But as the team’s draft and development pipeline has stopped spitting out VanVleets and Siakams and Anunobys and Norm Powells — partly as the team moved first-rounders as part of the title build, partly in the aftermath, with no first-round pick other than Barnes higher than 29 between 2018 and Dick at 13 in 2023 — the Raptors feel thinner, less solid, maybe even less sustainable. And all this leaves Ujiri in a familiar, unfamiliar spot: waiting for the right moment to make a franchise-swinging deal, keeping his options open even as his options are reduced. The totality of the asset churn since 2019 can be explained, piece by piece, but it still means there is less gas in the tank than there was, unless Barnes truly blossoms.
So do you trust him to pull off the pivot when it arises, if it arises? The idea of making a decision on a direction — go young, go all-in, or the current in-between — presumes that you know what opportunities will arise in this constantly shaken league, and that idea cuts both ways. Ujiri doesn’t know that Joel Embiid or Luka Doncic or Giannis Antetokounmpo or whoever else becomes available or when, but he doesn’t know they won’t, either.
Which means there is danger to Ujiri letting it ride. You could argue he is running out of time, but the front office evinces confidence that it can sign Siakam or Anunoby or Gary Trent Jr. as they approach free agency next summer. How much that would cost is a real question, and Ujiri probably has trades involving Siakam or Anunoby in his back pocket, if need be.
So you still trust him? And if you do, it’s because of this: who better to know which superstar will shift next? Who better to project the kind of vision and ambition that is a prerequisite for seriousness in the NBA? This organization is his creation from wall to wall, floor to ceiling, and last year was the first year you could really say that things went wrong. How this group responds to Ujiri’s changes will have an impact on what cards he could conceivably play.
So really, trusting Ujiri remains the most logical position. He remains plugged in, aggressive, waiting for the right moment. It’s just that his most significant challenge may be that the trust question is the same for the league’s best players as it is for the fans: they have to trust that a Masai Ujiri organization is still a championship outfit without a championship superstar, ready to go. So if the Raptors wanted a goal for this season, that might be it.
Nobody is confusing Poeltl for Sabonis, or the Raptors’ shooters for the Kings’. At this point of the year, everything is naturally tinged positively. That’s fine, so long as the process continues, with the knowledge that defensive coverages will be a lot more complicated and varied in the regular season than they are in the preseason. The Raptors played in transition a ton, so assuming their half-court offence is on the way to being fixed is premature.
Yet, the early signs should be noted. Of the Raptors’ 75 field goal attempts against Sacramento, only five were non-paint 2s. Gary Trent Jr. made both of his attempts from the area, and Dick made his lone try. Scottie Barnes and O.G. Anunoby both missed from that range, and those looks were unforced. Overall, a very auspicious start.
Most notably, Pascal Siakam did not take one midranger. He shot one time from the restricted area, twice from just outside it and twice from 3-point territory. Due to his contractual situation and the “selfishness” conversation that ended last year and started this one, there will be a close monitoring of Siakam’s decision-making. Earlier in the week, Rajaković said he hoped the Raptors’ offensive changes would make Siakam more efficient by emphasizing him moving more without the ball.
“He’s doing a great job of cutting and playing without the ball and spacing, and you cannot hide the talent on the floor,” Rajaković said earlier in the week. “He is extremely talented and (an) extremely high-quality player. The ball is always going to find the best players on the court.”
Last year, 20.8 percent of Siakam’s attempts were midrangers. That is not to say Siakam was the reason the offence struggled. Instead, where that number lands will be a strong indicator of whether the stylistic changes are producing different, generally better, shots for the whole team — and its best player in particular.
“We’re talking to our players a lot about quality of shots,” Rajaković said after the Kings game. “Not every midrange shot is a bad shot. There is a time and place when the defence is giving you certain coverage, when you catch the ball in good position and we want to take those shots. But those opportunities, usually (in) the game there (are) not a high number of those shots.
