The Toronto Raptors, to end 2020, bear little resemblance to the champions of 2019. Three starters are gone, and so too is their Sixth Man. A new winner is crowned every year, and so by definition championships are not carried forward, but to be chased all over again from the moment they are won.
Toronto is still pursuing that gold ball, but they lack elite talent. That was true from the moment Kawhi Leonard went home in the middle of the night last July, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. There are only a half-dozen stars at any given time who decide the title race. What the Raptors have is an identity, which cannot be said for most of their competition, and it’s the other piece of the championship puzzle. The Raptors finished second in wins last season, and came within a chasedown block on Norman Powell to advancing into the conference finals. What carried them through was their identity, characterized by relentless defence, egoless teamwork, and a calm determination in crunch time.
That attitude and belief still remains. Pascal Siakam and the newly re-signed Fred VanVleet forged their mettles within the suffocating pressure of the NBA Finals, and have emerged on the other end as young pillars for the future. There is the celebrated leadership of Nick Nurse, who earned Coach of the Year honours for his innovative defensive schemes and ability to solve problems on the fly. And there is always the beating heart and the pulsing brain of Toronto in Kyle Lowry, steadily pulling the strings in the background while still having enough in the tank to take over when needed.
But the losses were substantial. Serge Ibaka’s Hollywood rendezvous with Leonard burned like whiskey on an ulcer, and Marc Gasol’s choice to ring chase was the hangover. Ibaka robs the Raptors of a reliable scorer who isn’t shy of the moment, while Gasol was the glue that kept the team solid at both ends. The front office ultimately didn’t want to commit long-term money to either player since Masai Ujiri remains fixated on the fleeting dream of 2021, but careful accounting may very well cost the Raptors this season. Moving from paying $50 million on the centre position to $15 million comes with a price.
The question is how much of a difference will it be. Ujiri salvaged what he could through the additions of Aron Baynes and Alex Len. Neither move is flashy, but both players will be serviceable. Baynes is a rugged mountain of a man with a blossoming 3-point shot, and will be the starter so long as the 34-year-old stays healthy. Len is a no-nonsense backup, a traditional seven-footer who rebounds reliably and runs the floor hard without any expectations. Throw in a deserved raise for the rags-to-riches fairytale of Chris Boucher, and there are just enough tools for Nurse to continue tinkering outside of the box.
The biggest question will be on defence. Toronto’s only hope of staying atop the East is by remaining elite defensively. Nurse will need to reconstruct his back line, which held opponents to the second-lowest shooting percentage in the restricted area last season. Baynes replaces most of Gasol’s bulk, but not his height and intuition. Boucher can block shots better and is more mobile than Ibaka at this stage of their careers, however, Ibaka’s strength and reputation far exceeds that of Boucher’s. As for Len, he only ever played on losing teams in his career, and is physically limited in what types of defensive schemes he can play. Nurse asks his centres to make reads, to rotate, and to toggle between different coverages. It’s no guarantee that any of the three can be as solid as Gasol and Ibaka were on the back line.
There will be some challenges offensively. The starting five should function in the same way, with Baynes taking up Gasol’s place as a stretch-five that opens the paint for others to attack. Baynes doesn’t pass nearly as well as Gasol, but he offers more of a threat to score between his leaning pick-and-pop 3s and his flipping hook shots. The struggle will be replacing Ibaka’s consistent scoring with the second unit and as a spot starter. Len is limited, even if Nurse gives him the green light to rediscover his flirtation with the 3. Toronto’s best bet is to double down on best parts of last season’s second unit, which was to be young and athletic, stacking the passing lane with a forest of lanky limbs to create deflections before wrecking havoc on the fast break.
Boucher might actually be the best bet to break out offensively, as he quietly averaged 17 points on 53 percent shooting from the field in 11 games last season where he played over 20 minutes. Boucher fearlessly attacks the rim, he’s a legitimate lob threat, and he draws contact. The 3-point shot is loopy, he doesn’t pass, and his handle isn’t sharp enough to be an asset, but Boucher is unafraid and capable. This is his first real chance to play consistent minutes, and the Raptors are counting on him.
If the Raptors can still be solid up the middle, then everything else should take care of itself. VanVleet and Lowry form the best two-way backcourt in the East, and Siakam is a rising star eager to avenge his poor playoff showing. OG Anunoby showed legitimate flashes of further promise in the Celtics series, and Powell is a dependable scorer for the second unit. First-round pick Malachi Flynn was one of the most polished guards in college and could have an outside shot at cracking the rotation, while sophomore shooters in Matt Thomas and Paul Watson could also feature. Anyone else who comes in will primarily be asked to defend with all-out energy, or else Nurse will keep them pinned to the pine.
It will be an ongoing question as to who the Raptors will close games with. The four starters outside of Baynes should be a given, but that fifth spot is interesting. Going with Baynes reduces their mobility defensively and teams will likely dare him to shoot, while Powell offers a scoring punch and the ability to switch despite a heavy concession in size. It should be a decision made depending on the opponent, but don’t be surprised if the Raptors prefer to downsize. When it mattered most during the Celtics series, Nurse benched both Ibaka and Gasol in favour of running with Siakam and Anunoby in the frontcourt.
Toronto’s floor will be dictated — as always — by Lowry’s enduring excellence. Toronto is vying for its eighth-straight playoff appearance with Lowry as the backbone of the franchise. Lowry proved last season that he is still an elite point guard. The 34-year-old got to the rim at the rate of someone a decade younger, remained lethal with the 3-point shot and elevated his game when it mattered most against the Celtics. Time is running out on Lowry’s prime and on his contract, but until proven otherwise, Lowry is still an All-Star guard who impacts winning at an elite level.
The ceiling will be set by its young core. VanVleet and Siakam have consistently made improvements in each of their four seasons to date, but their next respective jumps will be the hardest of their careers. VanVleet should be approaching All-Star level on his new deal, and there are still notable gaps in his game in terms of consistently finishing around the basket and the midrange game. For Siakam, he was exposed in the playoffs last season and will need to come back with more refined counters, along with a consistent 3-point shot. Toronto’s lack of firepower will most likely cap them out as a second-round exit, that is unless something breaks with VanVleet and Siakam.
Toronto’s outlook isn’t as rosy as it was in 2019. The season will not open with nervous laughter before dozens of reporters, and end with a triumphant mic drop in front of three million delirious fans. The pandemic has shown that everything can change within the span of a year and taught us that nothing should be taken for granted. The Raptors lost talent for a second-straight offseason, and the championship is as distant in Los Angeles as are the nostalgic memories of celebrating into the wee hours during the last bit of normalcy before COVID-19 hit. But the Raptors will still compete, they will still flirt with 50 wins, there will still be growth, and there is still a ray of hope for 2021. Don’t take that for granted.
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