Burning question: Can this core score?
This year is likely a proof of concept for the question of whether a team built around Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby can succeed at a high level. While other questions linger throughout the roster (can we get a real center, please?), the existential one for the Raptors is whether they can win at a high level with Siakam as the offense’s alpha dog. After showing promising signs in the first half of 2019-20, he struggled in the bubble in that role and did so again in 2020-21.In particular, his iffy shooting (29.7 percent from 3) made it hard for him to be an off-the-dribble threat on the perimeter, which in turn subtracts some of the threat that opens up his shake-and-bake spin moves in the paint. Siakam did make a bit of progress as a passer, but 54.7 true shooting isn’t leading man material.The burden on Siakam and VanVleet (who showed similar strain en route to 53.4 true shooting) will only increase this season with the lower-usage Trent Jr. replacing Powell and Lowry gone. Even with a better bench than a year ago, Toronto is in danger of having a bottom-10 offense.That’s unfortunate, because the Raptors don’t need elite offense to make this roster work. With big, rangy forwards like Anunoby, Barnes and Siakam, they project as a pretty hellacious defensive team even without much help from the center spot. Anunoby, in fact, seems likely to play at the five in some lineups, and Nick Nurse loves to press and trap with this group.Nonetheless, don’t be surprised if the Raptors wade into the trade market and look at ways to nail down a true offensive centerpiece.
The Raptors showed palpable disinterest in the Play-In a year ago, but this year they might pursuit it with a tad more vigor. For starters, their record is unlikely to be poor enough to incentivize a repeat of last season’s tanktacular finish. Toronto had the point differential of a .500 team a year ago, and even with some changes, a .500-ish record is a reasonable place to begin any estimate for this season.
Losing Lowry, the scrapping, beating heart of his organization for so long, will leave a dent, but most of the other comparisons to a year ago are more positive. The core players are unlikely to miss so many games this time around, most notably, and the second unit should be more solid as well. Plus, whatever you think of the centers, they can’t be worse than last year’s group.
It’s harder to define what the impact might have been from playing all year out of a hotel in Tampa, but one suspects coming back home can only be positive for the Raptors as well. They no longer have the pieces to challenge the East’s elite, but between Nurse’s schemes and some menacing defensive talent, they should challenge for a playoff spot.
WHAT’S THE ‘BEST CASE’ SCENARIO?
A top-six seed in the east seems like the easy answer here, but ultimately — this being a transition year for the Raptors — continued growth from the core of OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam is what we really want to see. Seeing VanVleet make the All-Star team and Anunoby make All-Defense would be good indicators of that growth.WHAT’S THE ‘WORST CASE’ SCENARIO?
Losing in the play-in round. Under Masai Ujiri the Raptors have embraced a “win games but stay flexible” model, and that middle ground of barely missing the postseason/not getting a high lottery pick is the exact opposite of that.WHAT’S THE ‘MOST LIKELY’ SCENARIO?
Probably exactly what happened last season: missing the play-in game by a few games, resting key players down the stretch to improve the lottery odds. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong, and the team will be better than I think. But given the lack of scoring punch and the absence of Pascal Siakam (shoulder surgery) to start the season, it’s hard to be overly optimistic.WHAT ARE YOU MOST EXCITED FOR?
Scottie Barnes. I’m always very cautious when it comes to rookies, especially a rookie who might have been a slight reach at the No. 4 pick. But Barnes is saying and doing all the right things, and has impressed his coaches and teammates with his energy on the floor in camp and summer league. He’ll make his share of rookie mistakes, but should be fun to watch.
Dragic, of course, is one such player, but another could be rookie Scottie Barnes, who has impressed Dragic over the course of the Raptors’ pre-season.“He makes the game easier for everybody else and we need this on our team, especially when he gets into the open court and when he gets inside the paint he makes the right read and it makes it much easier for us,” Dragic said of Barnes, who had seven assists and zero turnovers Tuesday.Similarly, Dragic has liked what he’s seen from Flynn, who scored a team-high 22 points Tuesday.“He’s really solid. He’s a great pick-and-roll player, he can break guys down, get inside the paint and make those reads, good shooter and he just needs that confidence,” Dragic said.Confidence is something that Flynn appeared to be lacking during the early portions of pre-season, going 6-of-19 for 19 points combined in the first three exhibition contests. But he turned things around in the last two, particularly exploding in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s game for 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting.
That spark of confidence Flynn found figures to be important for the Raptors as the season opens up, since it looks like he figures to be the de facto backup point guard, in charge of the second unit.
Of course, Banton showed flashes that may have pushed Flynn at times during the pre-season, but the job should be Flynn’s.
Then again, that’s yet another decision Nurse and co. will have to make.
The pre-season is over and regular season is just a week away. A week that will surely be filled with agonizing deliberation for the Raptors’ brass.
There are surprises down the roster: No one was sure what either Dalano Banton or Justin Champagnie would be when camp began. But each has shown enough that the Raptors would be comfortable throwing either into a regular-season game.
Banton’s unique size and ball-handling skills could allow him to challenge Malachi Flynn for third point guard minutes behind Dragic and Fred VanVleet; Champagnie is the kind of versatile forward the Raptors are building around and he has a knack for rebounding that the team will need.They are not yet stars but they are far more than what was expected coming out of the summer.
AT WORST CENTRE WON’T BE THE TURNSTILE IT WAS A YEAR AGOAron Baynes and Alex Len weren’t the answer and that was clear very early, although personally the Baynes falloff remains somewhat puzzling. Chris Boucher gave it a valiant effort but it wasn’t fair to ask him to fight and scrap with guys 50 pounds heavier than him.Eventually Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie arrived and the position solidified a little.Now it’s Birch and sophomore NBA big man Precious Achiuwa handling the duties.Birch is just back from a bout with COVID and still finding his stamina and his rhythm but the man proved a year ago that even a little under-sized on some nights, he’s tough enough and savvy enough to provide that last line of defence to the basket and chip in occasionally on the offensive end.
Achiuwa is the reason for optimism. He’s just starting to scratch the surface of what he will become in the NBA. Not a 7-footer like some teams employ, but at 6-foot-9 with a combination of speed and handle that most centres can’t match more than makes up for those few inches. Achiuwa is no shrinking violet either with the physique to battle with the biggest bigs and then use his own unique skill set (for a big) to win the battle outright. In short, the Raptors are much improved at the position.