Roundtable: Previewing the 2021-22 Season – Part one

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Cover Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

The return of the Roundtable! and NBA basketball! So we put up the Raptors symbol into the sky and gathered as many staff as possible to discuss the season. This is part one of two wherein we discuss the season, what to expect from the Raps, and what a successful season will look like. You can find part two here.

It’s been a short offseason after a SHORT offseason. Are you ready for basketball to come back? Did you enjoy the small break we got? 

Zarar: Our summer was a little underwhelming so can’t say I enjoyed the Raptors portion of the off-season, but yeah, I’m not dead and I haven’t gotten Covid so things are looking up.

Brendan: Eliminate all breaks entirely. Finals, draft, preseason. We want perpetual basketball. Bring on the bionic players.

Oren: I actually did enjoy the break. I enjoyed getting to watch other teams in the playoffs and then watching some other sports like tennis and baseball this summer. With that being said, I am ready for the NBA to come back and for the Raptors to be decent again. Kristian: Let’s go! I’m locked in for this, if anything just because this will be my first season contributing to the Raptors Republic team. The added benefit to that is the Raptors Republic community will get to witness the potential deterioration of my enthusiasm if the team ends up treadmilling. It’s playoffs or Chet for me!

Mac: I’m more than ready for basketball to come back! I’m tired of scrolling through Netflix for an hour every other evening. Other than that, I enjoyed the small break and I’m amped to see our Raps finally back in Toronto!  

Manny: I think it’s been a mentally exhausting offseason. My main concern heading into the Summer was understanding what direction Toronto was heading in. Lowry leaving didn’t surprise me and didn’t really faze me because I think the timing was right for that move. Masai staying was a huge coup and in my opinion, it was the most important move the Raptors made.

Bowen: One hundred percent. We had a little taste of basketball with the Vegas Summer League in August that I devoured and over-analyzed, but I couldn’t be more excited to get into another NBA season.

Adon: Dude, you’re kidding, right? Come back? It never left. 

Between the fun of the WNBA, the so-called “Golden Era” of Canadian Men’s Olympic Basketball taking a big ol’ belly flop in the Victoria Olympic Qualifiers – which I, regrettably, drove across the country to watch, Boeheim’s Army (including the Raptors very first Malachi, Malachi Richardson) hitting a ridiculous game-winning three to take the $1,000,000 in The Basketball Tournament, more Canadian Olympic Basketball flopping from the Women’s team (at least they lost IN THE OLYMPICS), and that never-ending-24/7-reality TV show called the NBA keeping me up at all hours of the night, I dunno what kinda break you’re talking about. 

So, ya, I’m ready.

Louis: Breaks can actually be quite nice, and I definitely enjoyed mine. But somehow breaks always seem to bring out lunatic conversations across the league that allow anti-vaxxers and the like to dominate the media cycle. (That does say something about us as a society, but I’m not gonna dive into that right now.) I hate what we all become without basketball, so it’s good we get it back, if at least as our medicine.  

This is the second or third time we’ll be asking this question of ourselves (of an infinity number of times, I assume), but now that we’ve seen Scottie Barnes in Summer League and have had time to ponder and are about to see him in preseason, how do you feel about picking him over Jalen Suggs?

Zarar: We had the fourth pick in a three-man draft and we went for the long-shot instead of the sure thing. Sure things are generally boring so I’m ok with the decision to pass on Suggs. It’s not like we’re going to compete seriously this year that we’d require Suggs scoring to push us through. Masai’s got a bit of a history for swinging for the fences so this pick checks out. Also, this team needed a little more energy as it’s full of fairly boring dudes, so welcome Scottie!

Brendan: Suggs and Barnes were in my second prospect tier behind Cade, Green, and Mobley. I think both Suggs and Barnes are capable of being all star level players during their career. Did I want Suggs on draft night? Yes. Is my preference still Suggs? Also yes, but that’s just because we haven’t really seen anything from either of them to change my opinion since both were pretty solid in Summer League and more or less did what they were known for in college. Even though I wanted Suggs, it doesn’t take away from the fact that I think Barnes will still be very good — and I’m excited to watch him on the Raptors — but there are just way more question marks with his game. I think that’s fair for now. My long-term answer on Barnes depends a lot on his role in the NBA (let him be a point guard PLEASE) and if he develops his offence effectively.

Oren: I feel better than I did at the time of the draft, and I’ve always felt like the draft is a crapshoot and that no one really knows what they are talking about when it comes to projecting how good teenagers will be in the NBA. It’s so often that a player picked after the consensus “top 3” or whatever ends up being the best player in the draft, and so time will tell how good Barnes will be compared to Suggs. 

