The Raptors need to do … something

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Severus Snape sure was greasy, and petty, and he feuded with a child a suspicious amount, but Harry Potter missed him when he was gone. Sometimes it takes time, and loss, to recognize what something is when it’s right in front of you.

Fred VanVleet may not have shot well from deep by his standards last season, but the Raptors were sure bad when he wasn’t on the court. They were 6.7 points per 100 possessions better offensively with him on the court versus off, almost exactly equal to guards like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Trae Young, and Jalen Brunson. Given that he was a slight negative on defense, the team would have won approximately 15 more games — 56 instead of 41 — were VanVleet to have played 48 minutes a game, every game (and not lost any impact). And now he’s gone; the Raptors are seriously about to miss him.

The Raptors are left somewhere between a brick and a hard rim. VanVleet was one of Toronto’s only initiators and shooters who drew a closeout. When he screened for Pascal Siakam, defenses at least had to react. And even when VanVleet was missing, he was still drawing closeouts; according to Second Spectrum, he drew the second-lowest rate of “short” closeouts on the team among guards, wings, and forwards, ahead of only Gary Trent jr. And a VanVleet shot after a full or fly-by closeout was the most efficient of any Raptor’s.

VanVleet may have shot poorly, but he was still one of the only Raptors who could shoot on the move, force the defense to react, and still punish them with tough jumpers. And, to repeat: he’s gone now. Want to find out what living in a cupboard under the stairs is really like?

The Raptors will be left with a crater on offense. If you thought Siakam was playing offense with the extra space of trying to put a tent back in its bag before, just wait when it’s Dennis Schroder screening for him instead of VanVleet. He drew a higher rate of short closeouts last year than any Raptor not named Precious Achiuwa; if you thought the Raptors were cramped before, it is about to become like a chokey in there when Siakam has the ball on the block. He will have, quite frequently, three non-shooters alongside him on the court. He may navigate space well, but he can’t quantum leap. Gradey Dick will be helpful, but you can’t rely on a late-lottery rookie to solve an entire team’s structural issues.

Entering the season like this would be a debacle. Toronto has too much talent to be bad and too little shooting to be good. Siakam is about to be paid well above $40 million per year. Jakob Poeltl just re-signed. O.G. Anunoby and Gary Trent jr. are about to hit free agency and receive significant raises. The team is full of veterans and has an average age a full year older than the league average. This is not a team that will benefit from losing — just look at least season, which practically tore the team apart, even though the team was .500. Get any worse than that in hopes of retaining your top-six protected 2024 first-round pick, and you are not going to have happy, productive veterans populating the roster.

Toronto has young prospects who should improve in the next few years. Scottie Barnes, Gradey Dick, and Achiuwa have latent skills that should develop greatly in the next few years. Christian Koloko likely will be a productive rotation NBA player. The players that they’ll be at their peaks are lurking somewhere inside their games today. Perhaps the Raptors should dedicate themselves to that excavation — which would of course involve losing games in the process. Giving the keys to the youths would involve ugly, lost possessions and ugly, lost games.

It is almost a waste of time for Toronto to try to win games with the current roster. If everything within the realm of reality goes right, and the youths take leaps, and Siakam’s jumper ticks upward, and Achiuwa becomes a stretch center, then the Raptors could blaze their way to the playoffs. Perhaps even the second round. But this team is not close to being a contender. And that’s with everything going right. Patience and building slowly are beneficial — if there’s a realistic path to success over time. It’s unclear if the Raptors have one.

And rather than the best possible outcome imaginable, it’s more likely that without a real point guard, without shooting or initiating or spacing, skills across the roster do not develop. The Raptors have not build a context beneficial for the improvement of their players. Players don’t just become better at things because their teams need them to. They don’t become better dribblers because their teams give them the ball and nothing else. They improve through long and complex processes of hard work and opportunity. You don’t learn to ride a bike on a two-wheeler, and you might not ever learn if that’s how you start trying. Why would Barnes become a better initiator if defenders all have a foot in the paint when he touches the ball? Perhaps he overcomes regardless, but it’s no boon that Toronto has obstacles in the way of its best possible future. Toronto may want its players to improve, but it hasn’t done much to aid that mission.

The phrase “stuck in the middle” is often and incorrectly applied to teams in the NBA. It was applied to the Raptors before they swung for the fences and won the championship, for example. But currently, the Raptors are less stuck in the middle than they are stuck without purpose. They cannot win enough games with the current roster to reach a meaningful place in the playoffs and then hope to improve on that finish the season following. VanVleet’s loss hurts deeply. But neither can the Raptors prioritize development, not with so few youths, so few blue-chip prospects, and so few high-value picks in the war chest. Prioritizing anything on the team other than helping Siakam be the best player he can be will result in extra losses.

There seems to be more hope surrounding the franchise than there was when the season ended. That will happen when you hire a new coach and draft an exciting rookie. But in many ways, Toronto’s problems are worse now than they were in April. And the clock keeps ticking on the financial cliff down which Toronto will soon tumble. Once VanVleet became a Houston Rocket, the Raptors became less prepared than ever to offer Siakam a winning context. He hasn’t played on a team built to suit his strengths since 2019-20, when Toronto was one of the best teams in the league. The situation is different now.

Wasting a star’s prime is not a useful way to spend years as a franchise. Just ask the Washington Wizards. The Raptors are not doing that, not yet. But if they don’t choose how they want to build the team going forward, that could be exactly what happens. Toronto has countless options. Trade Siakam — for less than they want, even! — and build anew; make losing games a positive rather than a negative. It seems as though that’s exactly what they’ve been trying to do. Or actually build a team that is capable of benefiting Siakam. Losing VanVleet might have been the death knell, there. Still, there are options in between the extremes, tinkering, addressing one thing at a time; but the clock is ticking.

They have to do something. Because the path of least resistance is not heading to a happy place.