By Pete Baxter
The Toronto Raptors have kicked off their first season of the post-Kyle Lowry era with a solid 5-3 start. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that they have accomplished this early push while playing without last year’s number one option and their max-salary franchise player, Pascal Siakam. This 5-3 start has them sitting pretty in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, and right on pace to surpass DMS’s preseason prediction of a 46-36 record for the season.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the early 2021/22 season for Toronto has been the rapid emergence of Scottie Barnes. Barnes, the surprise fourth pick in this year’s draft, was seen by many as a “project player” who could take several years to reach his potential. The pick was harshly criticized by some, who thought Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster had lost their minds. However, through his first seven starts Barnes has jumped out to an outstanding beginning to his career and is an early leader in the Rookie of the Year race.
Barnes has averaged 18.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 2.0 assists while shooting over 55% from the field. The athletic 6’9” power forward has filled in admirably for Siakam to start the season, with the team barely missing a beat. The scariest thing about Barnes may be the fact that he could be this team’s point guard of the future, having played the point at Florida State.
As expected, he needs to develop a consistent jump shot, and his three-point stroke is nearly non-existent. Despite the opportunities in his shooting, he has been instantly impactful for this squad and has been a huge factor in their notable improvement since a brutal 2020/21 campaign that saw the team finish 27-45 and miss the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade.
The team faced a great deal of adversity in 2020/21, most notably the inability to play any games in their home city of Toronto due to the challenges of navigating the U.S./Canadian border during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The franchise was temporarily relocated to Tampa, Florida, and they were simply not the same team. While there is no doubt that playing home games in their actual home stadium will be hugely beneficial this year, interestingly it hasn’t had much of an impact so far this season. The Raptors are actually 3-0 on the road and just 2-3 at home to start the season.
With that said, based on what we have observed through the first eight games of the 2020/21 season, let’s take a look at four updated predictions for where the Toronto Raptors are headed this year:
#1: The Raptors Will Win 50 games this season
The Raptors have jumped out to a 62.5% winning percentage so far this season. This is an impressive rate especially considering Fred VanVleet is getting his feet wet as the team’s full-time point guard sans-Lowry, Barnes is just weeks into his first season, and their (arguably) best player is out injured. Should they maintain that current winning rate for the remainder of the season, they would finish the regular season with between 51 and 52 wins.
Pascal Siakam has been recovering from a June shoulder surgery. However, per Justin Termine of SiriusXM, Siakam’s agent Todd Ramaser has said that Siakam will return within the next two weeks. Having been away from the game for five months, it will no doubt take Siakam time to get reacclimated with his teammates and find his place in the new-look starting unit that features newcomers Barnes, center Precious Achiuwa, and VanVleet as the primary playmaker.
The Raptors may very well take a slight, immediate step back as they work Siakam back into the rotation. However, in the long run, having the former All-Star who is coming off back-to-back 20+ point per game seasons will ultimately make this team considerably more formidable. Ultimately, I don’t see the team improving on their current winning percentage, but I do believe they will keep up approximately their current pace.
Therefore, the Raptors will win at least 50 games this season for the sixth time in seven seasons.
#2: The Raptors Will Win a Playoff Series
The Toronto Raptors, in what should be their first playoff appearance without Kyle Lowry since 2008, will not be championship contenders this season, but will win a playoff series.
This team has the defensive prowess to challenge any team in the league. The length and athleticism of their defensive core of O.G. Anunoby (small forward with a 7’2” wingspan), Scottie Barnes (7’3” wingspan), Pascal Siakam (7’3” wingspan), Chris Boucher (7’4” wingspan as a reserve forward), and even rookie backup point guard Dalano Banton (6’10” wingspan) is relatively unprecedented.
With Barnes and Banton both 6’9” players who can play the point, there is potential for this squad to role with lineups in which O.G. Anunoby, at 6’7”, 231 lbs, is the smallest player on the floor. Even Fred VanVleet, their 6’1” prototypical undersized point guard, is a staunch defender in his own right.
This elite defensive play will be enough to earn them a playoff series victory this season.
However, it will take some time for this squad to reach their full potential on the offensive side of the ball. While Fred VanVleet has been solid overall since taking the reins from Lowry, averaging 17.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 7.4 assists to start the season, he has been prone to turnovers and occasional lapses in judgment. However, he is getting used to a new full-time role, having primarily started as the two-guard next to Lowry last season, and is getting used to an assortment of new teammates. He will get better, but it may take him a season to reach his full potential as this team’s point guard of the future.
Scottie Barnes, a future face of this franchise, and Dalano Banton (who seems to have already jumped Malachi Flynn on the depth chart) are both impactful players who will need to learn how to shoot. While they are bound to improve as the season goes along, it will take several seasons for them to reach their full potential as well and having non-shooters in the team’s rotation will hold back the potential of the team’s offense.
In the end, the Raptors will take a huge step forward this year, returning to the playoffs and winning a series. However, their inevitable growing pains will prevent them making an extended playoff run and challenging for the conference championship. They are not currently equipped to knock out Kevin Durant’s Nets or Giannis’ Bucks if those teams go into the playoffs at full strength. That is a task better suited for 2022/23.
That said, did anyone predict a Bucks/Suns finals last season? Never say never…
#3: Scottie Barnes will be named NBA Rookie of the Year
With his outstanding play through his first seven games, this no longer seems like a hot take. However, had I made this proclamation just a few weeks back, I would have appeared insane.
Barnes, who averaged a modest 10.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in his lone season at Florida State, has quickly blown those numbers away after making the jump to the professional level. He is already beloved by his teammates and coaches for his positive attitude and work ethic.
Barnes, with his size, length, defensive prowess, and ability to make plays and lead an offense, has an almost unlimited upside. It has to be a scary thought for the league that he is already so much closer to achieving that potential than anyone would have dreamed at this point.
Also, shoutout to Masai Ujiri and company, who outsmarted the league once again with the pick.
#4: The Raptors will have a Player in the NBA All-Star Game
The 2020/21 season was the first since the 2012/13 season that the Raptors had zero players in the NBA All-Star game. This was due to a combination of factors. Pascal Siakam regressed somewhat from his 2019/20 All Star campaign. Kyle Lowry, the team’s perennial All-Star, lost a slight step. The biggest factor was the team’s lack of winning, which, with a team devoid of a true “superstar” prevents anyone from really getting any time in the limelight.
This year, with the team returning to their winning ways, I predict the Raptors will get at least one player selected to the All-Star team. Pascal Siakam, if he returns to form sooner than later, has a great shot to become an All-Star for the second time. Fred VanVleet was snubbed last year and could easily make the cut this season. O.G. Anunoby, averaging over 20 points per game to the start the season and as one of the best wing defenders in the game, should be an All-Star, but he may not yet be enough of a household name. Heck, if Scottie Barnes continues to play at this level and takes the league by storm, he could even make a run at it (though he will certainly be featured in the Rising Stars Challenge).
There is no doubt in my mind that one of these great Raptors will be an All-Star this year.
This Raptors team fought through unprecedented adversity last season. Covid scares, zero home games, and countless injuries led to the worst winning percentage since the 2011/12 season (a squad led by a young Demar Derozan and Andrea Bargnani).
They deserve to prosper this season more than any team in the league, and it is thrilling to see that they appear to on their way to do so. While fans must be realistic and understand it will take time for this talented core to reach their full potential together, this year should be a huge step in the right direction.
50 wins, a playoff appearance, a playoff series win, and some All-Star glory.
More to come from the North.