I still think Suggs will be better this season, potentially even winning rookie of the year, because he is more developed offensively and will have more opportunities. But what stood out about Barnes at summer league, aside from his advanced feel for the game and ability to make the right read quickly, is his defensive versatility. We use the term “versatility” a lot and it can mean a lot of different things, including who a player guards, but for Barnes it’s also how he guards. In addition to guarding multiple positions, Barnes has the potential to be one of the best ball-pressure guys in the NBA (picking up the ball at half-court and guarding point guards) while also covering a ton of ground and protecting the rim as an off-ball defensive player, and that’s what makes him special to me. 

Kristian: I feel a lot better. Suggs looks like he’ll be a really solid pro, but we can definitely see the potential that Masai and Bobby were intrigued with when it comes to Scottie. Disclaimer though, I’ll probably need to be asked this same question on a monthly basis. 

Mac: I was never 100% on board with selecting Suggs. I understand the general impression of replacing Lowry with Suggs, but I see it more as VanVleet or Trent Jr. replacing Lowry. Don’t get me wrong Suggs is great, however Barnes offers many attributes that we lacked in the past couple seasons so I loved the pick.

Manny: I think based on where the league is, it’s beneficial for teams to have players that can defend a minimum of three positions, which is what we’ve seen Toronto prioritize. With that being said, I’m fine with the pick and if someone isn’t, that’s cool too but bigger, quicker, and longer players are dominating the league today. Guard play is important, but the Raptors have more than enough to eat for VanVleet, Flynn, and Trent Jr.. The addition of Suggs would’ve made a trade of one those previously mentioned names, inevitable. To go even further, I feel like that wouldn’t have helped Nick Nurse establish a stable rotation. In terms of SL, what I saw from Scottie didn’t change my outlook. I have expectations that he’s going to be a competitor night in and night out. Anything else is a bonus. I’m at peace with this being a younger, less-experienced team than what we’ve become accustomed to in past years. It’s a new era and I’m so intrigued by how these pieces are going to fit together. Win or lose, this is going to be one of the most fun teams to watch.

Bowen: I understand the reasoning for the pick. Barnes flashed potential in the four summer league games he played, but I’m not sure. I still see Suggs as the high floor/low ceiling player who will instantly make the Orlando Magic better. Barnes is still so raw, and his shooting needs seasoning. Ask me five years from now and the answer will probably change, but Suggs looks like the better player right now.

Adon: I was all “I <3  Barnes” on Draft Night and my love’s only deepened. He’s got the tools, he’s got the charisma, he’s got the passion, his levity:ferocity index is through the roof, and he’s got the arm

Will he become a superstar, unlikely – few do, according to The Ringer’s Zach Kram, since 2004, the median 4th overall pick is the equivalent of Cody Zeller. It’d also take a lot for Scottie to be a bonafide bust. Regardless, his love for Toronto and his upside means I’ll never, ever doubt drafting him. 

Louis: I’m not much of a draft guy, so I didn’t have an opinion before the draft. But I’m loving Scottie Barnes! Even though he didn’t speak on media day (weird), everyone was raving about him. He seems to be the ideal teammate and also might grow into an unbelievable player. Love that.

This is the first year without Lowry running the show since one Andrea Bargnani was in his heyday with the franchise. From the team’s perspective, what do you expect will be different without Lowry, and what do you expect will be the same?

Zarar: I think our defense will suffer a bit – Lowry’s charges, or more importantly, the threat that he’d be there to pick up a charge would weigh on would-be attackers.  Without him there and with our frontline still an open question mark, Lowry’s exit might mean that our interior defenses suffers (I felt weird even typing that).

What will stay the same will be the Raptors trying to initiate offense through their wings, notably Pascal Siakam. They were already trending towards moving away from a traditional “1” setting up the pay and we’ll see an acceleration towards that (Flynn better learn how to play off the ball).

Brendan: I’m already predicting a noticeable void where the steadying presence of Lowry used to be, but I feel like that’s going to be a popular answer. Despite his nickname, Steady Freddy isn’t all that consistent on the offensive end of the floor. Putting him in Kyle’s role and expecting him to produce similarly or better is just setting yourself up for disappointment, and I expect there to be growing pains when it comes to the team handling the offensive system without Lowry in charge. At the same time, the team should retain a pretty solid defensive identity. They should play to their opponent’s skill level most nights, for better or worse, but I expect the struggles against teams above a .500 record to continue.

