Most stocks this season:
77 — Anthony Davis
73 — Victor Wembanyama
71 — Brook Lopez
62 — Scottie Barnes pic.twitter.com/THcKUuNfyL
— StatMuse (@statmuse) December 3, 2023
Raptors lawyers can just show this game to prove there isn’t over $10 million in damages https://t.co/rUIc8pZU5L
— Stefan Bondy (@SbondyNBA) December 2, 2023
Narratively, it was disappointing the Raptors missed out on their latest opportunity to climb back to .500, losing 119-106 to the New York Knicks on Friday. It was another night when the Raptors’ most glaring weakness hurt them, with 6-for-32 3-point shooting not nearly good enough for a team that came in with the fifth-worst percentage from deep. The Knicks’ Donte DiVincenzo had seven 3s on his own.
The poor shooting, given the roster, was expected. The worry, through nearly a quarter of a season, is nothing except the team’s transition offence has really emerged as a clear strength for the Raptors. They are just as average as when we saw them walking off their home court after losing last season’s 9-10 Play-In game. It’s not inherently bad to be a middle-of-the-pack team. With Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby likely set to hit free agency at the end of the season, there is a burden of proof for the Raptors, and they will need to show it soon.
What is the hope they escape this reality before the trade deadline? With Anunoby one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, Jakob Poeltl a steadying presence on the back end and Scottie Barnes making great plays as a rover, the Raptors should have an elite defence. It has been merely fine, with their opponents shooting 36.1 percent from 3 before Friday’s game — almost exactly league average. They aren’t owed a ton of shooting luck.
Offensively, there are flashes of coach Darko Rajaković adapting to his roster, and his roster adjusting to him. The Raptors are using far more post play to help facilitate the offence, highlighting the skills of Siakam and Barnes, than they were at the beginning of the year. In turn, the Raptors are learning how to play out of high pick-and-rolls much better, with more players comfortable working on the weak side of the action.
They are a decent team, comparable to some of the teams they have played recently, with top-end talent that matches many of the teams, including the Knicks, around them or above them in the standings. They just don’t have the depth nor the picks to see an obvious way to being much better than this soon.
“We’ve got to decide what kind of team we want to be,” Rajaković said. “We know what is the road to success, and we’ve got to do that for 48 minutes. We cannot come up to the games and choose in this game we’re gonna do a little bit less, a little bit more.”
More time can always help a team improve. At the same time, this team has been pretty healthy, went 41-41 last year with a similar roster and sits at 9-11 now. Chances are, the Raptors are exactly what their record says they are. If they stay around this spot after the next 20 games, the Raptors will find themselves in a rather obvious spot as a seller at the deadline.
“We’ve got to decide what kind of team we want to be,” Rajakovic said. “We know what is the road to success and we’ve got to do that for 48 minutes. We cannot … choose in this game we’re gonna do a little bit less, a little bit more.
“We’ve got to have our mindset what it takes to win every game. It’s hard to win every single night. So that’s why we’ve got to stay together. We’re going to put a lot of work in and trust in each other.”
There is a measure of responsibility that lands at Rajakovic’s feet but that, too, is not unexpected. He has spent the first quarter of the season trying to find a magical, consistent way to use his players, to mixed results.
His desire to use 10 players a night is laudable because it will lessen the wear and tear on the team’s key players. But it has created some disparate playing groups that have, at times, sent the Raptors into in-game tailspins they can ill afford.
Playing groups of one starter — too often Scottie Barnes or OG Anunoby — with four backups has seldom worked; as the coach investigates what works most often, having at least two starters on the court at all times is most advisable.
The minutia of what’s most troubled the Raptors is not hard to see. Nor was it difficult to predict. The Raptors weren’t a good shooting team last season and did little to address the issue in the off-season.
The problem is not hard to identify at a more granular level. The team’s four main front-court players — Pascal Siakam, Poeltl, Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher — have combined to shoot 24.4 per cent from beyond the arc, unacceptable in this era of the NBA. The rest of the team shoots a passable 36.3 per cent from distance but until the bigs start functioning at a higher level, the problem won’t go away.
That’s an issue for president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster to address, as it always has been.
The truth is, it’s not like the Raptors are at all broken. They are who they were always going to be: a pretty good team relative to the rest of the guts of the Eastern Conference and one that’s expecting things to get better with more time than a quarter of a season.
They jus need to be as good as they’ve been more often than they’ve been.
The roster has looked clunky and mismatched, just as most people not employed in the Raptors’ front office expected heading into the season. Too few shooters, too many top players fighting for the same efficiency spots on offence.
Toronto has a 24.2% probability of making the playoffs, according to basketball-reference.com, higher than only four other teams int he conference and is pegged with a 6.5% chance of avoiding the Play-In to get there. That said, the same site says Toronto has had to deal with the fourth-toughest schedule in the East so far, according to strength of schedule and has an easier go the rest of the way. Toronto has already played 14 games against teams .500 or better — only Chicago has had more — and has gone 5-9 in those games.
The biggest positive of the early going has been the play of Scottie Barnes, who has turned in an all-star worthy campaign, besting even his rookie of the year level of a couple of seasons ago. It was a needed bounce back for the man expected to be the face of the franchise for years to come. Barnes had taken a step back as a sophomore, but worked extra hard to reinvent himself as a complete player. Barnes is shooting 38% on three-point attempts after hitting only 30% as a rookie and 28% last season. Imagine where this team would be without him.
