Tempered Expectations

It's a season of excitement but expectations still need to be kept in check.

The following is a guest post by Lee Bater.

Preseason couldn’t be starting at a better time. NBA news has come to a crawl (minus a certain team owner’s forthcoming exodus). Raptors fans found ways to entertain themselves during the long layoff, overanalyzing Rico Hines runs, gassing up Malachi Flynn for being an NBA player in a pick-up game, and freaking out when Otto Porter jr. wore a southern-Ontario-teen-taking-a-victory-lap-year-late-for-their-civics-exam grey Roots jumpsuit. Amid all this very necessary fanfare, expectations for the upcoming season have turned from a simmer to a boil. Dialogue about the team’s competitive ceiling has begun. 

Fortunately, the Toronto Raptors will play a real basketball game tonight. After hosting the Utah Jazz in western Canada there will be four more preseason contests for your viewing pleasure, ending in a tilt with defending Eastern Conference champs, the Boston Celtics, in Montreal on Oct. 14. 

During these games many decisions will be made. Roster selections will be solidified, rotation minutes will be penciled in, Nick Nurse’s sideline polos will be ranked from best to worst drip. All of this and more will be front of mind heading into what promises to be another season of growth for Canada’s team. 

Aside from a few of the more extreme fans on Twitter, the general sentiment is this season should be another successful year with many learning opportunities for the Raptors’ growing core. Wanting to believe the most starry-eyed, glass half-full outcomes will fall into place this season is understandable. But let’s quickly discuss the reasons Toronto could struggle to compete with the best the league has to offer. 

The Toronto Raptors are a young(er), exciting team, sure. They have the reigning Rookie of the Year, an All-Star point guard, and an All-NBA two-way forward. And still, there is cause to be uneasy with this roster. They don’t have a true center (no, Christian Koloko is not going to be the answer this year); they have nothing resembling a reliable back-up point guard; and the secondary shot creation outside of the aforementioned point guard and forward leaves much to be desired. This is to say nothing of the lack of shooting laced throughout the unit

But, hey, it’s not all doom and gloom either. Gary Trent Jr. was a good, if not serviceable, release valve in tight situations last year, scoring a point per possession in isolation albeit on limited attempts. Precious Achiuwa became a knockdown 3-point shooter post all-star break, making 39 percent of his threes after the midseason classic. And OG Anunoby, when healthy, still looks like a near All-Defensive team-level talent on the wing. There are complementary pieces to support the team’s brightest stars. The problem is they still don’t resolve some of the club’s most pressing needs. Rim protection, 3-point shooting, shot creation, and secondary playmaking all remain as prospective headaches for this squad.  

So, what would they need to remedy these shortcomings? 

Joel Embiid made it clear that Toronto needs to find an answer for the new age of world-eating big men in the NBA. Had they gotten past him and the Sixers in last year’s first round playoff series, it’s likely that this need wouldn’t have been as glaring against the Miami Heat or beyond. But as Marc Gasol proved, having a big, defensive-minded presence in the paint can make a championship-winning difference. (Yes, I’m simplifying here, but just go with it.) And unless Precious Achiuwa can hack his way into playing bigger than he is or Christian Koloko becomes a Draymond Green-level steal of a second-round pick, the Raptors remain entirely too thin at the center position. Of course, there’s a version of this where Toronto continues to make do with the switch-heavy, manic-defensive-activity scheme that led the Raptors to much success last season. But postseason basketball exposes risk those antics concede without the safety net of a defensive anchor. 

Perhaps Anunoby and Trent take the next step as playmakers, opening the door to a full starting lineup of above-average facilitators. The fanbase has long been clamoring to the hope of OG finally taking a Most-Improved type of leap. Could this be the year? Surely Gary will hit every game winner necessary this season and beyond. All while dressing in ice-cold head-to-toe Balenciaga fits for every locker room scrum. Alas, it’s more reasonable to anticipate both will show but only modest improvements. OG’s biggest development will, hopefully, come in the form of a healthy campaign. He’s played in fewer than 100 games over two seasons combined. He needs to get on the floor. Trent’s path to advancement may be clearer, given he’s the only NBA-proven two guard on the team and his propensity for creating offense for himself. More shots at the rim and pumping up those assists by a dime or two would be a nice sign of growth for the 23-year-old guard. Expecting breakthrough All-Star seasons for either player seems unfair.

Likewise, forecasting Scottie Barnes to be an All Star in year two is a fool’s game. His incredible rookie year offered us several looks at a bright future for the Floridian youngster. But development is rarely linear. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that Jayson Tatum, reigning Eastern Conference Finals MVP, was criticized for poor shot selection and a wicked case of tunnel vision (shouts out, my guy, Andrea). Things take time. And that’s okay. 

The roster, as presently constructed, offers little more than a wait-and-see developmental approach to the flaws listed above. Of course, another option is to look for answers elsewhere, something the Raptors are no stranger to. If the management team does decide to once again be active in the trade market, a point guard with a good shooting stroke and the ability to run an offence for 20-plus minutes a night would be a welcomed addition. And if they could find a rim-protecting, playmaking 7-footer (or just dust off Marc and have him magically regain his championship-level form), that would be nice too. 

The Toronto Raptors are a good basketball team. Each member of their projected starting five scored more than 15 points per game last season. Nick Nurse continues to find incredibly inventive ways to use his lengthy roster to slow down the NBA’s best night after night. Pascal Siakam shook off a rough season in Tampa Bay to regain his All-NBA form. Fred VanVleet took the jump many hoped for and has filled the point-of-attack hole left by Raptors’ legend, Kyle Lowry. 

But tremendous challenges loom. 

Joel Embiid is big, Kevin Durant is wet, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is this planet’s version of Thor. Teams got better in the off-season. Some a lot better. The East is going to be a bloody mess, and a spot in the playoffs proper will be highly competitive. The Raptors are blessed with a frantic passionate followership. Toronto will be among the teams fighting for those coveted top-six seeds, and fans should expect this from them.

Masai Ujiri has collected a gifted group of basketball talent and he’s done so in a notably unconventional way. Gone are the days of squinting at Sonny Weems until he resembled a rotation player or waiting in line at a farmer’s market auction to get a signed Joey Graham plaque (I did that). In all likelihood, this season is a step in a plan with several years of conducting and tutelage Masai and his merry acolytes have executed and will continue to execute. Just enjoy it. Responsibly.

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