By Pete Baxter
After a strong 6-3 start to the season, the post-Kyle Lowry Toronto Raptors have lost three of their past four games. Two of these losses saw them fall short against the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets, despite the return of their All-Star forward Pascal Siakam after his recovery from a June shoulder surgery. Thursday night saw them bounce back to squeak out a narrow victory over a shorthanded 76ers squad.
Siakam, predictably, looked rusty in his return. In his two games back, he averaged just 11.5 points and 5.5 boards in 27.5 minutes, hardly the numbers you expect from arguably the team’s best player. Interestingly, the team emerged victorious on Thursday night despite his absence. Siakam was held out of the lineup as the team continues to manage his recovery.
Not surprisingly, all of this has led to the familiar Siakam criticism we have come to expect from twitter trolls and impatient fans since his struggles in the bubble less than two years ago. The “trade Siakam” posts and spin move gifs are taking over Facebook groups once again.
In response, I issue a resounding “woo-sah” to Raptors Nation. There is far too much to be excited about with this new, improved young core to be anything but positive right now.
A modest 7-6 start may not be quite the dramatic turnaround a fanbase is hoping for to see a return to the playoffs after a brutal 2020/21. However, what we are watching now should be the baseline expectation of this team’s performance, and it is a safe bet to expect considerable improvement on both sides of the ball as the season progresses.
Let’s take a look at some key reasons why this team will almost certainly gain momentum as the season progresses, and Raptors’ fans should be prepared for playoff basketball in April of next year:
#1. The All-Star Returns
Despite what initial returns may have shown, this team will be considerably better with a healthy Pascal Siakam back in the mix. Until last season, in which the team played zero home games and faced adversity far beyond the basketball court, Pascal Siakam showed exponential improvement in each season he had been in the league since being drafted with the 27th pick of the 2016 draft.
Siakam excelled in every role he had been asked to play for this squad. He was an energetic wrecking ball as a key member of the team’s “bench mob” during his first two seasons. He became the Scottie Pippen to Kawhi Leonard’s Michael Jordan during his third season, helping the franchise win their first NBA Championship as its number two option. Post-Kawhi, he became an All-Star as the team’s go-to scorer and led the team to within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals. That said, it became evident that he may not be a viable number one option on a true championship contender.
Now, he will need to find his footing in a familiar but notably re-worked and revamped lineup. Out is Kyle Lowry. In is Fred VanVleet as the team’s full-time point guard. The team’s three-headed monster of a young core has grown a fourth head far faster than anyone could have imagined with the rapid emergence of Scottie Barnes.
Barnes, the team’s number four pick in this year’s draft, has exploded to the front of the early Rookie of the Year race by averaging 17 points and almost nine rebounds a game, along with showing his aptitude as a playmaker. O.G. Anunoby seems to have taken yet another step forward in his own development. He has already proven himself capable of being a 20 point per game scorer along with his already elite defensive prowess.
So Siakam, along with head coach Nick Nurse, is now faced with the task of finding his groove in this lineup. Adding to the complexity of the situation is the fact that two of his three best teammates play essentially the same position. Siakam, Barnes, and Anunoby are all more-or-less combo forwards who can play anywhere from the three to the five. Fortunately, Anunoby is more comfortably at the three, and while Barnes has stuck at the four so far this season, he could one day work his way into a backcourt spot as a natural point guard.
On top of the obvious adjustment period with his new teammates, Siakam will need to shake off the rust and make a gradual return to 100%. He sat out Thursday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers as the team continues to manage his injury recovery.
I would anticipate a few more weeks of awkwardness as this group finds its footing, and Nick Nurse massages his lineups to maximize floor time for his three star forwards while utilizing Precious Achiuwa and Khem Birch at the five as well.
However, let’s keep in mind that this squad got off to a hot start this season without a single All-Star present. With Siakam back in the picture, this team just got a whole lot better. Siakam has outstanding chemistry with Fred VanVleet as his point guard and will certainly regain his footing.
Be patient, let Siakam get healthy and comfortable, and this team will hit its groove sooner than later.