Oren: Great question, Louis. And a difficult one to answer. In short, I think a lot will be different, and stylistically it might take this team some time to compensate for Lowry’s winning demeanor. More specifically, though, the team will have less juice in the half court, less playmaking, and they might struggle to push the pace effectively, since Lowry was always their best transition playmaker. Another thing I’ll be curious about is how hard they play on a night-to-night basis: does this hard-working ethos extend beyond Lowry? Or was he really the driver? 

However, there will now be a clear offensive hierarchy with Siakam leading the charge and VanVleet and Anunoby behind him, which I think could be good. At times last season it was as though the Raptors were taking turns running the offense, but a more defined hierarchy could be mutually beneficial. I think the defense could also be better this season, as Lowry got blown by a lot last season, forcing his team into rotations. 

Kristian: Less charges taken, less arguing with the refs – though Fred and Pascal could end up taking on that role – and less big performances saved up for the 76ers or Lakers on nationally televised games. I think one thing that will carry over is the team looking to its point guard to be the leader. Fred being an undrafted star means everyone can easily look to him for inspiration. 

Mac: The difference we will see without Lowry is that we will have more traditional size and an extra infusion of athleticism on the court, using more physical traits to execute defensively rather than instincts. The core of the team shares that championship residue Lowry left behind, so I expect us to continue to play with heart and toughness, a never quit mentality.

Manny: I think Fred will be tested for his leadership like never before. I mean, that goes without saying but he’s a man of three C’s: calm, cool, and collected so he’ll be fine with any challenge that meets him. I expect to see Nurse try VanVleet with Flynn at the 1-2 spots and I’m excited beyond belief because of what we saw from Flynn last year. I think the mentally and mindset of silencing the doubters will stay the same because when is it not a priority for Toronto? The biggest difference will be the way the Raptors defend. Khem Birch will be receiving the bulk of minutes at the 5, a position that Toronto has relied on to anchor it’s defense. Every player on the floor will be tasked with playing infuriating and disruptive D.

Bowen: The leadership role will be a huge chasm that’ll have to be filled by FVV and Pascal. I think Lowry has groomed Fred pretty well, but it’s a long season, and having that strong voice in the locker rom is very important. Most of everything on the court should stay the same, and Goran Dragic can replicate 80% of Lowry’s on-court abilities. It’s just a question of how motivated, if at all he is to play for a team that’s not the Dallas Mavericks.

Adon: Different: Clutch Win %. 

Last year doesn’t count. The three years before that, Toronto was 3rd, 5th, and 8th respectively. The loss of his leadership and control of the team at both ends means Toronto’s likely to let many more games slip away late. As I said in 10 things I dig, Goran is a welcomed vet presence, but he won’t command the team nor the coaching staff, at least for the short-term, like Kyle did.

Same: Defensive Rating. 

Kyle would fucking love this team’s iteration. Toronto is much better built to grind out defensive wins this year like – again, ignore last year – they did in ’19, and ’20.

Louis: I think the Raptors will play much slower without Lowry, as Lowry has always jump-started transition offense. And that could be an issue for a team that struggles to score in the half-court and has been a leader in transition for the past several years. But that’s specific — in general, I don’t think too much is gonna change. There’s no other Lowry, but there’s also no other Fred VanVleet. Guy’s unique, and Toronto is lucky to have him, same as they were lucky to have Lowry.

Where will be the team’s greatest strength?

Zarar: You would imagine playing the passing lanes would be a strength along with on-ball defense – the length SHOULD allow them to cover and contest guards better, but that’s where coaching kicks in. If the marching orders are to be aggressive without regard for consequence (like it was the last couple years), then the length won’t matter much because in the league guys can punish you for being aggressive. So, all things being equal, the Raptors SHOULD see a decrease in opponent three-point percentage and in general, opponent shooting percentage.

Brendan: Defense. They were able to win games with defensive intensity last year, and there are only a couple players on the team that I would categorize as “below-average” in that area. Having Khem Birch at the beginning of the season instead of the final month and a half will help them on the boards too. Not to mention the addition of Scottie.

Oren: Defense. If they are a top-5 defense, they could be really good and make the playoffs (top 6 seed). But if they are going to rely on their defense to that extent and run as much as their roster demands, it would also demand they be really effective in transition, which remains to be seen. 

Kristian: The team’s greatest strength will be the coaching staff and/or the roster versatility. I’m a firm believer that with Nick at the helm and Masai/Bobby putting the roster together, we’ll always be a tough out in a seven-game series. This team will be prepared, can make chess-like adjustments, and has the length for all kinds of gameplans. The question will be – can the team get to the playoffs? 

