It has been three long years of Pascal Siakam being at the forefront of every conversation even tangentially related to the Toronto Raptors. There was the early explosion after Kawhi Leonard left, scoring 28 points a game for Toronto’s first eight games in 2019-20, shooting over 40 percent from deep. He started in the All-Star Game. He tailed off as a result of the pandemic, which has been well covered, yet he was still voted to the All-NBA Second Team. Then came the bubble and a disastrous playoff performance followed by a down (but still actually quite good for Siakam himself, if not for the Raptors) 2020-21 campaign that ended in injury. By the time he came back from the torn labrum this season, few had the patience to wait for him to return to form as he averaged 14.4 points a game in his first five. Toronto went 1-4 in those games.
But return to form he did. Later in the season, he made the conversation about himself in the best way possible. He’s played the best basketball of his career, scoring as many points as he did in 2019-20 while doing it far more efficiently and creating for his teammates far better. He’s defended brilliantly. As Fred VanVleet faded due to knee injury, no longer capable of carrying the team, Siakam ascended.
Even Toronto’s most pure and delightful conversations have somehow centered around Siakam — Scottie Barnes plays the same position as him! Barnes is the future and needs the ball, so take it out of Siakam’s hands! All of that is utter and tired nonsense claimed by typists who are fans more of trade machines than NBA teams, cutting their fandom teeth in MyLeague rather than #ThisLeague. How many teams would kill for Barnes as their future superstar? And then how many of those teams would kill for a running mate — who’s already proven he can win a championship as a sidekick — who’s an elite two-way force who plays perfectly alongside the star and who is already on the roster?
If you’re tired just reading all that — and I’m tired of writing it — I can only imagine how tired Siakam must be living it. It seemed like we were done with it. This season has been a redemption arc for Siakam virtually free of blemish.
Until it wasn’t.
On Wednesday night in Game 3 against the Philadelphia 76ers, Siakam scored 12 points, including zero in the second half and overtime. Sixers and Trade Machine fans delighted. Even juicier: Toronto’s young cadre of stars in Gary Trent jr. (24 points), OG Anunoby (26), and Precious Achiuwa (20) all played exquisitely. Siakam was matched in his poor offensive play by co-star VanVleet. They combined to score 24 points.
There are caveats, sure. Philadelphia’s entire defense was geared to stop Siakam, meaning he attacked crowds while his younger teammates attacked gaps. He also played terrific defense, especially against Tyrese Maxey in open space — a task no Raptor has accomplished in the series other than Siakam. VanVleet’s knee remains extraordinarily limiting. But stars don’t get the benefit of caveats. The Raptors could have won Game 3. Should have won. They led by 17 in the first half and played terrific defense. They rediscovered their identity. They could have been down 2-1 with uberrookie Barnes (maybe) returning in Game 4. Things could have been very, very different, so yes: criticism is deserved.
If there’s one dart that has in fact found its mark, it’s that Siakam has not raised his level of play in the playoffs without Leonard alongside him drawing the defense’s attention. That’s going to be reality for virtually every player in the NBA, but that doesn’t make it false in regard to Siakam. He hasn’t lifted the Raptors to another championship. That’s true!
In fact, he hasn’t been close. (I maintain that the Raptors would have won the championship in 2019-20 if they’d beaten the Boston Celtics, and especially if the pandemic had never happened, but that’s unprovable, so I digress.) Instead, the Raptors are on the verge of getting swept by a Philadelphia team that has outclassed the Raptors in many expected ways and plenty of unexpected ones, besides. Joel Embiid is showing the Raptors was the best player in a series can do. He’s eating the sun and drinking the sky, and Siakam — who is playing well outside of shooting poorly in Game 3! — is not.
And so, we’re left … exactly where we were in 2019. And 2020. And 2021. Home is where the heart is, but in this case, home is an eternal river of torrential attention, which Siakam can’t escape. Huis Clos. Whether he plays well or poorly, is hurt or healthy, whether the Raptors win or lose: Siakam is always where the conversation goes.
Before the season began, Siakam spoke openly about wanting to be The Guy on this roster. “[Last season] I was trying to figure out my role and where I fit in on the team, knowing when to say something or not. I just feel like Kyle is such a natural leader, and his presence was definitely felt,” Siakam said. He wanted the team to be his.
“He’s the best player on this team,” VanVleet said, always aware of the weight of his words, also on Media Day.
He is The Guy now. That comes with criticism, of course. But for a long time now, very little has changed in the conversation even as the subject has shifted his own status. He’s been growing in stasis, always in a “prove it in the playoffs” mode no matter what he does in the regular season. The Raptors know that mode well. And Siakam has improved, first his self-creation, then his passing, then his finishing. He’s improved for virtually his entire career. At this point, he’s a plug-and-play star who could pair with any other in the league to form a dynamic duo. He is fantastic on or off the ball, as a defender, as a rebounder, in all sorts of situations playing all sorts of positions. No matter what Barnes becomes, Siakam will be the ideal player to pair with him, and he’s already on the roster. He isn’t done improving, and even despite a very po0r Game 3, he’s still better than he ever has been.
He hasn’t improved to the point that he’s a better player than Embiid, it appears. Maybe Scottie Barnes will get to that point. Hopefully then, we’ll have something to talk about other than Pascal Siakam.