Back Again: The 2020-21 Toronto Raptors preview, starring Kyle Lowry and his perpetual band of underdogs

We’re really doing this again, aren’t we? Fine, I’ll indulge the narrative. Wow, the Raptors lost (insert big-name X) and (insert role player Y), how could they possibly overcome such adversity? This time around, it’s Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. It’s been Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, it’s been P.J. Tucker, heck, if we go back far enough, it’s been Amir Johnson. The Raptors have been overlooked practically since their namesake roamed the Earth. 

It never goes well. The Raptors have beaten their preseason win projection a staggering nine years in a row. Often drastically so. That’s what happens when you have Kyle Lowry and Masai Ujiri. You beat the entire league on the margins. You outsmart them, outhustle them and out-tough them. You take more charges and poke more balls away and dive onto the court whenever necessary. Your undrafted free agents out-perform most first-round picks and your first-round picks become All-Stars. This is what happens in Toronto. 

Who cares if they have to play in Tampa? If Chris Paul can make an All-NBA team at 34, why can’t Kyle Lowry? Somebody is going to enter the Most Improved Player conversation because that’s what Raptors do. All of this is what they do. They internalize your shortsighted critiques and spend the entire season stomping on them. 

One way or another, that is probably what is going to happen next season. The Raptors are going to be good. It’s just a matter of how good, and what form that success is going to take. 

Taking the temperature

Raptors skeptic: Let’s just cut to the chase and talk about the big men. The Raptors were fortunate enough to have two fairly high-level starting centers on last season’s roster. Do they even have one right now?

Raptors optimist: It depends on where you land on Aron Baynes, whose fortunes last season were almost comically tied to DeAndre Ayton’s. Baynes scored five points in the season opener as the backup up Ayton. Then Ayton got suspended and Baynes averaged almost 15 points on 55/39.7/72.1 shooting. Ayton returned, and Baynes dropped back to only two points in his first game. Baynes was largely underwhelming from there, though he popped back out of hiding to score 61 points across two games against Eastern Conference contenders (Boston and Milwaukee) in March that, sure enough, Ayton missed. 

There’s obviously more to it than that. Baynes is 34 and has never played steady starter minutes in his career. But if you squint, the outline of a slightly lesser version of Gasol exists. He’s a smart, if physically underwhelming, defender that can make a passable portion of his 3-pointers and pass from the elbow. It’s a downgrade. It doesn’t necessarily need to be an enormous one. It’s not as though the trade market ever lacks for centers, either. Go pluck Richaun Holmes off of the Kings if filling minutes becomes an issue.

Toronto’s track record suggests it won’t. The Lowry-plus-bench formula always works. The combination of Lowry and backup center Chris Boucher outscored opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions last season, per Cleaning the Glass. The on-paper concerns are justified, but the Raptors deserve credit that other teams don’t. They’re going to find a functional bench. 

Raptors skeptic: Even you have to admit that this group is thinner than usual. The core four is in place, fine, and we can even assume that Baynes and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Norman Powell perform as expected. That’s six reliable players. Boucher hasn’t played 1,000 minutes in his career. Neither has sharpshooter Matt Thomas. Terence Davis is dealing with serious criminal charges. Malachi Flynn is a rookie, and as well as Raptors first-round picks tend to turn out well, they almost never contribute seriously in their first seasons. These are players that the Raptors are actively relying upon. 

That would be troubling in a normal season. This is a pandemic season. This team is one outbreak away from giving a G Leaguer 25 minutes on the fifth night of a nine-day trip. Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam all missed at least a dozen games last season. This might not be a season-long problem, but it’s going to pop up in spurts. 

Raptors optimist: Yes, that is undeniable. The way that typical contenders mitigate that is star power. Toronto didn’t have it a year ago. Might they now? Nobody has ever made money short-selling Pascal Siakam’s growth. His scoring jumped by seven points per game last season after vaulting by 9.6 the year before. Who’s to say he can’t push further and score in the mid-to-high 20s? OG Anunoby flashed the sort of ball-handling improvement in the bubble that most Raptors forwards show in Year 3. There’s a version of this season in which injuries overwhelm a thin team. There’s another version in which the Raptors have four near-All-Stars and that doesn’t matter. 

Raptors skeptic: They need someone to pick up some individual slack, because the hub of the teamwide portion of the offense now plays for the Lakers. This wasn’t a team heavy on ball-movement last season. They finished 14th in total passes, and while some of the underlying metrics are more positive, the Gasol impact is undeniable. He makes teammates move. He finds crevices that even point guards miss. Baynes is a good passer, but he’s a sizable downgrade on that front. Individual creation is going to have to play a bigger part in the offense this season, and the Raptors just didn’t have that last season. It manifested most egregiously in the playoffs, but it was a regular-season problem as well. They finished 22nd in half-court points per possession. Nothing they did this offseason solves that. 

Raptors optimist: No, and that is the notable overall ding on this offseason. The Raptors did no active, short-term problem-solving. They lost two key players and are relying on modestly-priced replacements. That’s basically what happened in 2019 and it worked out. Even as an optimist, I can acknowledge that this version of the Raptors is probably not championship-caliber. That’s OK. This is a transitional season. 

In a way, losing Gasol and Ibaka is beneficial. If Siakam can’t grow into a driver of positive team-wide half-court offense, now they’ll know for sure. If Anunoby tops out as an awesome 3-and-D role player, they’ll know that too. They’ll get to test their developmental infrastructure under extremely adverse conditions and see how it holds up. It probably won’t get them to the Finals, but their own history suggests that they aren’t whimpering out of the first round either. The middle-ground is a success. 

This is a team that planned to chase Giannis Antetokounmpo next summer. He’s off the market, but the organizational direction doesn’t change. The Raptors need to know what they have so they can know what to pursue. This isn’t the version of the team they expect to compete for a championship, but it will give them a better idea of how to build the next one. In that sense, this will be a successful season no matter what. 

Eye on: Norm Powell

The only reason Powell shouldn’t be the Sixth Man of the Year favorite is that injuries will inevitably force him to start too many games. Powell broke out last season in averaging 16 points per game on nearly elite shooting numbers, yet he’s gotten lost in the shuffle. Anunoby’s upside makes him the frontrunner for Toronto’s annual slot on the Most Improved Player ballot, but it’s worth asking what Powell’s ceiling is here. He’s not going to be the shot-creator the Raptors need. He was elite at practically everything except pick-and-roll scoring last season. But having someone around who hits their shots and cuts and has finishing gravity will make it easier for someone else to fill that role. 

And that evokes some long-term questions, because Powell has an $11.6 million player option for next summer that Toronto needs him to opt-out of in order to reach max cap space. The macro question facing the Raptors organizationally is how they plan to get their next superstar. The microtransactions that lead up to it are almost as important. Powell is the sort of player that makes superstars better. Would the Raptors still sacrifice him to get one? Would they sacrifice someone else instead? This season is going to answer those questions and plenty of others? 


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