#2. Siakam Could Become a Perfect Second Option Again
With the team’s first lottery pick in more than a decade, General Manager Bobby Webster and Team President Masai Ujiri appear to have hit it out of the park with their surprising selection of Scottie Barnes at number four. As noted, Barnes has hit the ground running. He is playing defense at an elite level, scoring effectively (despite the lack of a reliable jump shot), and showing his knack as a playmaker.
Barnes was seen as a developmental project by most scouts. The fact that he is already showing All-Star potential has put the NBA on notice. Barnes’ incredible athleticism, defensive intensity and competitive fire have all the makings of franchise player. What Pascal Siakam still lacks in terms of basketball IQ and confidence as a leader, Barnes seems to be developing in spades already at just 20 years old.
With Siakam out through the team’s first 10 games (the first 10 games of Barnes’ career, mind you), Barnes essentially shared go-to scoring duties with O.G. Anunoby. The team won 60% of those games.
Should Barnes continue to improve at the exponential rate he has thus far, this should become his team. Pascal Siakam, who won an NBA title as a number two option, could slide back into his natural role as Robin to Barnes’ Batman.
Now that, my friends, is a scary thought.
#3. Defense Wins Championships
Defense and toughness can win championships not just in football but in basketball as well. The Detroit Pistons proved this in multiple eras, as did Kawhi and company back in 2018. This Toronto Raptors team has potential to be the 2000 Baltimore Ravens or 1985 Bears of the NBA world.
O.G. Anunoby is already known throughout the league as an elite wing defender. Fred VanVleet is as crafty and tough a defender as his predecessor, Lowry. Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam with their 7’3” wingspans are a terrifying gauntlet of arms and legs to contend with. Gary Trent Jr. has taken a huge step forward as a defender early this season and is in early All-Defensive Team discussions. And that is just the starting five.
Add in the lanky shot blocking of Chris Boucher and the brute strength of Precious Achiuwa and you have a team capable of locking down virtually anyone.
They entered Thursday night’s game ranked number two in the league in terms of points allowed, number three in rebounds allowed, first in steals, and third in turnovers forced. And that was without Siakam, a strong defender is in his own right, and with Scottie Barnes just getting his feet wet as an NBA player.
If Nick Nurse can continue to cultivate this aggressive defensive identity, this team could be the next great “superstar-less,” defense-first championship contender, not unlike the Ben Wallace/Chauncey Billups led Pistons of the early 2000’s.
#4. Point Guard Play Will Only Improve
Fred VanVleet has been solid early in his first season as full-time starting point guard. Through Thursday, he had averaged 18.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 7.1 assists to start the year, borderline All-Star level numbers, before dropping 32 on the 76ers to lead his team to victory. He has occasionally been prone to mental errors and turnovers as he adjusts to his new role and increased responsibility, but Raptors’ fans should be confident that he is the point guard of the future in Toronto.
Behind VanVleet is an intriguing group of youngsters. Malachi Flynn, who proved himself to be a serviceable backup as a rookie last season, has lost some playing time to the intriguing 6’7” second-round pick Dalano Banton.
Banton’s size, athleticism, and insane energy at the point will quickly make him an invaluable member of the rotation, but it will take him some time to develop into a reliable playmaker (and he, like Barnes, needs to develop a jumpshot). He has shown glimpses of his high upside. That said, he still resembles a wrecking ball more than a point guard at times. He is a project, but well worth the investment.
VanVleet is learning on the go. Banton is just getting started. Flynn is still very young himself but has proven himself to be a viable backup.
Consider this rock bottom in terms of offensive efficiency. It will only get better from here (particularly as Siakam is worked back into the rotation).
This is Going to Be Fun
Don’t let the pain of last year’s brutal 27-45 campaign sour your taste for this year’s team, Raptors fans. This team has unprecedented length and athleticism. Your team has a brand-new superstar-in-the-making just finding his footing. This squad has an All-Star just beginning his comeback. And with all that to work through, they have still produced a winning record already.
Be patient. Don’t panic. Enjoy the ride. This is going to be fun.
More to come from the North.