With the “7 Seconds Or Less” Suns and the birth of the Splash Brothers well in the rearview, what Rajaković preaches is more or less basketball orthodoxy at this point. It was just last year, though, that Nurse was still lamenting that the Raptors had not improved their shot spectrum from a year earlier nearly enough. With this version of the team, Trent taking those shots in reserve-heavy units seems like the main time those shots can be considered “good.”
There will be bad nights, to be sure, especially against the best defences in the league. A refusal to take those shots regularly, combined with the lack of spacing, will result in more high-turnover nights than Raptors fans are used to. (They had 29 on Sunday, including four in 19 minutes from Poeltl.) That is the likely trade-off.
After a year of failing in similar ways, a new approach is welcome, even if one preseason game doesn’t make it a success.
Much of the Raptors offence was centred on cutting off a big man with the ball at the elbow, as coach Darko Rajakovic wanted it. Whether it initiated dribble-handoff plays or cuts away from the ball, there were stretches where it was quite efficient.
Jakob Poeltl did a lot of the initiating, but Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam found themselves there every now and then, again as Rajakovic wants. What it did mostly was create shots that were either three-pointers or in the paint.
There were only three long two-pointers among Toronto’s 75 field-goal attempts. That’s a low percentage, but Rajakovic isn’t averse to seeing more long twos.
“I think it’s very important to understand … not every mid-range shot is a bad shot. There is a time and place, when the defence is giving you certain coverage, when you’re catching the ball in good position, and we want to take those shots,” he said. “But those opportunities, usually in the game there are not a high number of those shots.”
Barnes finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists, Anunoby had 14 points and Siakam had eight before they all sat and watched the final quarter.
With the focus on leaving some selfishness from last season behind for good, that kind of result right out of the gate is encouraging.
Rajakovic’s starting five for the night were Scottie Barnes, Dennis Schroder, O.G. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl.
Gary Trent Jr., the other potential starter on this roster, was the first man off the bench as Schroder picked up three early fouls. Trent wound up playing 21 minutes, tied for the most on the roster, and led the team in scoring with 22 points on 7-for-12 makes, including 3-for-6 from distance.
Barnes seemed comfortable as the primary option with 15 points in 18 minutes. He got to the line a team-high seven times and made five of them.
O.G. Anunoby, who projects to be a bigger part of the offence this season, got off to a great start to the year, making six of his seven attempts for 14 points in his 20 minutes of work.
The ball was really hopping for the Raptors on Sunday night and that’s a huge win for the way this team has been talking about operating.
You’ve all heard and read how disappointed management was with the basic way this team went about its business on offence a year ago. Masai Ujiri told all of us he did not enjoy watching last year’s team and promised change this year. He brought in a first-time NBA head coach in Rajakovic and entrusted him with carrying this out.
The first time out of the gate saw this team assist on 18 of 23 first-half made field goals.
Forget the eye test, which also backed this up, but those first-half numbers — the only part of the game where the Raptors stuck to a regular-season-like 10-man rotation — prove the message is being heard by the people who need to hear it.
Rajakovic has been preaching pace and quick decision-making in his early days with the team and in this, his first public showing, he got pretty much exactly what he was asking.
The ball moved and, in doing so, created the better scoring opportunities. Outside of Gary Trent Jr., who didn’t even start the game, no Raptor attempted more than nine shots.
It was move, move, move the ball until a great shot was created or the 24-second shot clock was about to expire.
Among the starters, Scottie Barnes took nine shots, finishing with 15 points in 18 minutes. He also had four assists.
Pascal Siakam, on the other hand, took just six for eight points, but had four assists.
O.G. Anunoby attempted seven, made six in his 20 minutes and had three assists of his own.
Starting point guard Dennis Schroder — who Rajakovic stressed post-game is still not quite all the way back after a thrilling-yet-draining World Cup win by Germany that ended only a few weeks ago — played 17 minutes and chipped in with four assists and six points of his own.
This was as ‘equal opportunity’ as the Raptors’ offence has been in years and, so far, the early results are positive.