The battle for All-NBA is a vicious game of musical chairs between future hall of famers and that years All-Stars. Two full seasons after gliding to his first All-NBA selection in a regular season where everything went right for the Raptors, Siakam is demanding that spot in a year where he (and Fred VanVleet) has often kept everything from going wrong.
We’ve seen Siakam play a major supporting role on a championship team. There’s no doubt that he’s scalable and can fit next to a variety of stars. This year, more than anything, Siakam has shown that he’s capable of carrying a team to wins as the main offensive hub in less than ideal circumstances. Part of making the case for Siakam as an All-NBA selection is qualifying how difficult his job is.
No easy looks, only hard ones
When Siakam was next to the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, he put up absurdly efficient numbers. 63% TS, 83rd-percentile in points-per-shot-attempt, and did it while only being assisted on 56-percent of his makes. Siakam worked in an ocean of space, and swam circles around anyone who waded out past the buoys – including Draymond Green, before hitting the championship winning shot.
Now? He’s one of the most doubled players in the NBA. He receives very little screen assistance, his shooters have been in and out of the lineup, and teams throw major attention his way. The task ahead of Siakam is oftentimes: find a way to score against your primary, the help-side defense, and every defender pinching in. Pack-line defenses sit between him and every shot he wants to take. When Siakam solves the maze that is the defense and gets to the rim, he’s shooting a very healthy 67-percent there, and beefing up these drives with a nice free throw-rate of .317. Teams are very worried when he’s headed downhill. Two players isolate more frequently than Siakam. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is already one of the greatest driving players of all time, and James Harden, one of the greatest isolation players of all time.
Siakam’s solve? Superb playmaking, and the short mid-range. When the shooters have it going, Siakam spins classics and flirts with triple-doubles as teams overload on him to their demise. However, the Raptors are a bottom half team in both 3-point makes, and percentage. For the first time in his career, Siakam is taking more shots from the short mid-range (36%) than he is at the rim (32%). Again, this isn’t some lack of drive or will from him, this is the product of defensive attention. In this uncomfortable context, Siakam has worked himself into one of the league’s best players in the 4-14 foot area (48%), and turned it into a hub where he makes shots before doubles come, or passes out of them to find teammates. The mid-range is the home of stars, and despite Siakam wishing he could spend less time there, he’s making the best of it.
An easy way to distill this topic into a bite sized quotable is with this: The corner 3 is a shot that Siakam creates for a lot of his teammates, and it’s one of the most sought after shots in the NBA. Siakam hits 48-percent of his corner triples, which is good for the 90th percentile. Among forwards in the NBA, no single player takes a lower percentage of corner threes than Siakam. Nothing comes easy.
And if you’re thinking: “Siakam just needs to get better at threes, shoot more of them, and then it’s a piece of cake.” You’re partially correct. Being a better 3-point shooter helps everything all the time. But, Siakam being more picky and methodical from downtown and choosing to meander into the middle of the floor is often better for the Raptors. Believe it or not, Devin Booker is a better shot-diet comp for Siakam than a lot of big men, and Siakam can’t just shoot like Booker on a whim, he has to leverage what’s available to him.
Siakam is a special playmaker, and especially so from the middle of the floor. Turning down those 3-point shots often creates more work for the defense and more involvement from his teammates. Sometimes a possession has to end with a Siakam 3-pointer, the look is too good, and that’s why it’s great that he’s slowly gotten back into form on that end (35.9%, the same as his All-NBA season). But, Siakam is choosing reps as a playmaker more than reps as a 3-point shooter this season and it’s paying off. It’s a rare sight to see Siakam with less than 20 points in a game these days, and this is why. He leaves the 3-point variance to the likes of VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. – Siakam is looking to create something dependable.
Let’s talk playmaking
Outside of making insane passes that only the best can make, playmaking often starts with putting the defense in a compromised position. As we discussed earlier, teams change the shell of their defense to account for Siakam and double (sometimes triple) on top of that. He compromises defenses. A lot of times, the pass Siakam is making is to a 3-point shooter. Teams pack the paint on him, and leave shooters open. But, Siakam’s height also allows him to make high-low feeds if they’re ever present. With high-volume cutters like OG Anunoby, Chris Boucher, and Scottie Barnes the Raptors can mine those looks for buckets. Horns quick-hitters, flex action, post -ups, early hit-aheads in transition, 45-cuts and dunker spot motion are all worth it if Siakam is on-ball. He’s uniquely equipped to make plays in the areas where VanVleet is deficient.
