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Has Winter Finally Come to The North?

by Connor Yates

Most pundits had the Raptors locked in for another playoff berth in 2021. After climbing the mountain to claim the franchise’s maiden championship in 2019 and mounting an admirable title defence last season, it seemed logical that the top-class institution in “The North” would make another return to the postseason this year. However, the Raptors are sitting at two wins and eight losses through 10 games which begs the question, has winter finally arrived in the North?

Before taking a deep dive into the Raptors struggles through 10 games, it should be noted that they are the one team in the league that were forced to relocate from their home city. Relocation from Toronto to Tampa, over 1000 miles away, is a challenge no other team has had to face. In an interview with Tim Reynolds published on NBA.com, Teresa Resch, Raptors VP of Basketball Operations), acknowledged that “[w]e are all creatures of habit. Familiarity is where we thrive.” This is a common sentiment shared around the league, both by players and team officials, and while Tampa has done an impressive job of integrating the Raptors into the community, it still isn’t Toronto. The organization is slated to remain in Tampa until at least March, but with the COVID situation continuing to worsen in the United States, it seems unlikely the team will return home then.  

What is immediately concerning with the Raptors 2-8 start is that according to ESPN.com and their strength of schedule rankings, the Raptors have played the 11th easiest schedule in the league through January 14th. While they have played 6 of their games against current playoff teams, only the Celtics figure to be legitimate contenders in my books (sorry Blazers and 76ers fans you need to prove it to me in the playoffs before I consider you for that title). While they have had back-to-back one-point losses at Golden State and Portland, there are no points awarded for close losses. The season is only 72 games this year, every win and loss means a little more, so they need to fatten up their win totals while the schedule is favorable. 

The fact that the Raptors have returned a significant amount of their core rotation from last season should add to the concern in Tampa. Their top five minutes per game players from last season all returned and their only truly significant losses were Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Looking at basic box score stats from last season, it would not seem that difficult to replace what they contributed. Combined averages 22.9 PPG, 14.5 RPG, 4.7 APG, 1.3 SPG and 1.7 BPG from your center and power forward positions are not that difficult to find in around 51 minutes per game combined. However, despite what Daryl Morey would have you believe, basketball games aren’t won in front offices. The little tricks of the trade that Ibaka and especially Gasol have picked up over their 23 combined seasons of NBA basketball were invaluable, especially when you consider the relative inexperience of the other key members of the squad such as Siakam, Anunoby, Van Vleet and Powell. Veteran writer Zach Lowe was so eager to vote a Raptor onto the NBA All-Defensive teams last year, due to their second-ranked defense, but was unsure who to nominate so he queried various coaching members around the league and the overwhelming name offered was Marc Gasol. Although Gasol’s athleticism has noticeably declined in recent seasons the cerebral elements of his game are as sharp as ever. His communication, vision and quick defensive hands are as pronounced as any point in his career. A little side thought here, but how great would it have been to see prime Gasol and LeBron play together? There are just a couple of plays a game in Laker land that is just intelligent basketball at its apex. It’s f****** beautiful. 

Gasol and Ibaka have been replaced by a trio of the ever-disappointing and now-released Alex Len, who looks about as clueless as at any point in his career, journeyman Aron Baynes, who has looked like a top 8 rotation player for around 20 games of his career, and the impressive, but still raw, Chris Boucher. At its best, Toronto’s defense is an extraordinary combination of intelligent and aggressive schemes designed to rush the opposition and is a system of beautiful, intentional chaos when executed correctly. It requires mobile wing defenders and effective back of the line communication from the big man. This is where the Raptors miss Ibaka and particularly Gasol. I could see Boucher being effective in these schemes with his mobility and shot-blocking ability, but not with Len and Baynes and this is the biggest reason for their drop from 2nd in defensive rating last season to 22nd this season. 

Equally concerning, if not more so considering the emphasis placed on scoring, is the offensive end of the floor. The Raptors finished last season as the 13th ranked offensive team in the league and while the drop to 15th position this year is not a massive one, I find it deeply concerning. The main concern is with Pascal Siakam. I have never been quite sure about his position in the hierarchy of the league’s elite players. I really loved his role in the championship team of ’19 where he thrived on leak outs, second-chance opportunities and the occasional post up. Last year’s pre-bubble numbers garnered a much deserved first All-Star appearance and even more impressive Second-Team All-NBA nod. In the bubble however, it seemed as if teams had figured him out, particularly his vaunted spin move. His scoring took a nosedive, down nearly 7PPG from his pre-bubble rate and the Raptors really struggled because of it. 

