— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 25, 2023
It’s going to take a minute to get used to this version of Siakam. As he began his ascent to All-Stardom, Siakam was like a mix of a 5-hour Energy drink and a chapter from “The Power of Positive Thinking.” He exuded maximum effort, relentlessness and optimism. All the while, he wrote one of the greatest player development stories in recent league history.
If there is a time when that M.O. would fit in, it is in the preseason. After the Raptors concluded their 4-0 exhibition slate on Friday, new coach Darko Rajaković called Scottie Barnes “a unicorn” and explained Washington Wizards guard Jordan Poole’s off shooting night by saying, “I have three words for you: O.G. Anunoby.” (Say it out loud.) On Sunday, Barnes brought back a line from his rookie season, saying that Siakam was his favourite player, notable after a season in which interpersonal relationships all over the franchise were tested, with some fraying for good.
There is never a better time to jump in with both feet, leaning with optimism, than now. Rajaković has a new system that could help fix a stagnant offence. The Raptors have Jakob Poeltl for the whole season, providing a defensive anchor and keeping Anunoby and Siakam from having to regularly battle above their weight class. Only one player, reserve centre Christian Koloko, is unavailable to start the year. The steadfastness of the ultra-competitive Fred VanVleet is in Houston now, and whatever veteran touch Dennis Schröder brings, it will probably be a tad lighter. The new coach has promised to play a full set of reserves, eliminating the memory of Nick Nurse’s short rotations and shorter leashes clashing with those players’ self-belief.
If there is a holdout, it is Siakam. It is not that he has gone through training camp and preseason pouting, but there is a definite “Let’s see how this looks after 10 games” energy around him. Pascal Siakam: realist. Again, not the persona Siakam has usually shown to the outside world.
“My point is all these (preseason) games, it’s hard to see, hard to tell,” said Siakam, who then turned his attention to the regular-season opener against Minnesota. “Wednesday is going to be a good test: first game of the season, (and then) we take some real notes and see how we do as a team.”
Pascal Siakam: There aren’t many questions about who Siakam is as a player at this point. He’s been an All-Star, an All-NBA player, and a high-end supporting piece on a championship team. Through it all, he’s been able to massage his role to suit the needs of the evolving roster around him. That it hasn’t worked at the team level wasn’t the fault of Siakam, unless you’re keen to criticize him for late-game execution (which is fair, just keep in mind the offensive environment and him leading the league in minutes and miles traveled in consecutive years). This year, the challenge is once again optimizing his game around change, as more responsibility flows to Scottie Barnes. Barnes is primed for a big year, and he and Siakam have shown a tremendous chemistry in preseason. The Raptors appear to be waiting to make sure that’s legitimate before giving Siakam his max extension. If there’s any doubt about the fit, Toronto’s willingness to sign that deal, or Siakam’s willingness to take it, then Siakam becomes the single most interesting trade piece at the deadline. The Raptors would surely likely to avoid that … so what are we waiting for? Something still feels slightly amiss there. — BM
Schroeder says that re-emphasis on “togetherness” will be evident on the court.
“Everybody’s touching the ball, everybody’s moving,” said Schroeder of Rajakovic’s new offensive system. “They won a championship four years ago and they’ve still got a championship mentality as a team.
“But at the end of the day, we’re playing a little different. And I think it’s really hard to guard (when) everybody can be aggressive on the offensive end.”
Siakam led the team with 24.2 points per game last season and was second with 7.8 rebounds per game, behind centre Jakob Poeltl. He said that Rajakovic’s arrival in Toronto reminds him of when Nurse took the team over from former head coach Dwane Casey in the 2018 off-season.
“They are going to have their own philosophy, they are going to have the things they think about and how they want to do it,” Siakam told reporters on Sunday. “They want to implement what they want and that’s how it is with anything that is new.
“We’ve got to figure it out. There’s a lot of teaching, a lot of questions, and wanting to get better and I think I’ve seen that from everyone so that’s good.”