Among bigs, only 4 players average more assists than him: Nikola Jokic, Draymond Green, Domantas Sabonis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That is staggering company. And maybe you don’t view him as a big? For posterity, his assist-percentage (21.7%) would place him in the 98th-percentile among wings, the 94th-percentile among bigs, and the 92nd-percentile among forwards. Group him in any class of player, and he’s top tier. He’s an awesome playmaker.
The league’s best players dominate the offensive end of the floor, and Siakam is the rising tide that lifts all boats. VanVleet eats up a bunch of pick n’ roll possessions (and does well enough with them), and Siakam gets the short end of the stick so that the Raptors can march out a more diverse offense. He allows them to find success in different looks, and makes it more difficult for defenses to gear up against any one thing. The Raptors offense is +7.5 (points per 100 possessions) better with him on the floor. They shoot better, they turn the ball over less, and they get to the line more.
Other worthwhile reads/watches on Siakam’s offense:
Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet’s ‘PNR’:
Okay, let’s talk defense
Credit Siakam for developing so well on offense that he’s now considered more impactful on that end than the defensive one. But, don’t think that’s because he’s given up on the less glamorous end of the floor. The defender who rose to prominence stepping out on the likes of prime John Wall and Russell Westbrook, is still stepping out on the likes of Trae Young, chasing Luke Kennard around pin-downs, and switching onto Jayson Tatum and forcing misses. His court coverage the league over is hardly ever emulated, and his acute awareness of the Raptors defensive scheme – and the nuances of running it – puts him in ‘problem solver’ mode when mistakes are made by other players.
That proclivity to hang back and protect against the worst outcomes is why the Raptors turnover-percentage dips when he’s on the floor. That might be disappointing to some, considering the Raptors love for turnovers, but they allow less points when Siakam is out there. He’s having the best rebounding season of his life, he helps the Raptors close out their defensive possessions immensely. He grabs more contested boards, and as a byproduct of it he gets more grab-and-go opportunities – which the Raptors love. And in a season where he’s spending a little more time guarding the rim, he’s holding defenders to 5-percent worse than expected within 6-feet. And just because other Raptors gamble more, doesn’t mean Siakam isn’t a defensive playmaker. He’s discerning when he gambles, but he’ll jump passing lanes, cheat in space, and get out on the break.
Siakam’s fitness on defense took a little bit of time to catch up. In the earliest parts of the season he would sit a little bit lower under screens, be less aggressive in gaps and on dig-downs, and if he did cheat to make plays, he was less proactive in recovering. This coincided with a lull from several other Raptors, a changing whistle in the NBA, and a brutal stretch of defense from the team. Since returning from COVID on Dec. 28th though, I think Siakam has a case for the Raptors most valuable defender. There’s no hard feelings in choosing VanVleet, but Siakam hasn’t missed a game since, gives you nearly 40 minutes of time on court night in and night out, puts major miles on, and wears a number of different hats within the Raptors defense. The Raptors are the 9th ranked defense in that time.
Siakam doesn’t have the momentum or inertia behind his name that typically accompanies stars. He isn’t a name that less-informed media would find easy to write on a ballot. His reputation was stripped down in the bubble, and re-made in punchlines that he didn’t deserve. He’s worked like hell to get back here.
He may have started the season on the injured list and took 5-8 games to get into the swing of things, but because he’s been an iron man since, he’s spent more time on an NBA court than all of Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Jimmy Butler, Brandon Ingram, and Khris Middleton. Siakam has improved in so many aspects of his game, done so in a changing environment, and a winning environment that he helped create. The Kevin Durant’s, the LeBron James’ will find their way onto an All-NBA team, of course. But, Siakam is coming for one too.
All statistics from NBA(dot)com/stats and Cleaning the Glass – accurate as of 2022-03-21
Have a blessed day.