displaced in Tampa? What are the expectations for this team now that they’re back at home?
“I got up this morning and saw the new power rankings were out [and we’re] 19th in the league and maybe 11th in the East, and if you went to Vegas and you want to bet on the over-under it’s 36 [wins], I think,” said Nurse. “But I don’t know, I don’t really approach the season with thoughts other than trying to win and win big.”
“I’m excited,” VanVleet said. “I think it’s always a challenge every season, and every season that starts there’s gonna be players that are not there from the year before. This season it just so happens to be Kyle Lowry. So we’ll try to pick up the slack that he left behind – the greatest Raptor to do it. I read a quote the other day that said, ‘There are things that have never been done being done everyday.’ So I’m up for the challenge and the team is ready for the challenge. We have a young, hungry group that are looking to prove themselves. So I think we’re all pretty excited for the season to start.”
“Our expectations are always to win, to be competitive, to hold our guys accountable, to make sure they’re learning to play the right way,” said Webster. “And so with a number of new faces, that’ll be top of mind again, but I think there is a core that has won, there’s a core that’s been in the league a decent amount of time. It’ll just be fitting the pieces around those players. So yeah, we expect to compete every night and I think we’ll surprise a few people, too.”
The sense of renewal and rebirth permeates the franchise at so many different levels. The vets are back in a city they appreciate; the rookies and second-year players and others added in the summer are discovering things for the first time.
That takes care of the esoteric, off-the-court part of things. On the court, it’s a rebirth of sorts, too.
Kyle Lowry — considered by many the best player in franchise history, and by others the most forceful personality to grace the locker room in many a year — is gone, and there’s a feeling of change wafting over the on-court product as well.
VanVleet will be the leader — he was co-leader with Lowry for the past couple of seasons — while Pascal Siakam will be a hugely important piece when he’s fully over off-season shoulder surgery, and OG Anunoby is thought of as the big breakout possibility as he begins his fifth season.
But other than, there are a lot of new players, new possibilities and new theories for Nurse and his staff to explore.
“I think there’s always some wheels turning about how to get the best out of what team you have,” Nurse said. “Some of the changes, once you’ve seen them, you think, ‘Oh no, maybe we should do this.’
“It’s like a really fun part of the job to not really know what we’re going to look like in April. Things that we test that don’t work, we chuck them. Things that do, we polish them. We just kind of keep trying to build and try to make it suit this group of players the best we can.”
There is definitely a sense of new around the Raptors on the eve of training camp that goes beyond the fact the team is back in Toronto, after a season and a half spent in an Orlando bubble and Tampa.
Familiar faces — notably Kyle Lowry and Norm Powell — are gone. There is a much-ballyhooed rookie in Scottie Barnes, and a sense that no one really knows what the team might become.
In a conversation about a month ago, coach Nick Nurse was almost giddy with excitement about what’s ahead. He’s got a variety of new talent, and enough leftover skill to feel comfortable that it’s not a rebuilding period at all. The coach was already tinkering with what he might eventually see on the court when the regular season begins Oct. 20.
But for all the anticipation, there are questions and concerns that give this training camp, starting Monday, a different feel than any in the past few years. Here are five of them:
For starters, who?
Among the decisions Nurse and his staff have to make in the next month is what the starting lineup will look like on opening night against the Washington Wizards.
The logical assumption before they even get on the court is that four starters from the end of last season — Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby and Khem Birch — are back and Chris Boucher will fill in for the injured Pascal Siakam, recovering from shoulder surgery. That makes sense, but there are certainly other ways the coach could go to get some balance between the first and second units.
We know he likes two-guard backcourts, so could Goran Dragić start with VanVleet and let Trent be the guy coming off the bench who gets all the shots?
And would he maybe like the toughness of Precious Achiuwa over Birch at centre, because Birch showed some emerging shooting range at the end of last season and second-unit scoring might be an issue?
One thing about Nurse is, he’s willing to experiment. This is a group he can experiment with a lot.
What does a post-Lowry team look like? His production should be replaceable with some combination of Fred VanVleet, Goran Dragic and Malachi Flynn, but Lowry became history’s greatest Raptor, as people like me were always banging on about, because he did countless little things to help his team win. He had a freakish knack for key plays at big moments, and he was the unquestioned leader of the team. That leadership may even have had unintended consequences. VanVleet said on Monday that Lowry’s gravitational pull probably made it harder for Pascal Siakam to assert himself as the team’s most important player, even after he had been handed a contract that paid him like one. Siakam, for his part, essentially agreed: He said that the Raptors were still Lowry’s team the last couple of seasons, while Siakam was trying to take on a bigger leadership role. “Now there’s no question, right?,” he said. But if the Raptors had to move beyond Lowry to allow the next generation of players to fully seize control of the team, there remains uncertainty about whether they can do it. VanVleet was a splendid complement to Lowry in the backcourt, especially last season, and Siakam was emerging as a dominant offensive force before losing his game and confidence in a stretch that began in the Orlando bubble and lasted through much of last season.
Beyond the many on-court questions, how much of a benefit will the team get just by being back in Toronto? While they collectively kept a brave face about the transient nature of the last season and a half, they eventually admitted it was a major problem. Team president Masai Ujiri said last month that last year’s Tampa-based season set the franchise back “a couple of years.” VanVleet said on Monday that he didn’t realize how much he enjoyed being in Toronto until he and his family finally came back here. Siakam declared himself “super happy” to be back and said he enjoyed feeling the cold air. (Note: It is not particularly cold yet.) Head coach Nick Nurse said he walked into his office at the arena on Monday for the first time since February of 2020. There was still a blue suit in his closet, although it had gathered some dust. While playing out of Orlando and then Tampa didn’t feel so difficult in the moment, Nurse said, being here now “feels way more comfortable.” Will that be worth a few wins all on its own?
And while no NBA team was dealt a worse pandemic hand than the Raptors, they might actually have COVID-related advantages this time around. General manager Bobby Webster said the Raptors are one second dose away from having a fully vaccinated team, and the expectation is that will happen well before the regular season begins. Elsewhere around the league, a number of star players have bristled at vaccine requirements, with Washington’s Bradley Beal the latest to join a list that includes Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins on Golden State. At least three NBA arenas will currently not allow unvaccinated players indoors, but that number could change. Players who have not been vaccinated will also face stricter isolation rules in the event of a COVID exposure, meaning the Raptors could yet find themselves at a competitive advantage just by virtue of having all taken the shot.