Toronto was a perfect 4-0 in pre-season exhibition games, beating the Sacramento Kings 112-99 on Oct. 8, Australia’s Cairns Taipans 134-93 on Oct. 15, Chicago 106-102 on Oct. 17, and the Washington Wizards 134-98 last Friday.
Siakam, however, thinks the Raptors need to be tested in an actual NBA game before they can really start to understand Rajakovic’s new systems.
“It’s hard to see, hard to tell,” he said. “Wednesday is going to be a good test, first game of the season, we’ll take some real notes and see how we do as a team.”
SCOTTIE PLAYMAKER — Scottie Barnes started his career with the Raptors as a power forward, then shifted to small forward last season. But toward the end of the 2022-23 campaign he was often the floor general who carried the ball up the court for Toronto, leading to speculation that he’d play as a point guard entering his third year in the NBA.
“Wherever they put me on the floor, I love doing it. Been doing that my whole life,” Barnes told reporters on Sunday. “I just like being versatile on the floor, being able to feel out different parts of the game, different positions.”
The Timberwolves’ defensive alignment may look different in the opener, as the newly-extended Jaden McDaniels is unable to play due to a left calf strain. Nickeil Alexander-Walker shined in place of McDaniels in the Play-In Tournament and Playoffs last season and is started during the preseason. However, our friend Dane Moore hinted at Head Coach Chris Finch potentially starting Kyle Anderson.
Given the Raptors size with a pair of 6-foot-7, ball-handling wings on the perimeter in Anunoby and Scottie Barnes, Mike Conley will likely have to guard the 6-foot-1 Dennis Schroeder on the ball.
Defensive Coordinator Elston Turner will have a few different routes to take. Does he want Towns to guard a 5 like KAT did in the first-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets in hopes of keeping the three-time All-Star out of foul trouble? If so, would Gobert guard Scottie Barnes given that Barnes is the worst (and least eager) 3-point shooter of the Raptors three wings? Does he assign Towns to take Siakam to keep Rudy Gobert in better rebounding position? Or could the Wolves play zone in an effort to use their length to limit dribble penetration and force the Raptors, who ranked 28th in 3-point percentage last season (33.5%), to shoot more jumpers? If I were Turner, I’d opt for a zone considering that outside of Conley, the other nine players in the projected 10-man rotation are all at least 6-foot-5 or taller and have a wingspan of at least 6-foot-10. If the Raptors make shots, shake their hand, and either revert to a switching man defense or play plenty of deep drop coverage.
The NBA continues a time-honoured tradition of not giving the Raptors a Christmas Day game in exchange for a home opener against a beatable opponent. Toronto has obliged by winning 8 of their last 10 home openers, including last year when they triumphed over the Cavaliers.
Minnesota has lost their last TWENTY visits to Scotiabank Arena. The last time the Timberwolves won in Toronto, it was still called the Air Canada Centre, the Raptors’ leading scorer was Donyell Marshall, and the aforementioned Leonard Miller was less than 2 months old!
Let’s not get too cute with this. Toronto kicks off the new season with another win over the visiting Timberwolves, 120-109.
Perhaps the biggest question about this team is whether it can shoot well enough to take advantage of all the athleticism and length the roster possesses that makes it a tough team to play against.
But let’s start first with what we do know heading into tonight’s season opener against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
We know the starting five for rookie head coach Darko Rajakovic will be Dennis Schroder, Scottie Barnes, O.G. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl.
We know the first bodies off his bench will be in some order based on need, Gary Trent Jr, Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, Jalan McDaniels and Malachi Flynn.
We know, because he told us, that Rajakovic prefers a 10-man rotation that he is expected to use more liberally than his predecessor Nick Nurse and that the offensive emphasis will be on moving the ball and creating passing lanes with good off the ball movement.
Defensively, this team will not be quite as prone to gambling as it has been in the past but certainly will put an emphasis on disrupting through deflections. Rajakovic reiterated Monday that the goal each night is for 32 or more deflections.
This will be a team that runs in transition and plays an up-tempo game to keep defences from getting set and thereby hopefully avoid too much time trying to figure out an efficient and effective half-court offence.
