Their shooting woes ultimately sunk them in the playoffs, when the team combined to shoot a combined 23-of-100 from three in their final three games. Siakam had no space to operate after the 76ers adjusted their entire defensive game plan to take him away and dare the others to beat them, and while Siakam kept making the right play, the Raptors’ role players couldn’t hit enough shots and in some cases just stopped taking them altogether. Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s role players lit the Raptors up from behind the arc.
“I think coming in there and being able to pass the ball also and distribute it opens up things for you,” Siakam said earlier this season. “So I think having shooters around and guys you can’t really help off of and me being willing to make that pass, it opens up my game also. Sometimes, them not really wanting to help gives me the opportunity to get to the rim and I feel like I can always do that.”
“We have to develop in a lot of areas, and that’s definitely one of them,” Siakam added about the Raptors’ shooting woes once they were eliminated from the playoffs. “Knowing this team and our front office and the people that we have in the organization, I know that the goal is to continue to get better and we’re going to look at all those areas and improve and be a way better team next year.”
Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse both echoed the same sentiment in their season-ending press conferences: that the Raptors need to develop from within, seeing all of their players continue to take leaps forward just like they did this past season. The Raptors will use this summer to work on their games, and three-point shooting will be at the very top of the list of priorities to improve for many of them.
“We need to develop within, like we need to continue to grow within,” Ujiri said. “That’s really important. It’s always been important for us to grow within. Players getting better, working on their games, their bodies, their physicals, we have to get better that way. We’re thinking the long game here. Yes, there are windows. But when we first came here, we talked about development of our players. I hope we continue to do that at a high level.”
The Raptors could sit back and wait for their players to develop, hoping that Barnes and Achiuwa and Flynn and so on continue to improve their jump shots to the point that they are all of a sudden an above-average shooting team with enough spacing for their star players to work with. But development is not linear, and betting on that many players to become reliable outside shooters as soon as next season would be risky and maybe downright unwise, especially considering the core group proved it is ready to take the next step, with VanVleet saying: “It’s time now. That’s about as much building as we all want to do.”
If the Raptors are serious about taking the next step forward and vaulting themselves into contender status, they need to become a markedly better shooting team. Some of that can and should come internally, but some of it has to be outsourced.
Ujiri will not be hemmed in by the moment, which is a good thing for the long term but might be frustrating in the short term. As Ujiri alluded to, there is an expectation that young teams will pick up from right where they left off the previous season, and the Raptors were a good team in 2021-22 despite some obvious flaws. There is some basic math that can go on: Internal growth plus addressing some of those flaws from outside the organization equals a better team than the year before. The Raptors finished fifth in the East — behind the four teams that are remaining in the playoffs — and generally got better as the year progressed. There are plenty of reasons for optimism.
Well, ask the Atlanta Hawks how that equation or that optimism worked out. In terms of team building, Ujiri’s 45 minutes at the podium was spent arguing that improvement doesn’t occur in a straight line. Ujiri believes in the core of VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby and Scottie Barnes, and he’s going to continue to give them opportunities to grow — and maybe to fail. That might mean not overdoing it this offseason.
“I think there are things we’re really going to evaluate the next few days,” Ujiri said when asked if he would be willing to hand out multiyear deals to free agents, both his own and those from other teams, in the offseason. “This is what you guys making me do this press conference right after the season (causes). If you’d waited three weeks, then I’d (have) been able to tell you what all our meetings (yielded) and all the things that we want to do. But right now, I don’t have an answer for you.”
For the record, Ujiri was having some fun with the reporters on hand, who absolutely do not schedule Ujiri’s press conferences for him. The lack of transparency would have been the same in three weeks as it was on Tuesday. The multiyear question is interesting, because while the Raptors could likely re-sign their two most prominent free agents, Thaddeus Young and Chris Boucher, and use the full midlevel exception to add another contributor or two while ducking the luxury tax next season, that does not necessarily remain true going into the future.