Early this season it seemed like a continuation of the bubble. Through five games his scoring dropped from 22.9PPG to 16.5PPG, his efficiency plummeted from splits of .453/.359/.792 in ’19-’20 to .394/.280/.875 this season. Siakam gained minutes in Toronto because of his big motor and gazelle-like movement in the open court, so what ultimately is most concerning is that Siakam ranks in the 6th percentile of transition scorers in the league this season. He needs to make the most of these opportunities while struggling in the manner he is in other areas of his game. Siakam’s frustration was obvious and best highlighted by his one-game suspension earlier this season due to internal disciplinary measures, a blemish on one of the truly high-character individuals in the league. 

There is optimism on the Pascal front though. He has seen a marked improvement in games 6 through 10 as coach Nick Nurse has sought ways to help his number one option. Perhaps most significantly is Nurse playing him more minutes at center, where he can exploit slower-footed bigs. The benching of Baynes has opened more minutes as the five for Pascal and he is now averaging 17% of his minutes there, nearly doubling his previous career-high at that position from any previous years. Coach Nurse is not one to die wondering, so it would not surprise me to see him emphasize this strategy even more moving forward. 

The Raptors other offensive creation falls on its diminutive backcourt. Kyle Lowry and Fred Van Vleet are both excellent players that do the little things well, but similar with Siakam the feeling I get is that they are a little overextended in their current offensive roles, particularly Van Vleet. Lowry is producing at a similar level to what he has over the previous two years. 

YEAR  PPG  RPG  APG  SPG  BPG  FG%  3P%  FT%
 18/19  14.2   4.8   8.7   1.4   0.5 41.1% 34.7% 83.0%
 19/20  19.4   5.0   7.5   1.4   0.4 41.6% 35.2% 85.7%
 20/21  18.7   6.0   7.2   1.2   0.0 42.1% 37.0% 86.7%

The numbers for Lowry are relatively consistent with a slight decrease in points, but a bump in assists for the solitary year with Kawhi as he took on more of a playmaking role. None of this is particularly surprising for a 34-year-old vet in his 15th NBA season. At this stage, Lowry is who he is – a solid offensive player who busts his ass defensively by fighting for every inch and makes the small intangible plays that coaches love. Don’t forget, Lowry was one of the finishing five members on his team at last year’s all-star game, he is a big-time winner.

Van Vleet is like Lowry, the undrafted player out of Wichita State is diminutive in stature, especially considering he is the starting shooting guard, but big on heart and his competitive nature is never questioned. However, the NBA is a league of giants and there simply are so few examples of championship teams being led by smaller (in NBA terms) scoring guards. Curry in 2015 is the only example I could immediately think of. Parker was the ’07 Finals MVP, but Duncan still led that team. Iverson made it to the ’01 Finals, but the league was watered down at that stage from a talent standpoint, and they were soundly beaten 4-1. Isiah Thomas led the Pistons to titles in ’89 and ’90, but he resonates more as a traditional point guard and a collaborative team more than an individual scorer. The point is the league has always been controlled by dominating interior presences and big wing scorers. When the pace slows down, you need a player that can construct efficient isolation possessions and height is a God-given talent that helps in this regard.

So where does this leave Toronto? I believe they lack the true offensive creator they need for postseason success and potentially even a return to the playoffs. Unfortunately, this is the hardest thing to find in the league and with Giannis re-signing in Milwaukee that’s one of those players off the market already. The good news is that Siakam and Van Vleet are both only 26 and are both under significant contracts for the foreseeable future. These are two foundational players and combining them with one of the league’s top three coaches in Nurse and the organizational stability led by Masai Ujiri, the Raptors should be an appealing destination for any future stars that become available. What if Beal wants out of Washington? Booker is done with Phoenix? The 76ers tire of the Simmons/Embiid experiment and Joel becomes available? Landing one of these players would push Siakam and Van Vleet back into the roles they have previously thrived in. The player empowerment era has shown us that you can never say never.

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