The list of what we don’t know is much, much longer.
And barring palpable overachievement, it won’t be simple to keep the vibe quite this sunny. Not only has the new coach acknowledged that his pass-heavy system will come with a learning curve that will no doubt include some turnover-heavy boxscores, key cogs Pascal Siakam, O.G. Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. are all in contract years, which isn’t traditionally a recipe for all-for-one deference.
As Siakam was saying the other day: “At the end of the day, I don’t care what you do, I don’t care how excited you get. When you don’t win, it’s going to look a certain way. All this about vibes and stuff … I mean, at the end of the day if you win, you are going to have good vibes. If you don’t, the vibe is not going to be good most of the time.”
That’s not to take Siakam as a cynic. He has made the case that VanVleet’s departure might open up a more collective approach to leadership that might suit the group, singling out 35-year-old Thad Young and 37-year-old Garrett Temple as key collaborators.
“I think the more voices like that we have, I think the better it will be,” Siakam said. “When it was just me or Fred, one person, it’s hard. If you have more voices, more experience, I think that’s how the leadership can happen.”
If veteran leadership won’t be a problem, consistent winning could be. The bookmakers have Toronto’s over-under win total at a dismal 361/2, which makes sense. Newly arrived point guard Dennis Schröder is the reigning MVP of the FIBA World Cup, but he’s a downgrade on VanVleet as a shooter and a defender. So the Raptors are worse on paper unless Scottie Barnes makes a major leap after an uneven sophomore season. They’re worse on paper unless bench players like Malachi Flynn, at times buried under Nurse, blossom now that Rajakovic has vowed to given them the opportunity the front office has long insisted they deserve.
They’re worse on paper, possibly. But there’s a decent chance they’ll be more fun to watch. After last season’s unlikeable ride, it’s hard to imagine they could get less appealing.
Certainly Rajakovic knows how to appeal to the sensibilities of his stars. He has raved about Siakam’s talent, calling him “one of the best players in the league.” He has called Barnes “a unicorn,” insisting Tuesday that Barnes has the tools to one day win the NBA’s defensive player of the year award. He has raved that Anunoby’s defence is “as good as anybody in the game.” Pretty much everyone who figures to be in Rajakovic’s 10-man rotation has drawn training-camp raves.
Which raises the question: If the Raptors are so damn good, why is nobody outside of their circle particularly bullish about their prospects? Perhaps it’s because we’ve seen this team play before, or something close. And it’ll take a lot of convincing, not to mention some great coaching, before the wider world starts to believe that a group kept largely the same is poised to deliver results so materially different.
“You said the other day that you think you might be one of the best defenders in the NBA,” a reporter said as he began asking Achiuwa a question following Toronto Raptors practice Tuesday.
Achiuwa cut him off.
“I know I am one of the best defenders,” he said, emphasizing the point. “I don’t think the numbers say otherwise if you go look at them.”
In terms of versatility, Achiuwa is right. He ranked in the 94th percentile in defensive role versatility, according to BBall-Index. But while the eye test suggests he’s been an impact defensive player for Toronto, the advanced stats have been a little less generous.
“I know I’m not an average defender,” Achiuwa said. “There’s not five guys in the NBA that guard 1-through-5. I don’t care what team you go look at, but I know I’m one of those five guys. I’ve guarded MVPs that are 5’s, MVPs that are 4’s, point guards that were all-stars. So I’m comfortable guarding every position.”
But there’s always room for improvement and to do so, Achiuwa said he’s been studying his teammate O.G. Anunoby, one of the few equally versatile defenders in the league who also happens to be an All-Defense caliber player. For Achiuwa, it’s about paying attention to the way Anunoby runs through passing lanes to pick off passes, how he reads off-ball movement, and when to gamble compared to when to hang tight on your man.
If Achiuwa can get there, Toronto’s defense will be even tougher to beat with as many as three, four, or five versatile, switchable defenders on the court at all times. For the Raptors, that’s an advantage they want to lean on this year, even if it won’t be to the same extent that it has been over the past couple of seasons.