In 2023, VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. could become free agents. The next year, Siakam’s contract expires, and Anunoby will become a free agent in 2024 if he opts out of the final year of his pact. All of which is to say four of the Raptors’, say, six most important players could be in line for raises in the near future, meaning any extra salary on the books could push the Raptors toward the tax. The Raptors have only paid the tax when they have been championship contenders, and while Ujiri typically gets what he wants from ownership, part of the reason for that is that his asks are reasonable and well-timed.
Obviously, term can be as or more important than starting salary for free agents. As much as Ujiri wants to let this stew cook, he will have to decide just how patient he is willing to be this offseason.
With Ujiri, the safest bet is to assume his clock ticks a bit slower than everyone else’s.
Status Signed through 2023-24. Eligible for a four-year extension this summer.
Season Great first half and a fully deserved all-star berth, before a bum knee and finally a hip flexor ruined the end. But as the team’s leader and conscience, he was outstanding.
Future He’ll find a way to improve — maybe finishing at the rim — but the thing VanVleet needs most is for Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and Nick Nurse to find a good, trustworthy backup so he doesn’t have to play as many minutes.
Gary Trent Jr.
Status Signed through 2023-24. Last season is a player option.
Season Started on fire. His defence was a revelation and fit perfectly with Toronto’s style of play. Rattling off five straight games of 30 or more points was an impressive offensive stretch, and he makes more toughly contested shots than anyone on the team.
Future He’s got to improve his catch-and-shoot skills, and his best role on a true championship contender might be as a sixth man to carry a heavy scoring load for a second unit.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri hugs Scottie Barnes after handing him the NBA rookie of the year award.
Status Signed through 2024-25. Last season is a player option.
Season Like his career: fits and starts. Looked very good, missed 13 games with a hip pointer; came back, looked very good, missed 15 games with a fractured finger. Maddeningly inconsistent.
Future He can be a very good player, when he plays. Keeping him healthy enough to appear in 72 or 75 games will be a huge part of whether the Raptors can improve internally.
Status Signed through 2024-25. Last two years are team options.
Season Gangbusters from the start. An as-advertised defender, his offensive game was a huge plus. Had his ups and downs, sometimes in the same game, but you don’t win rookie of the year in that class without showing plenty. He did.
Future The Raptors need more: more shooting, more bullying smaller defenders at the rim, more consistent defensive awareness and alertness. There really is limitless potential. Now it’s time to see if he’s got the consistent summer workout desire to come back a more complete player. A generational piece if he does.
Status Signed through 2023-24. Eligible for three-year extension to kick in for 2024-25.
Season Wonderful. Recaptured his all-star form of 2019-20. His professional approach impressed coaches and teammates. Not much more he could have given them.
Future Seems to be hitting the prime of a very good career. Back at an all-star level with plenty of room for more shooting improvement. The extension is unlikely because he’s best to wait a year, when he might be eligible for a more lucrative super-max deal.
First Round: Lost to Philadelphia, 4-2
Key Free Agents: F Chris Boucher (UFA); F Thad Young (UFA)
Key Injuries: G Fred VanVleet (hip/knee)
Draft Status: First-round pick to San Antonio; second-round pick to Golden State; second-round pick from Detroit/Chicago via pick swap
Cap Exceptions: Non-taxpayer MLE; Bi-Annual; $5.2 million TPE (Goran Dragic trade with San Antonio)
99 Problems: The Raptors have an excellent starting five — long, switchable, defensive-minded. And, assuming they re-sign Boucher, they’ll have their excellent sixth man back. But Toronto’s depth is lacking. VanVleet played 38 minutes a night this season, and that’s unsustainable, even for an All-Star. And as the NBA gradually goes back to the occasional use of big-man lineups in the postseason, the Raptors have to find real rim-protecting answers. Toronto was actually top 10 (seventh-best in the league, at 45.1) in paint points allowed in 2021-22, but that was surely a result of Toronto’s success turning opponents over. In the playoffs, though, that gets tougher, and teams like Philly can force-feed Joel Embiid down the Raptors’ throats.