Pascal Siakam has had to adjust to a new offensive system under Darko Rajakovic where he is no longer the featured option, and also has dealt with his uncertain future in Toronto well. The free agent to be has not been offered a contract extension and obviously has not been traded. He exists in a kind of limbo, like teammates OG Anunoby (who has had a strong season) and Gary Trent Jr. (who has not).
Management wanted to see if this group could work and thrive. The answer appears to be not without more balance, namely more quality shooters, ideally guards with that talent. Left as is, it’s become pretty clear this will be a team fighting for a .500 record and a chance to play an extra week or so once the regular season concludes.
Take Friday’s 119-106 loss to the Knicks. The Knicks made 50% of their shots from the field and went 16-of-36 from distance. Donte DiVincenzo, one-third of the Knicks’ Villanova Wildcats brigade, made more three-point shots (7-for-9) than the entire Raptors team (6-for-32). Scottie Barnes made three of his seven attempts, but no one else had more than one. Dennis Schroder (1-for-6 on Friday) has gone 11-of-36 in his past three games, while Pascal Siakam (0-for-4) has made four of 26 three-pointers in his past five games.
The one constant to the Raptors’ play has been their inconsistency, which also puts the spotlight on how the roster was built.
After winning their season opener, the Raptors dropped four of their next five games.
They have yet to win more than two games in succession and have basically alternated from good to bad.
Defensively, they have given up more than 100 points in 16 successive outings.
One can nitpick how Rajakovic manages his rotation and what matchups he hopes to create. But like any head coach, he has no control when a player heaves a shot.
For the most part, the looks being created aren’t bad. But until some semblance of consistent shot-making is produced, these Raptors will continue to frustrate their coaches as well as their fans.
“We’ve got to decide what kind of team we want to be,” Rajakovic said. “We know what is the road to success and we’ve got to do that for 48 minutes. We cannot come up to the games and choose in this game that we’re gonna do a little bit less or a little bit more.”
They netted more points in the paint, produced more second-chance points and even won the turnover battle.
Whether the term middling or maddening is more appropriate, expect the same from this Raptors group until consistency outside shooting is executed. And when a team is outscored by 30 from beyond the arc, the margin for error is basically zero.
It’s far too early to dive deep into trade talks. Save for the Chicago Bulls who appear ready to move on from Zach LaVine, nobody is ready to make a big move right now. Even if there teams ready to make moves, the Raptors are still trying to figure out exactly what they have.
“It’s up and down for now,” Raptors president and vice-chairman Masai Ujiri said on TSN’s broadcast Friday night. “I think it’s a new system, but our goal is to win. Our goal is to grow this team and asses it as it comes. We’ll see how it goes.”
Ujiri has always made it clear that his top priority is winning in Toronto. It appears, though, that that secondary goal is becoming more important these days as the Raptors slowly pivot toward a more growth-focused approach.
Toronto has expanded its rotations significantly from last year and is giving bench minutes to players with more of a developmental focus. It’s why Otto Porter Jr. has fallen out of the rotation while others continue to get minutes despite their inconsistent play.
“This is the team we have,” Ujiri said. “I think building around Scottie Barnes. We have Pascal (Siakam), we have OG (Anunoby), we have young players, you know, Gradey (Dick), these guys coming up and I feel we let it sit and see how these guys progress in the new system and then we go from there.”
There’s no rush right now to make any moves. The vast majority of players who signed free agent deals this past summer can’t be traded until Dec. 15 and even then, it’s unlikely Toronto will make a move until the new year.
That said, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Raptors are a mediocre team. This group went 41-41 last year and has gone 9-11 to start this year with almost an identical roster to last season’s team.
On Friday, the Toronto Raptors held their annual Giants of Africa game as they played the New York Knicks. This year, it was a little different though, as Giants of Africa celebrates two decades of empowering the youth of Africa. The first Giants of Africa Basketball Camp took place in 2003, and now 20 years later the organization has impacted over 40,000 youth in 17 different countries.
The organization decided to spend this anniversary highlighting how Giants of Africa empowers women in particular. To read up a little more on this, check out the special feature the Raptors released Friday — written by RaptorsHQ’s own Chelsea Leite.
Along with the game Friday night, and the Giants of Africa Gala on Sunday, GOA also held an All-Girls basketball clinic on Saturday in partnership with the Muslim Women’s Summer Basketball League. A group of young girls spent the day doing goal-setting and leadership workshops, and then participating in on-court drills and exercises and a scrimmage game. Helping coach the event was Toronto Raptors assistant coach Mery Andrade, who joined the Raptors staff this summer.
After the workshop, Andrade talked about how refreshing it is working for an organization like the Raptors who doesn’t just talk the talk when it comes to impacting the women of their community and being an inclusive franchise — they really walk the walk. She talked on her experience coming from a smaller country — Andrade is from Portugal — and how she loves to work with young kids to show them that if she can build a successful career in sports, so can they.
Also in attendance to help coach were Kia Nurse, Laeticia Amihere, and Miranda Ayim from the Canadian National Women’s Basketball team. Nurse and Amihere are on the offseason from the WNBA, while Ayim retired from professional basketball after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (in July 2021).
Catching up with Nurse after the clinic, she noted how she likes volunteering at these events because when she was growing up in Canada, the only representation she had for women’s basketball players was through a screen.
“It’s so different when you can be in a gym and you can say ‘I was in your seats and I’ve made it to where I am today’,” Nurse said, “I think that’s a massive piece of it, is being able to really physically be in the room with someone that you could possibly be in the future.”