Mac: Our greatest strength will be our defensive versatility and speed, being able to switch 1-4 without any significant dropoff. Also, I would like to add in our home court advantage as another strength.

Manny: I’m sure many people will say versatility but I’m going to say their fast break offense. There are guys on this roster that are long and athletic so I expect the amount of fast break points to increase ten fold.

Bowen: I think they’ll be a very good transition team. The more ‘positionless’ lineups Nurse throws out there, the more chances they’ll be for pushing the pace after causing havoc with tips and deflections on the defensive end. It may lead to a lot of turnovers, but it’ll be a much more exciting brand of basketball to watch. FVV, Siakam, Barnes, Trent and Flynn can all run in the transition and they’ll get ample opportunities to do so.

Adon: Other than Malachi Flynn, every other Toronto Raptor can play at least two positions, if not three or four. 

Masai forwent traditional centres for players who either compensate with strength and effort – Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa – or with length and athleticism – Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Yuta Watanabe, and Chris Boucher.

Go to training camp and you’ll see like 45 versions of the same body-type competing for roster spots.

Louis: I think Toronto’s flexibility should be a huge strength. With Birch and Achiuwa, the Raps can play big 48 minutes a game. Or with Barnes, Anunoby, Boucher, Siakam, they could play small at center. They can play a gigantic wing at guard or a tiny guard at wing. They can shapeshift to fit any situation. That’s more a benefit in an individual playoff series than the regular season, but if they make it there at full health, Toronto will be a tough out.

What will be the team’s greatest weakness?

Zarar: Their frontline remains unproven. I’m not convinced Birch and Achiuwa (who is 6’9″ – I have no idea why he’s called a center) can take care of the glass enough to have the Raptors climb out of dead last in the league last year. It also remains to be seen whether they can provide consistent defensive cover against driving guards, and in general make great rotations while covering the defensive glass. TBD.

Brendan: Scoring. The last couple seasons after Kawhi’s exit, the Raptors have not been a good half-court team. As we saw against Boston in the bubble and many other teams last season, take away transition opportunities and the Raptors will struggle to generate chances due to inconsistencies at the rim and a roster that generally struggles with shooting outside of a few noteworthies. Their offence already wasn’t fantastic last season, and the loss of Lowry won’t help them. They haven’t added any player capable of being a consistent go-to scorer against set defences, and the overall shot creation on the team remains suspect. I expect many frustrating nights on the offensive end.

Oren: I really want to be creative here and not say the half-court offense, but it’s going to be the half-court offense. That’s just the way the roster was built. Without a major step from Anunoby, Flynn, or Barnes, I just think the load for Siakam and VanVleet is too big to carry to be very efficient in the half-court. I think some of the end-of-game stuff should sort itself out, though, just with more reps and a clearer hierarchy. 

Kristian: The team’s greatest weakness will be its lack of a PROVEN three-level scorer, especially in the halfcourt. Pascal’s outside jumper can go cold, Freddie could use a more reliable mid range game, and OG is still learning. Kawhi gave us this during the championship run and Kyle was amazing against the Celtics in the bubble. 

Mac: Our greatest weakness will be our scoring off the bench and in the half court. I look up and down the roster and I don’t really see a proven iso or go-to scorer when the game is on the line. Hopefully someone steps up and proves me wrong though!

Manny: Inexperience and patience. I know that FVV, OG, and Pascal are already champions so they’ll already have high expectations. OG won’t get mad, but Pascal and FVV will likely have a hard time being patient with the younger guys’ development. It’s a blessing and a curse but because they know what it takes to get there, the young guys will be forced to work hard, and based on what we’ve seen, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Bowen: Their rebounding will still be bad. A full year of Khem Birch at the five will help but it’s a similar frontcourt to last season, just subbing out Aron Baynes for Precious Achiuwa, and Achiuwa hasn’t been the model of consistency on the boards. 

Adon: Half-court scoring. Toronto was in the 44th percentile in half-court scoring last year, according to Cleaning the Glass. Take Normy out of those lineups they drop to 39th; take out Kyle, 31st; take out both, 27th.

I anticipate OG, FVV, and Pascal to carry the scoring load more efficiently than last year, but they’ve got to be a lot, a lot, a lot better to avoid the horrors of when that dastardly shot clock starts shedding seconds.  

Louis: I want to be creative, but yeah, Toronto’s offense could be problematic this year, particularly to start the year with Siakam out. On nights when VanVleet’s jumper doesn’t fall, the Raptors could play as much defense as they want, they might still have trouble to get enough quality shots to win.

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