What to Fix: We stan for Robin Lopez around here; someone like The Hookman would be a great, and relatively inexpensive, way for the Raptors to compete at the rim. Either way, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster don’t usually take too long to find impact players, and the Raptors’ development group doesn’t usually take too long to make them better. Toronto’s likely to be longer, with a legit backup PG for FVV, by the time camp rolls around.
First up is the Minnesota Lynx, who currently have two of the three Canadians in the league on their roster. Add in the fact that Minnesota is basically Canada and it seems like a great choice to throw your support.
Natalie Achonwa, the forward out of Guelph, ON, moved to the Lynx in free agency prior to the 2021 season after many years with the Indiana Fever. A Canadian National Team veteran, Achonwa brings length and defensive energy to the Minnesota roster.
For more on Natalie Achonwa, check out her Homegrown Ballers profile here.
Also on the Minnesota Lynx roster is small forward Bridget Carleton from Chatham, Ontario. Drafted in 2019 by the Connecticut Sun, Carleton played four games with the Sun before being released, later signing a contract with the Lynx.
For those new to the ins and outs of WNBA rosters, with the majority of teams operating on an 11 player roster, it’s common for players to be waived early on in the season. Luckily, Minnesota was able to keep Carleton for the remainder of the 2019 season, and she has been a fixture on the team ever since.
The third Canadian on a WNBA team is Hamilton, Ontario’s Kia Nurse — who you may recognize from the TSN Raptors broadcast. Kia currently plays for the Phoenix Mercury, where she was traded to prior to the 2021 season after being drafted by the New York Liberty in 2018.
Kia is a WNBA All-Star, and was a regular in the Mercury’s starting lineup in the 2021 season. One of her most memorable games being the game-winning buzzer beater shot from half court she made in a game against the Chicago Sky (below).
Currently in recovery after suffering an ACL tear in the 2021 WNBA playoffs, Kia unfortunately won’t be playing on opening weekend. As it stands, she remains on the Phoenix Mercury roster and hopes to return to the court this season.
Q: Hey Doug:
One of the great pleasures reading what you have posted following a game, or in the mailbag, are your insights on all matters of subjects, not just about basketball. Your readers are more knowledgable, better informed as a result. Looking forward to your comments on matters large and small, electoral and otherwise.
A few end of Raptors season questions:
With the Raptors down 3-0 to the Sixers, and then taking the next two, much was written about how no team has ever come back after being down 3 games. Why do you think no one has been successful, however difficult it may be? I don’t follow NCAA basketball, but every year one team is able to win the March madness championship, which involves about half a dozen straight wins. I realize this is not against NBA level opposition, but then again, neither is the winning team NBA calibre. I’m perplexed.
Reading your assessment of the Raptors roster, you state that the team should have kept Sam Dekker instead of Isaac Bonga. Can the Raptors invite Dekker back, or has that ship sailed?
Watching the end of season press availabilities with Masai Ujiri, Nick Nurse, and some of the team members, I find them to be a quite bright and patient group. Thinking that others in the NBA might have been more brusque in their responses – Gregg Popovich comes to mind. Answering reporters’ questions (most thoughtful, some less so) is obviously part of their job descriptions, though I suspect they would be perfectly happy to avoid answering some of your colleagues’ questions. I seemed to detect, for example, a bit of irritation in a couple of Nurse’s responses but overall, he seems to be the most cheerful coach the Raptors have had. I can’t recall the others laughing as much as he does. And Ujiri seems to be most emotional of the Raptors GMs/presidents. How would you compare their personalities and their interaction with the media to their predecessors? Covid restrictions aside, has the relationship between the team and the media changed/evolved in the years since you have covered the Raptors?
(One pet peeve is that if the Raptors deem it worthy to share videos of the press availability sessions on their website, they should take the effort to have microphones available so that the viewer can hear the questions.)
Appreciated as always
A: Man, lots to get through here and I appreciate the kind words. I figure that if I keep up the three-day-a-week morning stuff, stepping outside the lane will be necessary.
The 3-0 hasn’t really surprised me too much. Teams make adjustments and finally find some that work, so few players truly effect the outcome of a game that finding someone to do it four times in a row is hard. It’s also a tough to ask a team that’s done 3-0 to maintain the playoff-level intensity necessary to win four in a row.
There are people who would have rather kept Dekker and Bonga – me among them – and in many ways because Bonga never really developed quickly enough. I do think the ship has sailed on Dekker but there are surely others like him out there they might take a look at.
This management group does enjoy some of the interaction with us but others did, too. I think the Colangelo-Mitchell coupling was probably the best, all things considered.
But, yeah, it has changed a bit. Not for the good, all in all. There are so many more of us now, tons of team employees, media organizations that didn’t exist a decade ago or would never have covered the team, websites that are new. It’s harder to develop one-to-one relationships because players and coaches are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers sometimes.
With just less than four minutes to go in a 29-point Game 6 blowout, Siakam made what he called a “basketball move” to get around Embiid for a bucket but accidentally hit the 7-foot bit man in the face, breaking his orbital bone and leaving him sidelined for the first two games of the 76ers’ second-round series against the Miami Heat. The play was immediately reviewed and called an offensive foul but not a flagrant for unnecessary contact.
“I don’t think it was intentional, that’s my guy, obviously,” Embiid said of Siakam following Philadelphia’s Game 3 victory over the Heat on Friday night. “It’s unfortunate, I don’t think he meant to do it.”
Embiid, however, wasn’t so forgiving to Raptors fans, some of whom cheered as he walked off the court in pain following the injury.
“I was more irritated by the perception of when that happened, really the fans,” Embiid said. “I’ve always thought they’ve had great fans, but it kind of changed my mind about the fans up there. Whether it was throughout the series, the F chants and all that stuff, that’s cool. It never gets to me anyways, but I think they got mad because I did the airplane celebration.”
Earlier in the series, Embiid praised Raptors fans for making Scotiabank Arena a hostile environment for opposing teams.
“It’s always a tough place to play at especially in the playoffs,” Embiid said following Game 3 of the first round. “They’ve got great fans. They’re loud. I knew coming into Toronto I was definitely going to be the bad guy.”
The Raptors of the Masai Ujiri era were a brick-by-brick team for years. To no one’s surprise, Ujiri and head coach Nick Nurse said this week that they intend to follow that process with this group. After all, that’s what this season was supposed to be about, anyway. It sounds a lot like Ujiri’s early years in Toronto, when it was all about steady improvement and a culture change, while building around a core already in place.
The Sixers stand as an example of going the other way. As much as the Raptors have young pieces to work with, some of those same pieces could be part of a roster-reshaping move. Would they package a couple of prized assets for an All-NBA type talent? It would run counter to the experiment that has been taking place in real time, as the Raptors deployed a roster that lacked a true big man and at times had five players on the floor of the same height. Perhaps the front office wants to see how far it can go with this strategy. The careful build has usually been how they do things.
Except, of course, the one time that they didn’t. The slow builds of the DeMar DeRozan-Kyle Lowry years survived several years of playoff disappoints, right up until Ujiri discovered, while he was on the other side of the world, that Kawhi Leonard was available in a DeRozan trade. Suddenly the careful plans were lit on fire.
That’s probably the way to think about this group of Raptors, too. Given their youth and relative inexperience, there is reason to believe that they can improve significantly even with only modest outside help. But that doesn’t mean the big move won’t eventually arrive. For years, the question was whether the Raptors could win without a true superstar on the roster.
We still don’t know the answer to that.